One of the great foods of the 18th century… Indeed, of centuries before, and at least one century afterwards, was turtle. Slow moving, plentiful, and tasty, turtles were a preferred food, especially for sailors.
On merchant and navy ships, turtles of all kinds, but especially sea turtles, were kept in ship’s holds as a ready food source. The animals needed little space, and their slow-moving metabolisms allowed them to live for months on little or no food. A section of the ship could be petitioned off for turtle storage, and the animals would stay there, alive, until they were needed for dinner.
To people today, myself included, this seems horrific. Keeping an animal in close confinement, without food or water or any of the possible pleasures of life, feels like an assault on the morals of eating. Yet men like the pirates of old faced disease and death due to lack of fresh food. They needed the calories and nutrition that fresh turtle meat provided.
And, in many ways, it wasn’t much worse than a modern-day factory farm.
I’ve got my own opinions about turtles, formed not in the least because of my beloved pet, Karai, a Midwestern box turtle (technically a tortoise.) She chirps pleasantly, and watches TV with me, and eats strawberries, I would never eat her or any of her kin. So I’ve decided to look at turtle hunting and eating as a history lesson.
During the Golden Age of Piracy, turtles were plentiful on the beaches and islands of the Caribbean. Many tales of pirates also involve turtle hunting, or “turtling” as it was called. When Anne Bonny and Jack Rackham went looking for the man who betrayed them to Woods Rogers, the Nassau governor, they found him as he was hunting turtles.
When Charles Vane was shipwrecked on an empty island, he survived by eating turtles.
Pirates, known to taking to shore for drinking parties, often celebrated with turtle soup.
The first actual record of eating turtles in the New World goes all the way back to 1609, when a group of Englishmen, shipwrecked in Bermuda, finally headed toward Virginia on the the Sea Venture, along with supplies of turtle meat.
Indeed, 17th century over-turtling resulted in some of the very earliest efforts to protect wildlife. But this very early form of environmental protection didn’t work. The turtle population was decimated in Bermuda. So aspiring turtle-eaters had to go farther afield.
Most popular, and supposedly the best eating, were giant sea turtles, some weighing over 400 pounds. One of the benefits was that the turtle yielded a pot to cook itself in – the turtle’s top shell made a suitable cooking pot.
I won’t go into the methods of killing a sea turtle – but the usual method was quick. Once the shell was cut open, the animal supplied 3 sections of meat. The forequarters (musculature that moved the head a front flippers) the rear quarters (muscles that moved the tail and hind feet) and a narrow band of muscle along the shell that joined them. Unlike other animals, turtles don’t have much in the middle.
A typical recipe for turtle soup “in the wild” suggested cooking and eating the center loin muscles, then chopping up the rest of the meat, adding spices (thyme, parsley, savory and young onions, according to one recipe) and a couple of bottle of wine. The turtle’s tripe and maw (the digestive tract) were considered the best part, and cooks encouraged them to be boiled in veal stock, with plenty of added butter. Killing and dressing a 400 pound turtle took hours. And cooking it took even more. 6-8 hours were needed to prepare the dish.
The resulting soup was apparently quite addicting, and those who ate it soon wanted more. This led to price increases, as rich men in England were clamoring for the famous soup. In short order, turtle soup became known as the food of the wealthy.
In response, England’s middle class soon created a dish called mock (fake) turtle soup. The recipe for THIS started with a calf’s head (the bony, cartilage-rich head helped create the slightly gelatinous texture of Real Soup) and included beef, chicken stock, lemon, herbs, tomatoes, wine and grated hardboiled eggs.
The taste of real turtle flesh is said to be a cross between crab and beef. Apparently this came close. It was wildly popular for nearly a century, and can still be found in some upscale restaurants. The image of the Mock Turtle can also be found in Alice in Wonderland, where Lewis Carroll described an animal with the body of a turtle, but the head and feet of a calf. (Calf’s feet were sometimes used to make mock turtle soup instead of the head.)
Why do people no longer eat real turtle soup? One reason is that many turtles are now protected as endangered species. Another is probably that once more people lived in cities, they no longer ate nearly such a wide variety of creatures. Our ancestors thought nothing of devouring raccoons, opossums, parrots, monkeys, and any other meat that became available. In this wild variety, turtle fit right in. To modern folk, it’s far more exotic, and maybe a little frightening.
Turtle soup, food to former presidents, kings, nobles and pirates, can now be had only in the most expensive and exotic of eateries. Or the most primitive. Cajuns and rural southerners still have turtle hunts, and make delicious soup from the animals captured.
And this is why the historical turtle soup is a uniquely piratical dish. The people who ate it were the wealthy… and the very poor. The lure of selling turtle meat for profit never seems to have persuaded poor sailors from enjoying the dish, and they benefited from the healthful properties of wild-caught ocean protein.
Event today, it’s well known that the healthier, more varied diets available to the rich grant longer life. In the 1700’s pirates grabbed a little bit of this “good life” for themselves.