The Peabody Hotel in Memphis may have its ducks, but Brennan’s in New Orleans can match that attraction. The French Quarter restaurant has its own resident family of turtles. Ten of them inhabit the fountain pool in the French Quarter restaurant’s lush courtyard. Recently, we sat down with Brennan’s General Manager Christian Pendleton to talk about the resident turtles and the annual parade that honors them. Surely, the slowest second line on Earth.
So, give us a little turtle family history, if you will.
We very much inherited the family. When Mr. Brennan and Mr. White took over control of Brennan’s, a renovation was necessary. They discovered the turtles and had to figure out what to do. And so they went to the home of the great Hailey Batterman. She’s been with Ralph for almost 20 years and she lives on the West Bank. And it was promised that this would be a very short vacation for the turtles. That short vacation turned into about 18 months. So Hailey and the turtles and Hailey’s family became very close. They were in kiddie pools in the backyard and enjoyed summering on the West Bank. But when it was time to bring them back, there was, you know? How do we do it? In New Orleans and Brennan’s, we like to have fun. So the idea was a Mardi Gras parade. The turtles all have names. They’re named after sauces. We have the five classic French sauces and then the five sauces we thought were most representative of New Orleans. And each turtle was assigned to a family. And each family decorated a wagon in the theme of a Mardi Gras float and based around the name of their turtle. And we had no idea what to expect. We just thought it was going to be fun and something silly and would be a one-off. Much to our surprise, it was a very popular event and so it’s something that we do year after year. And I think we’d be in trouble if we didn’t keep doing it.
When we first did it, we did it around Saint Patrick’s Day, because it’s kind of the green of turtles, the green of Saint Patrick’s, you know? It was kind of a natural. But the following year we had some weather concerns. So, we postponed until the day before Mother’s Day, because the turtles are the mothers, if you will. The mother sauces and the others. So we said, let’s do the day before Mother’s Day.
Having ridden in a couple of Mardi Gras parades, it’s exactly the chaos putting 10 turtles in floats as it is putting thousands of adults in floats. It’s just as chaotic.
Do you do new floats every year or do you embellish the old?
It’s up to the family that’s pulling. My family has pulled since the beginning. We pull Cocktail, who’s last. We changed themes a couple of years and then I realized that I did not want to be working on a float three hours before the parade started, so we kind of solidified it. We have a great team of men and women who work with Ralph on the maintenance of the restaurants, and they helped stabilize my float, so it could safely get down the street for myself, my wife, my daughter and, most importantly, the turtle.
Does Cocktail throw anything?
He tries to throw himself out of the float, which is something we’ve learned over the years, that we have to get bigger aquariums. But every family brings different things to throw. I think any parent can appreciate pulling a wagon with a turtle in it can be cumbersome enough without trying to do throws, but we try.
Do you have any idea how old these turtles are or where they came from?
The turtles have their own vet, Doctor Gregory Rich from the Exotic Animal Hospital out in Metairie. He comes out twice a year to see them and they go to him once a year for physicals and checkups. And we know at least a couple of the turtles are more than 25 years old. And some are children of some of the ladies who have grown into the families. We’ve lost some members. Their children have taken their spot.
Do you have a keeper of the turtles at Brennan’s?
That is one of my side duties, keeper of the turtles. I check on them every morning when I come in and make sure that everyone is accounted for, because if it rains too much, the pond will rise and then the turtles will try to get out of the pond. Just the other day with the rain, I had to go turtle hunting for a little while. But I found them back in the bed.
Now they’re living in the lap of luxury, not only in your gorgeous courtyard, but also in one of the finest restaurants in New Orleans. Do they get crispy kale fritters, or do they get Creole lettuce wraps or what?
They are very simple eaters. They love shrimp, especially when turtles themselves are younger. They tend to be on a very protein heavy diet. So they love shrimp. And then, bananas are kind of a thing at Brennan’s. So they do love a sweet treat every once in a while. We tend to alternate between shrimp and bananas.
You do have turtle on the menu. You do an annual pardoning of the turtles?
We absolutely do. The turtles get blessed. The turtle parade ends at Brennan’s and we have a giant party to welcome them back. And they are blessed by Monsignor Malte, the turtles’ own Monsignor, their personal spiritual guide. And then they are pardoned by Judge Lemon, who comes in and every year reads a new pardon. So they will never be allowed to be made into the soup.
I’m relieved by that. I really am. How do you tell them apart? What if you end up with Veloute on your float instead of Cocktail or Bechamel gets on the wrong float?
There are a couple of turtles that are very distinguished. One I think of is pulled by the Bitterman Family, Espagnole, AKA Big Mamma. She is noticeably larger than everybody else. She’s hard to miss. Cocktail, because of his coloring, is fairly simple. And the other ones are close enough that we hope we don’t offend them if they get called the wrong name the wrong day. But we give it the old college try as best we can.
Cocktail’s the only male, right? How do you know?
The vet. Doctor Rich confirmed that. So, yeah. There’re many running jokes. That it’s good to be the king, but that’s a long honey-do list in the pond for keeping nine women happy.
Do you have a queen?
We absolutely do. That is pulled by the Williamson family. Her name is Veloute.
And now I understand there’s a book: A Topsy Turvy History of New Orleans and 10 Tiny Turtles.
There is. A spectacular book that was written by Simone Rathle and Sharlee Williamson about the history of New Orleans. This was kind of a fun book for kids that tells the history of New Orleans through the eyes of the turtles. It’s a lot of fun. The turtles will sign your book. Everything about coming to Brennan’s is supposed to be fun and it’s supposed to have that, every once in a while, that eyebrow-raising kind of chuckle.
I can only wonder if anyone has bought the movie rights.
Who knows? There’s a need for material in Hollywood these days, so I wouldn’t be surprised. Leah Chase would have to be a voice for one of the turtles.
Did you have pet turtles as a kid?
I did not. I was actually a military brat. So, we had a dog that traveled with us, but that was the full extent of living around the world with my dad. This is very much a new skill set. I’ve learned a lot about turtles in the last couple of years.
What’s the most surprising thing about turtles that you did not know?
Their thirst for warmth. As the sun moves across our courtyard, there are times where the pond just gets a sliver of sunlight. And the turtles will literally climb on top of each other. You’ll see 5, 6, 7 turtles high, all of them kind of stretching out a back leg trying to get it in the sun, so they can warm.
It sounds like your turtles have definitely come out of their shells.
They are full of personality, and when it’s feeding time, we’ve had the occasional rumble in the jungle, if you will, with who can get to the shrimp faster. So, yes. They are not shy. They are not afraid of performing. They live a good life and they enjoy it.
You can follow their adventures and celebrity sightings at @BrennansTurtles. What do they tweet about?
They tweet about their visitors. Their representative on their Twitter handle never outright names who stopped by to see them. There’s always a little bit of a guessing game required, but there’s always a little clever bit for you to try to guess out who came. You know, there are references to songs to try to help draw you to it. Everything is about having fun.
Are you going to have bands in the parade?
We do. This year, we will be changing from a bagpipe band from the Mardi Gras initiation to a great old Kinfolk Brass Band will lead us through the Quarter.
So, it is a very slow second line.
It is. Between the turtles and the kids pulling the wagon, NOPD would like us to move it along just a little bit faster, but I think most of them also understand what we’re trying to accomplish. So everyone goes along for the laugh.
The 5th Annual Turtle Parade rolls on Saturday, May 11 at 11 AM, starting at Bienville and Charters and ending at Brennan’s on Royal Street with a courtyard celebration. It’s open to the public.