There’s the Oval Office, the conference rooms of the State Department and then, of course, the Georgetown dinner party.

Back in the days of the Cold War, the influential members of the Washington political scene gathered around the tables of notable Georgetown residents to discuss the issues of the day. While many of these parties began as simple social gatherings, they quickly became a common scene of political banter and heated argument. Many of the important decisions and connections of the Cold War were formed at these parties.

In “The Georgetown Set,” by Gregg Herken, we caught a glimpse of what it may have been like to be invited to one of these parties. They were populated by Senators, administrative officials, foreign ambassadors, Supreme Court justices and journalists, among other neighbors and friends of the hosts. The dress code was often formal, and while the conversation frequently abandoned polite discourse for shouting matches, there was strict etiquette for each event.

Herken notes that the most prestigious invitations were those to the parties of a prominent syndicated columnist named Joe Alsop. Alsop’s parties began with a “liberal pouring of cocktails” — usually dry martinis, upon which the host could rely to fuel especially heated conversations (Alsop was known, however, for his ability to incite a high-decibel conversation on his own if the martinis weren’t doing the trick). Following drinks, guests were treated to two of Alsop’s signature dishes: leek pie and terrapin soup. Making the soup, Herken describes, entailed cooking turtle parts in butter and broth, adding an eclectic mix of spices and letting the whole mix stew for several hours. As Alsop himself said of the soup, “Although its aroma reminded one a bit of the way feet sometimes smell, it was absolutely delicious.”

But despite the warnings, we saw in Alsop an unusual ability to bring together the best of Washington to talk about solutions to the world’s most pressing problems. Perhaps this pair of Georgetown-newspaper columnists, armed with hard liquor and turtle soup, could set out to recreate the famed parties of Joe Alsop. With this in mind, we set out to revive a Georgetown dinner party of our own.

But, our own experience with terrapin and martinis was slightly less glamorous. When we decided to replicate this hallowed Georgetown tradition, the logical first step in the process was making turtle soup. Never ones to shy away from unusual delicacies, from guinea pig to blood sausage, we set out to find a purveyor of turtle meat. The initial Google search yielded few results. However, after making some calls, we found a small grocery store in Maryland willing to sell us a wholesale snapping turtle to be butchered as we chose.
Could we accomplish this feat on a Sunday in the kitchen of a Burleith townhouse? The answer — after a couple particularly gruesome instructional YouTube videos on the correct way to turn turtle into turtle soup — was a resounding no. Apologies in advance to the reader for this pun, but we simply didn’t have the guts to butcher a turtle.

Instead, we trekked for some takeout turtle soup from the Washington, D.C. eatery Acadiana, hauling back copious Styrofoam takeout containers and setting up our own dinner power party. We laid cutlery, lit candles and adjusted Spotify to an appropriate, jazzy mix of lively and mellow. Guests trickled in around 7:30 to a reception of college-friendly hors d’oeuvres and cocktails. When it came time for the main event, receptions to the soup were mixed. Several guests guzzled it down like a normal stew while others expressed an inability to move past the origins of the little pieces of dark meat swirling in the broth.  We were likewise divided. Katy couldn’t get over the odd tang and slimy texture. David, however, happily ate both his portion and hers.

We wondered what made such an exotic entree a staple of these gloried dinner parties of Georgetown’s past, and we found our answer in the cocktails that traditionally accompanied them. Martinis and Negronis flowed freely in those living rooms of yore, as they did in Burleith last Sunday. The Negroni — equal parts Campari, Vermouth and Gin, garnished with an orange peel — has an aggressive bitterness that stands up to the terrapin. Its playful ruby hue belies a strength that brings enough buzz to at least mask the unpleasantness of the soup. Once again, David adored the Negroni, while Katy admitted she would need a couple more gentle drinks before graduating to the Martini or Negroni.

Our dinner party had its ups and downs, but, by the end, enough gin and Campari had been consumed to assuage any concerns about terrapin. While our conversation ranged from the Georgetown University Student Association to Rhino — rather than from Russia to the White House — we nonetheless felt proud to carry on a hallowed Georgetown tradition.

David Chardack and Katy Berk are juniors in the College. POLITICAL DIGEST appears every other Friday.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*