Robinson Crusoe Quote

"He preferred, however, "gourmandization," was an idolater of a certain decent, commodious fish, called a turtle, and worshipped the culinary image wherever he nozed it put up."
---The Contradiction (1796)

Friday, 19 October 2012

How Turtle Became Haute Cuisine

From calipash to calipee, turtle was unarguably the most expensive, status-laden, and morally contested feat of English gastronomy between 1750-1850.  But surprisingly, historians know very little about how it came to be so popular.  We know that at least a handful of intrepid Englishmen had tasted sea turtle by the 17th century, but this delicacy had yet to grace fashionable London tables.  Aside from the arduous overseas journey, the stuff was apparently an acquired taste.  Many of those who did get the chance to taste it were rather ambivalent about its flavor.  One Restoration-era virtuoso reporting on his trip to the Caribbean observed, diplomatically, that it was “not offensive to the stomach.”[i]  Eating it also turned his urine “yellowish-green, and oily.”

Over the first half of the 18th century, turtle-consumption was mostly limited to sailors and overseas adventurers.  A sea turtle containing “three score” eggs was a welcome surprise for Robinson Crusoe after having spent nearly nine months subsisting on island goats and fowls.[ii]  This small detail, keeping in line with accounts of “turtle-catching” happening in the West Indies, doubtless made the novel seem more life-like to English readers.  Indeed, the flavor of that slimy green fat defied traditional hierarchies.  King George II enjoyed red deer, ortolans and lampreys at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet in 1727, but sea turtles were conspicuously absent.[iii]   

George Anson: 
How then was turtle transformed into the quintessential symbol of enlightened foodie-ism?  Perhaps no one did more to popularize turtle among London’s high society than did Baron George Anson (1697-1762).  A naval man all his life, Anson was dispatched in 1740 to attack Spanish possessions in the Caribbean during the War of Jenkins Ear.  His successes were mixed.  While he succeeded in capturing a Spanish galleon full of silver, making himself a celebrity and a very rich man, his crew didn’t fare nearly as well.  Only 188 out of 1900 men returned to England with him after his circumnavigation of the globe, the majority having succumbed to starvation or scurvy.  Anson was promptly made an MP, and was elevated to the peerage in 1747.[iv]

It didn’t take long for the secret of Anson’s success to get out.  In a first-hand account of his voyage, his official chaplain, Richard Walter, described the sea turtle as a nutritional miracle.  Exhausted and scurvy-ridden while stationed in Quibo (modern day Coiba off the coast of Panama) green sea turtles “in the greatest plenty and perfection” nourished the ailing crew back to health.  This time around, the reviews were more enthusiastic.  Walter called it “a pleasant and salubrious meat.”  In a separate account, one of Anson’s midshipmen attested “the green turtle are the sweetest, and the best meat, their fat is yellow, and their Flesh white, and exceedingly sweet.”[v] 

For the curious, self-reliant and freedom-loving British sailors, it was love at first bite.  But the Spanish prisoners (being naturally “superstitious” and “prejudiced,” Walter observed) were more reluctant, perceiving turtle to be “unwholesome, and little less than poisonous.”[vi]  But after keenly observing that none of English died from this modification to their diet, the Spanish became eager to take the plunge. 

“…they at last got so far the better of their aversion, as to be persuaded to taste it, to which the absence of all other kinds of fresh provisions might not a little contribute.  However it was with great reluctance, and very sparingly, that they first began to eat of it, but the relish improving upon them by degrees, they at last grew extremely fond of it, and preferred it to every other kind of food, and often felicitated each other on the happy experience they had acquired, and the luxurious and plentiful repasts it would always be in their power to procure, when they should again return back to their country.”[vii]

As far as I know, this was the first modern turtle feast, enjoyed among a motley crew of sailors on the sun-drenched beaches of Coiba.  Yet its convivial informality also carried symbolic weight.  Connoisseurship of turtle had unmasked the superstitious follies perpetuated by the declining Spanish Empire to its innocent subjects.  After licking their lips with turtle grease, the Spanish considered the meal “more delicious to the palate than any their haughty lords and masters could indulge in,” which Walter deemed “doubtless … the most fortunate [circumstance] that could befall them.”  The pleasure and nourishment derived from the turtle feast had symbolically liberated them from the tyranny of the Spanish crown.  "Britishness" may be an acquired taste, Walter seems to imply, but any man would be a fool not to desert a despotic political system such as Spain's in favor of a physically and spiritually nourishing one based on self-reliance and cheerful camaraderie.

Some editions of Voyage Around the World included maps
illustrations of Anson's Voyage.  This one shows the location
of Quibo (modern Coiba): location of the turtle feast.
Even so, turtle still remained a “novelty” food back in England, evidenced by the fact that three turtle body-parts were on permanent display in the collection of curiosities at Don Saltero’s Coffee House.[viii]  Nevertheless, print culture continued to nourish reptilian desires in the public’s imagination.  Throughout the 1750s, newspapers reported a number of enormous turtles brought into England, some of which reputedly clocked in at 500 pounds and measured eight feet from fin to fin.[ix]  A few months later, the London Evening Post reported that some French fishermen off of the Ile de Ré had apparently caught a turtle weighing nearly 800 pounds.[x]  The head alone apparently weighed 25 pounds, a single fin weighed 12; “the whole community made four plentiful dinners of the liver alone.” Newspapers also educated the uninitiated about the turtle’s peculiar taste.  The meat tasted recognizable, like a “three-year-old steer,” but one could not escape its peculiar musk-like smell while eating it.  The most praise was reserved for its fat, which had the consistency of butter when cooled, and “relish’d very well.”

The party starts to get weird after dinner at White's Club
(This plate of Hogarth's The Rakes Progress was supposedly
based on the actual club room)
In July of 1754, the Whitehall Evening Post or London Intelligencer reported that Lord Anson (now First Lord of the Admiralty) had gifted a three hundred pound turtle to the gentlemen of White’s Chocolate House, one of the most notorious and exclusive gambling clubs in London.  The turtle even laid five eggs, a feat “looked on to be very extraordinary after so long a passage.”[xi]  White’s had already established a reputation for enjoying luxurious meals by the 1750s; only one month before newspapers reported Anson’s gift, the satirist George Colman observed “these gentlemen … are no less adept in the science of Eating than Gaming.”  But even to high society’s crème de la crème, turtle was a one-of-a-kind treat, evidenced by the fact that when it came time to eat the turtle, the gentlemen realized that they had to find a bigger oven. 

Apparently this didn't deter other prominent clubs, who soon conquered these pesky technological limitations.  Two months later, Anson presented another turtle to the Thursday's Club call'd the Royal Philosophers, the Royal Society’s semi-official dining club.  The event was so highly anticipated that news of the dinner was sent out by penny post, and Anson's health was drank in claret and thanks ordered to him for his "magnificent present."[xii]  

Why did these two turtle dinners garner so much attention and excitement?  Anson's ability to connect turtle-eating to Britain's growing imperial muscle certainly had something to do with it.  By 1754, when the Thursday’s Club members enjoyed the delicate green fat back in London, they not only were experiencing vicariously Anson’s overseas adventures, but they were also commemorating the edible tool that capacitated his victory over the Spanish.  By selectively introducing turtle to elite dining clubs, Anson reworked turtle consumption from the diet of swashbuckling adventurers to a genteel, manly and quasi-patriotic practice. 



[i] “Observations made by a curious and learned person, sailing from England, to the Caribe-Islands, communicated by the author to R. Moray” in Philosophical Transactions, Vol. 2 (1666-1667) pp. 493-500.
[ii] Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (London, 1726) p. 43.  Crusoe found the turtle flesh “the most savoury or pleasant that ever I tasted in my life.”
[iii] All archival material pertaining to the Lord Mayor’s Banquet and the Corporation of London can be found at the London Metropolitan Archives, Clerkenwell.   
[iv] N.A.M Roger, “George Anson” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford University Press, 2004). 
[v] John Philips, Midshipman, An Authentic Journal of the late expedition under Commodore Anson” (London, 1744). 
[vi] Richard Walter, A Voyage Around the World, in the years MDCCXL, Vol. 2, (London, 1748) p. 39.
[vii] Walter, ibid.
[viii] See “The Rarities display’d at Don Saltero’s coffee house” (London, 1750?).  Two (ostensibly stuffed) turtles emerging out of shells and one (decapitated) turtle head are included in the catalogue.  For more on Don Saltero’s as a permanent exhibition of curiosities, see chapter five in Brian Cowan’s The Social Life of Coffee: the Emergence of the British Coffee House (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).
[ix] See, for example the London Magazine, or Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer (London, 1760).
[x] London Evening Post (London, England) October 5 1754, Issue 4198.  But this “news” was reported in several other papers too.
[xi] The Whitehall Intelligencer, (London, England) July 13-July16, 1754, Issue 1274.
[xii] A note in the Thursday’s Club dinner books dated September 2, 1754 stated the penny post letters to the members on account of Anson’s turtle cost the club 2 shillings.  Thursday’s Club Dinner Books, RSC Papers, Royal Society Archives.  

Additional note: Just ran across another blog with a lively discussion of Anson's voyage around the world as an important antecedent to Darwin's voyages.   Here's the link to check it out.