Our most valuable turtle

From an economic standpoint, the diamondback terrapin is our most valuable turtle. No member of the turtle tribe has ever enjoyed the fame and popularity this reptile experienced during the period of our history that extended from the Gay ’90s to the Roaring ’20s. During this period, it was said that no champagne dinner was complete without diamondback terrapin being among the delicacies served.

Though it is not so much in the limelight today, its prestige is still known and respected throughout the country. It is the well-known mascot of the University of Maryland, and a student dressed as a terrapin prances about during athletic events. Incidentally, a terrapin is usually defined as an edible turtle found in water; a tortoise is usually a turtle found on land; and a turtle may be either one or the other.

This terrapin is called the diamondback because the concentric rings within the plates of its shell resemble diamonds. But, in addition, diamondback is also an appropriate name for these animals as during the period of their extreme popularity, they were almost worth their weight in diamonds.

During the Roaring ’20s, a dozen diamondbacks measuring 7 to 8 inches along the bottom of the shell sold for $90 to $100 on the hoof. It is appropriately reported that Diamond Jim Brady, a noted financier, gourmand, bon vivant, and playboy of that era, was fonder of terrapin than he was of oysters, and I imagine he hosted many dinner parties for the celebrities of the day that dented the terrapin population.

A noted chef of a famous New York hotel was heard to refer to the diamondback as “the scintillating gem in the dietary of the elite,” and further remarked, “these animals are not intended for the vulgar palate.”

Terrapins did not always evoke such flattering remarks. They were very plentiful in early America and formed a routine part of the colonists’ diet at certain times of the year. Martha Washington’s cookbook included a recipe for diamondback terrapin, as did other colonial publications.

These turtles were so plentiful then that plantation owners in the border and Southern states literally stuffed their slaves with the succulent meat. However, they overdid a good thing, and in Tidewater, Md., some of the slaves refused to work in an attempt to gain relief from a diet too rich in terrapin.

The Maryland colonial legislature responded to the rebellious slaves by enacting a law that forbade a slave owner from feeding this “delicacy” to his charges more frequently than once a week.

Sometime between then and the late 19th century, things changed for the better, depending on the point of view (man’s or the turtle’s), and by the late 1890s the diamondback was the most popular item on the menu of the discriminating diner. The turtles were captured by the thousands, and they became scarcer and scarcer, and by 1929 they were fetching the aforementioned price of $90 to $100 a dozen.

No species can withstand such pressure on its numbers, and by the mid-1930s, the diamondback terrapin was on the edge of extinction. Both federal and state authorities launched “Save the Diamondback” programs, strict laws were enacted protecting the species, and populations were gradually rebuilt.

During this period, the public lost its craze for terrapin, and this was primarily due to the high price of the few terrapins that were being brought to market. Also, the country’s severe economic depression served to dull the appetite for terrapin meat. With people standing in bread lines and selling apples on street corners, it seemed almost sinful to the few who could afford terrapin to tease one’s palate with a bit of reptile costing as much as less fortunate people earned in a week.

Not many restaurants offer diamondback terrapin on their menus today, and the few that do are sometimes accused of substituting the meat of a snapping turtle for that of the still rather expensive terrapin. Many turtle epicures, however, will argue that the meat of a snapper is just as tasty as that of a diamondback. Snapping turtles are found in all of the continental states, while diamondbacks are found only in coastal areas from New England to the Gulf Coast.

One eating establishment that still offers terrapin prepared in a variety of ways is Bookbinder’s, the famous seafood restaurant in Philadelphia. The last time I was there, I almost insisted on receiving a sworn affidavit attesting I was to be served genuine diamondback terrapin before I agreed to pay the outrageous price listed on the menu.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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