Turtle stew is worth the effort

By W.C. Abbott, Jr.
Journal Correspondent

About the time the Bullion family built the cotton gin at Hope Villa a group of men formed a company and built a store about a hundred feet from Bayou Manchac. They named it Hope Villa Mercantile Company. Vinne Dixon was the principal stockholder, Doyle Martin was the financial manager, and Johnny Dixon was hired to run the store and did so for a long time while he and his wife raised their large family. Four of his boys were members of the Hope Villa Gang that Sidney McCrory organized.

In addition to running the store, Mr. Johnny was a barber and made some pretty good money cutting the hair of most of the men and boys in the community for two bits a head. He was swamped in the summer once school was out and the boys got all their hair cut off.

The store was built on a piece of land that sloped toward the bayou. The back end of the store, the end toward the water, was built on large pilings and brick pillars so that the building would be level. This made the rear end of the building high enough from the ground for an average-sized man to walk underneath without stooping. An airtight thick-walled icehouse was built beneath the store so that ice could be kept for a considerable time. Also underneath the store was the turtle pen.

Occasionally the commercial fishermen who operated in Bayou Manchac at Hope Villa were fortunate enough to catch big snapping turtles in their nets. These vicious looking reptiles were rather plentiful in Manchac at that time, but their shy nature and their strong instinct for survival made them difficult to catch. The man who was lucky enough to catch one knew he could get a good price for it if he could get it to the market in New Orleans where turtle meat was considered a delicacy. So the fisherman built a sturdy pen under the store where they could keep the turtles until buyers came from the big city. Some of these turtles were sold to local men who "hung around" the store. Once in awhile they'd buy a turtle and cook a turtle stew, play cards and drink wine or beer and some of them would end up sleeping under the store. Back at that time it was thought that a turtle had four or five kinds of meat and you could see and taste the difference. I don't know if this is true, but I know that the meat has a distinctive taste.

The last person to operate that store was E.D. Dixon, just before he started to college at LSU. About that time a new bridge was built over Manchac and the new road needed part of the area where the store was located. The store was sold to Alsase James who rolled it a mile down the road and made it into a nightclub. Later it burned down.

E.D. Dixon considers himself a cook, and I think rightly so. He said that when the old men hung around Hope Villa store and cooked turtle stew, he was old enough to watch the cooking and learned how it was done. And in later years he cooked turtle stew on several occasions and had success with it.

His recipe for turtle stew:
4 pounds of turtle meat. (Snapping turtles make the best stew).
1 cup shortening.
1 cup flour
5 medium sized onions, chopped.
2 bell peppers, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 small cans tomato sauce
1 small can tomato paste, or Rotel
2 japaleņo peppers, chopped (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste.
Serves six hungry men.
The turtle meat should be cut into small pieces, seasoned with salt and pepper and sauteed (he says fried) in a black iron pot until brown, then taken out. The flour is added to the fat still in the pot to make a roux. This is stirred until the flour is brown. To this brown roux add the chopped onions, bell peppers, celery and garlic. When this mixture is wilted, add the tomato sauce and Rotel, and a little water if needed. This is simmered for about an hour and a half before you put the meat back in. Cook until the meat is tender. Serve over rice. If you like your stew spicy, add a jalapeņo pepper or two and some Louisiana hot sauce.

Dixon says if you want to add fancy stuff like basil, bay leaves, olives, lemons and mushrooms, go ahead, but he says it probably won't taste any better.