Turtle soup was a high-class delicacy for special occasions in the 1860s, like President Lincoln’s second inaugural banquet. When one couldn’t afford turtle soup, there was an alternative: mock turtle soup. So what was mock turtle soup made of? Believe it or not, beef was the substitute.
Mock turtle soup, on the other hand, was made with a whole calf’s head, which allegedly mimicked the flavor and texture of real turtle soup. Despite being made with a comparatively inexpensive cut that might have been discarded, it was still considered high-end, and was even erroneously described on menus as being French. It was priced accordingly: On Manhattan restaurant Sullivan’s 1900 menu, for instance, it is one-and-a-half times as expensive as any other soup. It was offered on upmarket tables at the Waldorf-Astoria, The Plaza, and the St. Regis, and in the pages of the White House’s 1887 cookbook, flavored with a medley of sherry, cayenne pepper, lemon, sugar, salt, and mace. There, it appeared right next to the recipe for actual turtle soup.
It seems hard to believe that people valued a soup made of turtle meat over a soup made of calf, but that was a different time. Eventually, people began to prefer mock turtle soup to the original -as they should. Of course, neither is popular today, because we can make soup without butchering our own meat now. Learn more about turtle soup and its alternative, mock turtle soup, at Atlas Obscura.