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ROXBURY — When Lent rolls around, the Dorf Haus in Roxbury shells out a local delicacy.

Roast turtle, snappers straight from the Mississippi River, delights diners of all ages at the nearly 60-year-old supper club. Fans come from miles around to get a taste of this particular dish, in some cases traveling from Milwaukee or even Chicago.

Serving turtle has become a rarity in this part of Wisconsin, but it’s far too popular at the Dorf Haus for the restaurant to ever consider giving up its 35-year-old tradition. As far as the restaurant’s owners know, the other area restaurants that served turtle are long gone — either shuttered or sold.

But in fact, the dish is so popular that the restaurant sells out every time turtle is offered.

Rebecca Maier-Frey, co-owner, said this Lenten season the restaurant is offering turtle on Fridays and Wednesdays to give people an extra opportunity to partake.

Dorf Haus is meticulous about its turtle preparation, beginning with fewer orders in the start of Lent and increasing from there.

“You want to run out every night,” Maier-Frey said.

Changing tradition

Though one tradition of Lenten abstinence often includes indulging in fish fry or other seafood meals, there are other options for those who observe the season by abstaining from eating meat on Fridays in honor of Jesus’ death on Good Friday.

Not eating meat on Fridays as part of that observance is “a little easier in Wisconsin” with all of the local fish fry opportunities, according to Brent M. King, director of communications for the Catholic Diocese of Madison.

Food choices do not start and end with just fish, however, which is where unique dishes can shine. For others, turtle is simply a more interesting dining experience than the standard fish fry.

“If it’s between a fish fry and turtle I’m going turtle,” Dorf Haus diner Jim Kohlbeck said.

King said turtle is OK for consumption because it falls under the rule of “salt and freshwater species of fish, amphibians, reptiles and shellfish” for Lenten Fridays.

The Friday food rule is derived from the symbol of the fish in the early Christian Church as well as the gospel.

“The drawing of a symbolic fish in the dirt was a way that the early Christians knew each other when it was dangerous to admit in public that one was Christian,” King said. “Jesus cooked fish for his Apostles after his resurrection, and most of these men were fishermen. After he established his church these fishermen became ‘fishers of men’ for the Kingdom of God.”

Taste for turtle

Mitchell Maier, who was in the kitchen the first Friday of Lent, said the roasted delicacy falls right off the bone. There is careful skill required to properly prepare the meat, since turtle is so muscular and bony. Preparing the roast includes cutting the edible meat away by maneuvering around the joints, as the bones are so hard they are prone to splintering when cut.

Of a 21-pound snapping turtle, only about seven pounds is edible, according to Maier-Frey.

“That’s not really a lot,” she said, “if you’re paying per pound and you only get seven off of the 21. But it’s a delicacy, right? It’s the attraction of it. So we can’t just make little pieces, we want it to be eaten.”

Before it hits patrons’ plates, the turtle is washed, dried, then dusted with flour and browned. From there the meat is sauteed in a pan with onions, garlic and some white wine to deglaze the pan. Then it is roasted for four hours in a pan with some carrots, celery and onion, Maier said.

The result is a tender roast with a taste no one can quite agree on.

“It tastes like turtle,” Kohlbeck said. “There is no wild taste, it’s not tough or sinewy...not muddy, it’s flavorful and it melts in your mouth.”

Kohlbeck and his wife walked into Dorf Haus on Valentine’s Day hoping to be the first customers of the season to order turtle. To Kohlbeck’s disappointment, they were not. But after a year of not being able to enjoy the tasty meal, he was happy to have it at all.

The Kohlbecks were back again on Friday for their second helping of turtle for the week.

Others disagree on the flavor. Maier-Frey said there are seven different flavors often attributed to turtle, anything from duck to veal, but the most common tastes are described as chicken or beef.

The average wait time for a table on a Friday night runs anywhere from one to two hours, which is why the Dorf Haus decided to serve the $16.95 turtle dinner on Wednesdays as well.

It isn’t uncommon for the restaurant to serve upwards of 450 people on a Friday in Lent, Maier-Frey said.

Co-owner Monte Maier suggested reserving turtle ahead of time if that is the reason for venturing out to the Dorf Haus for dinner on a Friday or Wednesday. Otherwise there is no guarantee that there will be any left.

Chef Mitchell Maier reflected on the popularity fondly. “When Dad (Vern Maier) started, there were six people willing to try it, but now people are really unhappy if they come all the way here and all 50 servings are gone.”

“It tastes like turtle. There is no wild taste, it’s not tough or sinewy...not muddy, it’s flavorful and it melts in your mouth.” Jim Kohlbeck,
Dorf Haus diner