Snapping Turtles and Founding Fathers

It’s very hard to imagine Aaron Burr peacefully sharing a meal with Alexander Hamilton. However, as it turns out, both of them used to belong to an early gourmet organization called the “Hoboken Turtle Club.” They were joined by other founding fathers – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, to name a few, who apparently weren’t above a decent meal in good company. 

The Hoboken Turtle Club Logo

The “Hoboken Turtle Club” was formed in 1796, giving it the distinction of being the oldest social club in the country. The club was created by Hoboken’s founder, Colonel Stevens, known for his many innovations in the fields of engineering, city planning, and botany, to name a few. If that weren’t enough, Colonel John Stevens also raised chickens which he imported from Europe. However, the prized chickens free-ranging on the banks of the Hudson soon started disappearing. As it turned out, the culprits in the mysterious chickens’ disappearance were snapping turtles, who snatched unsuspecting immigrant birds and dragged them underwater. Stevens’ retaliation on the sneaky reptiles was swift and harsh. They were caught and reprocessed into a turtle soup served for the members of the newly formed “Hoboken Turtle Club.”

The “Hoboken Turtle Club” was organized around elaborate meals, starting with a gourmet breakfast served at 8:00 a.m. and featuring “cocktails, stewed eels, fried eels, baked and fried bluefish, porterhouse steak and turtle steak.” The morning meal was washed down with up to ten cocktails sometimes served by the pitcher. The dinner centered around the club’s “piece-de-resistance” – a turtle soup. It was invariably served at 4 pm. According to the club rules instituted by John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and Aaron Burr, all members were obligated to contribute to preparing a meal before eating. Since the soup was traditionally served over finely chopped boiled eggs, it’s fair to assume that the chopping was done by the founding fathers. Although the recipe was a secret, one of the club’s cooks shared that it required only a few turtles yet involved lots of veggies. 

If you never tasted turtle soup and were wondering, you might find it helpful that one of the very respected club members compared its taste to that of fried seal’s liver and walrus bacon. If for some reason this doesn’t help, here is a newspaper article detailing the soup consumption process:

“To receive a turtle soup you must first chop a hard boiled egg very fine in the bottom of your plate. Then you squeeze into the egg the juice of half a lemon, and pour into it, also, a teaspoon full of mellow old Otard brandy from a bottle, which furnishes you a drink at the same time. The egg is to prepare the plate, and the drink is to prepare the stomach. Then your plate is filled with soup, and while the egg struggles from the bottom to float on the surface, you lay aside all earthly thoughts, forgive all your enemies, and forget all your creditors and put a teaspoon full of it into your mouth. Then you remove the spoon and shut your eyes, and your soul, on the wings of sensuous thought, passes outward into lotus land, and for a time you are lost in a dream that is so still, so perfect, and so all absorbing that you wish, lazily and sadly, it might never end. But you swallow the soup and open your eyes, discover that the face of nature is unchanged, and then, your intellect having reasserted its sway, you conclude that the turtle, like the swan, yields its only perfect symphony in its death.”

A Day With the Hoboken Turtle Club – Scenes and Incidents of a Characteristic Dinner.Frank Leslie’s Illus. Newspaper, July 17, 1886.

In the late 19th century, the club moved from Hoboken to New York and after some years of nomadic existence, folded by the late 1930s. There are no more turtles or chickens in Hoboken. Even a restaurant called the “Hoboken Turtle Club” closed down. However, there are still a few places in New York where the HTC logo can be found as a memory of America’s oldest social club. Their motto – “Dum vivimus vivamus” – firmly insisted on life’s simpler pleasures: “As we journey through life, let us live by the way.”

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