This section is from the book "The Epicurean", by Charles Ranhofer. Also available from Amazon: The Epicurean, a Complete Treatise of Analytical and Practical Studies on the Culinary Art.
Diamond-back or salt water terrapin are found all along the Atlantic coast, but more especially in the Chesapeake bay and its tributaries; other salt water species from Massachusetts to Texas are quite numerous, and as a substitute for those of the Chesapeake are extensively used by houses of ordinary reputation. The scarcity of Chesapeake diamond-back terrapin grows more apparent each year, and even now it frequently requires many days of laborious and tedious work and many-miles of walking over soft boggy marshes, of prodding in deep narrow channels with long shafted tongs by men skilled and familiar with all their cunning habits before one is taken from a hiding place, just below the surface, sufficiently deep for protection against the winter frosts. The favorite place for the hibernation of the very largest size is a few inches below the soft oozy mud at the bed of a three or four fathom V-shaped channel in the bed of a creek of about the same distance from shore to shore. Thousands of such creeks penetrate the shores and islands of the Chesapeake, and those less frequented by man are instinctively selected by the terrapin for its haunts.
At least ninety per cent. of those taken from the beds of deep creeks will measure six and one-half to eight and one-half inches with an average weight of nearly two and three-fourths pounds, are females; while eighty per cent, of those bedded in the marshes have an average weight of three-fourths of a pound and measure less than five inches. The males invariably bed in the marshes and among the rushes of very shallow ponds, only venturing in cold water during the summer and the warmest spring and fall months, in which time they lead a migratory life in search of food, consisting principally of small shell fish and the soft-shell crabs. About ninety-eight per cent. of the male terrapin never exceed five inches in length on the bottom shell, while the female has been known to measure nine inches and weigh seven and one-half pounds. In the month of December, 1885, Delmonico received from Baltimore a Chesapeake Maryland terrapin measuring eight and three-fourths inches, weighing nine and one-half pounds and containing fifty-six eggs: this must be accepted as one of the finest specimens ever found of the diamond-back Chesapeake hay terrapin.
The standard length for those who buy and sell terrapin is six inches; when of this dimension they are called "counts," Both the male and female are very shy and active, swim well and run (though awkwardly) with considerable speed. Prior to about 1870 the salt and brackish waters of the bay literally teemed with this now nearly exterminated and hence valuable reptile; they could betaken by the dozen at a single haul of a long net, but the market value was so small as to render them almost worthless except for local use, and in consequence thousands of large egg terrapin were led away to swine or cooked for fattening fowls. The people, thoughtless and unprincipled, have robbed themselves by trapping incalculable quantities of terrapin before they had matured sufficiently for breeding and by digging eggs from beneath the sand shores where they had been deposited by the females to hatch. While the laws enacted by the legislatures of Maryland and Virginia for their protection differ somewhat they are both excellent, and had they been rigidly enforced this spectacle of ultimate extermination would not exist.
The time for hibernation usually lasts about six months, beginning with approaching frosty weather in the fall and continuing till the warm spring weather; they bury a few inches deep in the mud and leave, at the spot where they disappear, a mound in the middle of which a hole can be discerned. It is this mound and its hole which first attracts the attention of the fisherman; during this period an enormous quantity of terrapin are caught in their torpid state. They take no nourishment whatever while in this condition. They hatch their young toward the end of June and the beginning of July. The terrapin season is from the month of November to May: they are at their best during December, January, February and March. Very often terrapin are sent to market in October and November, also penned terrapin of the year before.
Are those caught beforehand and kept in an enclosed place; they are fed on oysters, crabs or fish; these terrapin are never so good as those freshly caught. The small species of terrapin are divided into two classes; heifers, the under shell of these never measuring more than five inches in length, and bulls five to five and a half. Terrapin begin to hatch their eggs at the age of four years; while growing their shell lengthens one inch every year, so their age may be approximately judged by their length, for example: a six-inch terrapin is supposed to be six years old.