A Terrapin Supper
A terrapin supper among the farmers of these days on the Eastern Shore was something very different from the terrapin supper that city people know today. In the first place the terrapin itself had to be a "count", that is to say it had to be at least seven inches over the top shell .
When the guests were invited they were asked whether they would have their terrapin boiled or roasted. To boil a terrapin, it was put in a pot and left until the under shell would come off easily. To roast a terrapin it was wrapped up in white corn shucks, and tied slightly, and covered with hot ashes and coals, just as a sweet potato would be covered to roast it.
The table was spread for the number of guests invited, and in front of each plate was placed salt, pepper, vinegar, and a little mustard. In the center at the table, there was a large plate of fresh butter. There was always a decanter of brandy or whiskey, and an abundance of hot coffee and hot Maryland biscuit.
The guests being seated at the table and the terrapins were brought in one at a time, and placed in front of them and each man got the kind he had asked for. When the old-fashioned country grace had been given with great fervour by one of the good people, the supper would begin. Each guest dextrously took off the under shell and opened the whole terrapin before hand. As terrapin suppers were never given until after the terrapins had cleansed themselves for the winter, it was very easy matter to clean them. The dry, black, outer skin was loosened and removed and gall bladder removed. Then each man would mix up his terrapin thoroughly in the shell and season it to suit his taste and proceed to eat it with knife, fork and spoon right out of the shell. They used liberal quantities of butter in the terrapin along with other things to suit their taste. Whiskey and coffee were passed around and the supper eaten with great gusto.
It is useless to say that such terrapin were a great deal better than terrapin which is served now-a-days in restaurants. The delightful, delicate taste of that terrapin, and the superior quality of the terrapin itself, made it better than anything that I have seen for many a year.
As a general thing no ladies were at the table at a terrapin supper. It was strictly a stag affair. Sometimes, some members of the party would remain at the table for hours playing cards, though as they were all friends and neighbors there was never any high betting, cheating or falsifying. They were a pretty merry crowd when they went home at an early hour in the morning, to meet again at a later date at some other neighbor's house. They each gave a terrapin supper during the winter so that each man attended some seven or eight suppers during the season.
The colored people too had as many terrapins as they wanted, though as a general thing not counts, for if a colored man, in looking for terrapin for himself, should happen upon a count he would be mighty apt to sell it to "Old Master". The price of count terrapins today, even if they can be had at all, would be prohibitive to anyone but a millionaire, and as to ten men sitting around a table, each one with a count before him which he would pick and serve in his own way, their host would be reduced to poverty because of their great price .
An expert at taking terrapin will select some quiet morning after a north-west blow, and before the water has a ripple on it will be out with his little tongs looking at the bottom of the creeks. He can see the bottom as plainly as though it were exposed, for the fish and crabs have stopped running about and the water is perfectly transparent. To one unaccustomed to this business, the bottom would look the same everywhere; but an experienced man will observe a number of prints on the bottom which look something like a horse's foot prints . Under such a sign there will always be a terrapin, the bigger the sign, of course, the bigger the terrapin, so that a man can always tell before he puts the pinchers down, what size terrapin he is to get. It depends on the quietness of the water, the length of time before a ripple comes on the face of the water, and of course upon the thickness of the terrapin, as to the number that he will take in a morning. But big or little, it was not extraordinary luck to take from fifty to eighty terrapin in one morning, while with exceptionally good luck I have known them to take more than one hundred and fifty.
In the spring of the year, as always the terrapin seek a nice warm sandy shore to lay their eggs. They generally select the shores of the Chesapeake Bay or the ocean shore. They scratch a Iittle hole in the sand and lay their eggs. The half grown terrapin will lay more eggs than you would think a terrapin could possibly hold. The eggs are pinkish in color and have a very soft shell and I have never seen one taken from the nest that did not have a dent in it; but perhaps they are laid with the dent already in them.
The old terrapin having covered her eggs up will disfigure the ground for a yard or two around, so as not to make it apparent just where the eggs are. She doesn't watch the nest or give herself any further concern about it but takes to the ocean immediately. When the terrapins are hatched, little bits of things not larger than a five cent piece, they seem to be quite capable of taking care of themselves at once, and they swim away just as the old ones did. You will find them all through the summer, from little bits of fellows to three or four inches in length. After the first year, however, the growth is very slow. It does not shed or slough its shell like the crab every time it grows. Its shell, on the contrary, grows as the terrapin grows.
Terrapin feed on marine plants to a greater extent than on anything else. They do eat soft crabs and other marine animals though, for I know that they will bite at a hook that is baited with a soft shell crab or peeler.
There is a great resemblance between the diamond-backed terrapin and the green turtle in their method of feeding and in their food, both being decidedly herbiferous. When the terrapin hibernates, the females are full of eggs ready to be laid the following spring, and these eggs at a terrapin supper are all highly prized. If some one doesn't get any eggs in his terrapin others of the party give him some of theirs. It is because the eggs are so well developed when they hibernate that they are laid soon in the following Spring.*This piece was taken from the "Autobiography of Benjamin Azariah Colonna". It was written in June 1914 to preserve the information for his children. B. A. Colonna was born in Pungoteague, Accomac County, Virginia on Oct. 17, 1843.