Turtle Soup for Christmas?

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This is the view from Henrik's childhood home in Norway. Not sure he's all that impressed with the Ohio River!

This is the view from Henrik’s childhood home in Norway. Not sure he’s all that impressed with the Ohio River!

My daughter, Allison, and her fiancé, Henrik-Olav Osvik, are on their way back to their home in Oslo.  Henrik and Allison will celebrate Christmas soon at his parents’ beautiful A-frame on a fjord.  I can just imagine the conversation:

May-SisselSo what did you have for Christmas Eve dinner with the Lingos, Son?

HenrikTurtle soup.

OdaDid you say, “turtle soup”?

HenrikYeah.

May-SisselWhat’s with Americans!?  They love guns and they eat turtles.

What will probably get lost in the translation is that we eat mock turtle soup.  Henrik was confused when I told him.  “What is ‘mock’?” he asked.

“Fake.  Imitation.  Pretend.  There are no turtles in this soup.”

 His raised eyebrows registered suspicion. “So what is in it?” he asked.

 “Veal, gingersnaps, hard-boiled eggs, and lemon slices. Some spices. Oh, and booze.”

 “When I was little, I thought the veal was baby cat, not baby calf,” Allison interjected.

Adam is the little stinker in the foreground.

Adam is the little imp in the foreground.

Henrik doesn’t look any happier with the prospect of eating mock turtle soup than the real thing.  He has a lot in common with the younger generation in our family.  They don’t like turtle soup.

I hold my cousin, Adam, largely responsible for my kids’ rejection of this toothsome sweet-sour stew.  He told the younger kids that, in fact, there was nothing mock about the turtle soup, that the turtles were actually caught in the pond behind Grandma and Grandpa’s house.  The brew was cooked up, he claimed, in a rusty bucket Grandpa stored in the barn.  “There are cow brains in it,” he whispered.  (The part about the brains . . . uh, well, that was true.)

My frandma, Henrietta (Edna) Meinking Seilkop

My grandma, Henrietta (Edna) Meinking Seilkop

When I was a little girl, my Grandma Seilkop made the turtle soup, just like her mother-in-law (my great-grandma) used to make.  The entire family sat at the long dining room table, Grandma at one end and Grandpa at the other.  The table was festive, but close inspection revealed mismatched dishes and flatware.

groupBefore the soup was served, we all joined hands and sang “Away in a Manger,” the old version that starts low.  CLICK HERE TO LISTEN My mom and I knew the second and third verses, and we sang it as a duet, the others joining in for a phrase here and there.

“The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes; the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes . . . Bless all the dear children in thy loving care, and fit us for heaven to live with you there.”

My brother with Grandpa at the head of the table on Christmas Eve.

My brother with Grandpa at the head of the table on Christmas Eve.

Once the song was finished, Grandma, a tiny little force of nature in her ruffled apron, scurried to the kitchen and spooned turtle soup into humble white crockery bowls using her peculiar ladle with that flat edge.  When everyone was served, she lifted her spoon and, as if directed by a conductor’s baton, everyone set about the business of eating the soup.

And I mean everyone, young and old, because Santa wouldn’t come if you didn’t eat your turtle soup.  When my brother and I were the only children, before my cousins were born, I think everyone at the table loved the soup.  There were crackers available, but my brother and I never thought to crumble them into our soup to hide the taste or dull the spice.  My dad, aunt, and uncle stole little rafts of lemon slices from each other’s bowls.

IMG_0428 (2)Nowadays, we can’t fit at one table.  In addition to the long dining room table, there are usually three additional “kid” tables (some of the kids are in their forties).

When I was a kid, when Great-Grandma Meinking was still alive, there were eleven at the table, but in recent years Uncle Kenny and Aunt Marilyn (who now live in Grandma and Grandpa’s house),  usually host around thirty people for Christmas Eve.

My Aunt Sue tasting the soup right before dishing it up.

My Aunt Sue tasting the soup right before dishing it up with her mother’s ladle.

Henrik and Nathan looking suspiciously at the turtle soup.

Henrik and Nathan looking suspiciously at the turtle soup.

Now my Aunt Sue makes the turtle soup in her mother’s pot.  And, just like her mother, she always critiques the dish; the soup might be “too lemony,” “too bland,” “not quite right,” or have “something missing.”  Admittedly, the taste varies a little from year to year, as there has never been a real recipe but instead really good cooks, but it is always positively delicious.

My dad eating oysters before dinner. Grandma would never have allowed appetizers!

My dad eating oysters before dinner. Grandma would never have allowed appetizers!

 

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Rick NOT eating oysters

 

 

 

 

 

At the end of the meal, my brother and I offer up Tupperware containers, like Oliver Twist, and beg for more soup to take home.

Sue makes brown bread in the same vegetable cans Grandma used. They are heavier and larger than the cans available today.   She also makes her mother’s coffee cake (in her mom’s cake pan) that melts in your mouth.  She brings thumbprint cookies and Buckeyes that are always better than mine.

Sue cutting the brown bread

Sue cutting the brown bread

My job is to bring the cheese, crackers, and hard salami, as well as disgusting dried beef, the leftovers of which are reincarnated in Shit-on-a-Shingle by Aunt Marilyn the week following Christmas.

TJ is the youngest person at the table eating turtle soup.

TJ is the youngest person at the table eating turtle soup.

These days there is always chili available, which the  kids, except for TJ, eat.  Apparently Santa has lost his interest in what we eat, because these persnickety children seem to find plenty of packages under the tree.

Aunt Sue spends days making the turtle soup.  It starts with a huge hunk of veal which cooks slowly all night long down to a handful of meat which Sue has to pick from the bones.  She keeps trying to get someone else to take over its preparation.  By brother says, flatly, “No.”  I demure, saying, “I could never make it as well as you do.”

Sue's thumbprint cookies

Sue’s thumbprint cookies

My cousin Julie, who is thirteen years younger than I, asks Sue year after year, “Why do you make it?  Don’t go to all the work.  When you’re gone, nobody is going to make it anymore.”

I tell Julie, “It’s not about the soup.”  It’s about Grandma Seilkop, in a soft cardigan pearl buttoned to her chin, sitting at the end of the table, apologizing for the imagined flaws of the soup. It’s about Aunt Sue stirring love into the pot as she thinks about her parents. It’s about Grandma and Grandpa calling each other “Buddy” as they dish up the soup.  It’s about that strange ladle with the flat edge, which has been handled by many Seilkops, all good German stock.  It’s about a family with this strange tradition of eating turtle soup on Christmas Eve, lifting their loving spoonsful to honor the generations that came before.

We are posed behind Grandma on her last Christmas. (1986)

 

Sue with her mother's ladle

Sue with her mother’s ladle

 

7 Comments

  1. Loved your story – traditions are wonderful and I hope our children can carry them forward at least in some way after we have gone!

  2. What a nice memorial essay for our family!

    And Henrik has no room to criticize turtle soup! We’ve been in Paris for four days, and he’s eaten so many orders of escargot that there may be no snails left on earth!

    • Alice, you have a man after my heart! Escargot in Paris, it just doesn’t get any better than that!!

  3. What a tradition. I knew that you liked the soup, but did not know about the story behind the soup. We only use beef, chopped hard boiled eggs, spices, and lemons. Oh, and let’s not forget the browned flour the basis for many a German roux. Santa would never have come as I do not think any of the next generation likes the stuff. Enjoy the tradition.

  4. These holiday traditions are what bind families tighter at Christmas, and I enjoyed reading about yours. And good to know no turtles were harmed in the making of this story!

  5. Sandy, I am amazed at how beautifully you weave such memorable details into your stories! Thank you for inviting all of us (in spirit) to your Christmas celebrations!

  6. A loving memory! I remember “shit on a shingle” and I make my mother’s brown bread in tins each year too. Traditional dishes are special to hand down and enjoy.

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Sandy Lingo

Life itself is the proper binge.  - Julia Child

A writing friend said that when she reads my writing, she always wants a second helping.

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