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Jeff Lampe
Jeff Lampe

Jeff Lampe has been outdoor writer at the Journal Star in Peoria for 12 duck seasons. He lives in Elmwood with his wife Monica, sons Henry, Victor and Walter, and Llewellin setter Hawkeye. A native of Buffalo, N.Y., he is an avid fan of the Bills and still has mental scars from four consecutive Super Bowl losses. Outside of hunting and fishing, Lampe's main passion in Illinois was Class A boys basketball (which sadly no longer exists). Former publisher of the Class A Weekly newsletter, Lampe is a co-author of "100 Years of Madness" and "Classical Madness," both books focusing on prep basketball in Illinois.

Illinois Outdoors


A Web log by Jeff Lampe of the Journal Star

A taste of Turtlepalooza 2008

August 15, 2008 at 03:27 AM

Chef Todd’s turtle recipe

The first step is to put together a mixture of kosher salt, pepper, garlic powder, Old Bay seasoning, cayenne pepper and flour. Dredge the turtle pieces in that. Chef Todd also uses Drake’s seafood batter.

Next, pan sear the turtle pieces in a skillet.

Then place the turtle pieces into a pan on racks with water underneath them. Cook the turtle at 350 degrees for 2 to 2 1/2 hours in a convection oven. You may need more time if you are using large turtle pieces.

From there you should be ready to serve some mouth-watering, tender fried turtle.

There’s not many phone calls that make me drop everything and rush out the door. I got one the other day from Chef Todd.

“Dude, the turtle is coming out of the oven,” he said. Knowing Chef, he probably talked another five minutes. But I missed anything he said after “oven” while bolting off like a hare.

Maybe the phrase “fried turtle” doesn’t mean much to you. Some people fret about eating a critter that lives in mud and lives on anything it can ingest. To me that’s no different than a pig. Only turtle tastes better and is much harder to find.

Time was, turtle was a staple at local taverns. Any more, finding a heaping plate of fried snapper is no easy task.

So when Chef called, I made tracks. Extra motivation came from the fact I had to reach Turtlepalooza 2008 before a pack of hungry rascals that included Ron Marvin and Tim Presley — both of whom probably ate turtle as toddlers.

Fortunately, there was plenty to go round at this second installation of what I hope becomes an annual event at Presley’s Outdoors. Along with savory fried turtle, cole slaw and dill potato salad came all sorts of tall tales.

When talk turned to the area’s great turtle catchers, Jack Ehresman and Milt “Griz” Wernsman both singled out Ken Clifford. “He had a nose for turtles,” Ehresman said.

Wernsman also recalled how skillfully his uncle, Dallas Smith of Beardstown, “rodded” for turtles. “He’d walk along poking that rod through the mud and when he hit a turtle, he’d flip the rod around. It had a hook at the other end. He’d poke that down into the mud and would spin up a turtle.”

Finally, Griz said he also knew “guys from Kickapoo” who shot turtles through the ice with a shotgun. No names came up there, since that’s not only illegal, it’s crazy.

Not to be outdone, Chef Todd fired off some one-liners about “a turtle drug dealer” who “sells them by the kilo.” Then, pointing to the rapidly disappearing pile of turtle we were devouring, he said, “That’s 20 pounds and about 700 years of turtle right there.”

We laughed between bites. But selling wild turtle is no joking matter. First of all, it’s illegal in Illinois. Then too, there’s something that seems almost wrong about eating a critter that takes so long to reach breeding age in the wild.

Fortunately, there’s an alternative to breaking the law or feeling guilty. You can buy farm-raised snapper at Dixon’s Seafood Shoppe in East Peoria, where Thursday’s opening price was $11.95 per pound.

“It’s farm-raised snapping turtle from Iowa, but it tastes just like wild turtle,” Jim Dixon said. “They still wallow in the mud and they’re still eating the same fish and stuff they would eat in the wild. It’s not like a farm-raised salmon where they are eating pellets.”

The bulk of Dixon’s turtle goes to Lanuti’s in Ladd (815-894-2124), a 101-year-old tavern where turtle is on the menu Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays from 4-10 p.m. and Sundays from 2-9 p.m.

“The wholesalers tell me we sell more turtle than anybody in the state,” said John Bussa, 94, who runs Lanuti’s along with his wife, Dena. “We’ve got people who come from all over the state to eat our turtle.”

Snappers and softshells crawled onto the menu in the 1970s as an alternative for Catholics who were tired of eating fish on Fridays. “Some people weren’t sure that turtle meat was
OK, so they called the bishop in Peoria and he said turtle was seafood,” Bussa said.

Since then Lanuti’s has built a statewide reputation. A plate with six pieces of turtle, potato or fries and a salad costs $14.

“You’d be surprised the people from Peoria, Pekin and Chillicothe that come up here for turtle every week,” Dena Lanuti said. “We deep fry it and there’s no secret to what we do. It’s just good turtle.”

Closer to home, the Riverview Inn at Liverpool (309-668-3166) offers turtle seven days per week from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. “We’ve been told we’ve got the best around,” said Jayson Herrick, whose parents run the restaurant.

At least two other local taverns also serve turtle. Snapper is on the menu at Olde Towne Bar and Grille in Delavan (309-244-9488) on the last Friday and Saturday of each month. And Club La-Con in Lacon (309-246-5705) fries turtle on Mondays and Fridays.

Told about Lanuti’s, Chef Todd had a quick reply. “Sounds like a road trip dude.”


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