Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere



By Jeremy Trombley

The word turtle is used to refer to the variety of species of the Testudine order, which includes both land and aquatic turtles. However, when speaking of edible turtles, the land varieties are generally not included. Turtles are some of the oldest creatures on earth, with roots going back over 200 million years, which makes them older than both reptiles and snakes. They are also a very popular food in every part of the world in which they are found.

Freshwater vs. Sea Turtles

When speaking of edible turtles, a distinction must be made between the freshwater varieties and the sea turtles. This is because the two have dramatically different life cycles, behaviors and are used differently for cooking.

There are several different kinds of freshwater turtles which can be used for food. The most popular is the snapping turtle or snapper. These can grow to be very large, and care must be taken when harvesting them to avoid their powerful beak. Terrapins are smooth bodied turtles which are generally much smaller than snappers. The soft-shelled varieties are highly prized, but the hard shelled varieties are valued as well. All are good for the iconic dish, turtle soup, but the snapper is the most highly prized, and is easily found in most ponds or streams in North America.

Sea turtles are migratory animals, and, when fully grown, have few predators at sea. However, their reproduction patterns have made them very vulnerable to extinction in recent times. Sea turtles return to their birth beach to lay eggs, and they can be easily captured at this time. However, what's worse is that their eggs are left fairly vulnerable to both human and animal consumption. Turtle eggs have been used for thousands of years by cultures located along the coasts where sea turtles come to lay. However, they have recently gained worldwide interest, and, as a result of the demand, the turtles have become endangered. It is now illegal to harvest wild turtle eggs for consumption, but a thriving black market continues to persist. Hopefully, new techniques of turtle farming may make this black market irrelevant.

In addition to their eggs, the sea turtles are consumed in themselves as well, and are also used to make a turtle soup. However, the turtle soup made from sea turtles is not like that of that made from freshwater turtles due to the different properties of the meat and the gelatinous materials found in the flippers, which are the most commonly used parts. English sailors traveling to and from the Caribbean found that turtles were an ideal food because they could be kept alive on board the ship until the need for food arose. It was said that their utilization in this way could keep a ship going an extra year by staving off the vitamin deficiencies often associated with sailing life.

Finding and Preparing Freshwater Turtles

As mentioned above, freshwater turtles can be found in almost any pond or shallow stream in North America. the terrapins must be hunted in the warm months when they come out to warm in the sun. They can be seen sitting on logs or rocks, though they will attempt to dart away underwater. Soft shell turtles, in particular, can spend a long time underwater. Snappers on the other hand can be lured with bait, usually at night. In the colder months, the snappers will burrow underground. They can easily be found by plunging a stick or metal rod into the earth around a water hole, then can be dug up and carried away without risk of bite (the snappers go dormant in the cold ).

Once they are caught and slaughtered, freshwater turtles must be cleaned thoroughly with soap and a scrub brush and then rinsed. This removes any mud or grit from the turtle which may harm the dish. The bottom shell is then removed and the innards removed, retaining the liver and any eggs. The turtle must then be rinsed again, and bones, claws, and any black meat is removed. The meat can then be added to soup or otherwise cooked as desired.


NY Times - All but Ageless, Turtles Face Their Biggest Threat: Humans

Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food 2nd Ed. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, USA, 2006.

Gibbons, Euell. Stalking the Wild Asparagus. Field guide ed. New York: D. McKay, 1962.