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)

Monday, 29 October 2012

Turtle Mania

In my last post, I traced the culinary transformation of the sea turtle: from sailor’s scurvy-fighting aid into high society’s chicest luxury food.  But this does not explain why the British obsession with turtle spread over the 1750s and 1760s.  “A Turtle-feast is equally relished at both Ends of the Town,” a satirist observed in 1756; the mere invitation was understood as a gateway to power and prestige.  Rumors abounded of clandestine turtle-orgies, where overzealous eaters would gorge themselves to the death.  Why did the sea turtle become the 18th century’s greatest culinary sensation?
A local politician does
the post-turtle-feast "walk of shame" c 1770
Let’s count the ways. 

The turtle eaters' capture
of this Spanish Galleon
 was a national triumph
First, Britons regarded turtle as a quasi-patriotic treat, as it testified to the limitless possibilities offered by the expanding Empire.[i]  No longer need connoisseurs rely on cullises, puptons and frivolous little “kickshaws” prepared by overpaid French cooks.  In the Englishman’s eyes, dainty, over-seasoned fare of this sort could barely sustain a weak-chested woman.  Turtle, by contrast, was a hearty and masculine repast that got the job done.  One thirty-pound turtle, so the cookbooks claimed, could create five to six different dishes and feed a large family.  Others were rumored to feed 100 men.[ii]  It was the epitome of head-to-tail cooking.

Well … easier said than done.  When it came to cooking a turtle, England had no pre-established culinary traditions.  Contemporary recipes –– which are about 3x lengthier than those regarding other large haunches of meat –– make clear that turtle-cookery was no easy feat.  And even then, as the gentlemen of White’s Chocolate House discovered, the oven just might not be big enough. 

But therein laid the appeal; turtle-eating catered to a love of novelty, fashion and exoticism so intrinsic to 18th century consumer behavior.[iii]  It also engendered a new language of culinary expertise; one must distinguish the “calipash” –– the large upper shell that took longer to cook –– from the “calipee,” or the bottom shell. And every true connoisseur knew that the turtle’s green fat –– described as having the “consistence of butter” –– was the tastiest part.[iv]  By the 19th century, cookery writers had established rigid aesthetic guidelines for serving turtle.[v]  Small wonder that one so rarely reads about turtle dinners: only of turtle feasts.  

By 1770, turtle was a permanent fixture in the British cookery book.  But as I rifled through a sampling of contemporary cookbooks, I found that the recipes listed were nearly identical, copied word for word.  Was it possible that the cookbook authors simply plagiarized each other’s recipes … without ever tinkering around with the dish themselves?  I suspected there was a good chance that many cookery authors never even tasted turtle; its astronomical price tag –– commanding as much as 4 shillings and 6 pence a pound –– suggests that the English cultural imagination profited from turtle meat more than the English stomach.  It was not uncommon to see auction notices and “wanted ads” appear in London newspapers, showing that demand consistently outstripped supply.

From Classified Section, The Public Advertiser, September 7, 1758

October 12, 1750: An eating club is forced to dine on
hashed calves heads, tongues and udders.
The turtle didn't survive the transatlantic journey
Historians often describe the mid 18th century as a period of state building, a time when more and more people began to collectively think of themselves as Britons.[vi]  But turtle eating threw a wrench to any pretensions of a so-called ‘common taste.’  The unlikely reptile even threatened to usurp the roast beef of old England at the feasting table, substituting Creole luxury for English hospitality.  This raised more than a few eyebrows, for in spite of its delectable flavor, no one had studied the long-term effects of unregulated turtle-feasting upon a nation. 

[i] See my last post –– “How Turtle Became Haute Cuisine” –– for a more complete discussion of George Anson’s role in connecting turtle to patriotism.
[ii] Newspaper accounts often boast about the number of people sated by a single animal.  See, for example, the London Evening Post, Oct 5-Oct 8, 1754 (London, England) Issue 4198. 
[iii] Many excellent books have been published on the consumer revolution in 18th century Britain.  My favorites are Maxine Berg’s Luxury and Pleasure in 18th Century Britain, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005) and Plumb, Brewer and McKendrick, Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of 18th Century England (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982).  But little has been published about the meaning of changing food fashions, especially turtles.  For a great piece on how Englishmen understood food trends in a cosmopolitan context, see Troy Bickham’s “Eating the Empire: Intersections of Food, Cookery and Imperialism in 18th Century Britain” in Past and Present (2008) vol. 198, no. 1, pp. 71-109. 
[iv] ibid. London Evening Post, issue 4198.  Hannah Glasse describes the coveted green fat by a new term –– the “monsieur” –– although I haven’t run across this term in other contexts.  Elizabeth Clifton Cookery Book, (1775) – the recipe for how to dress a turtle is a page and a half long.  3 hours for callepash to cook for 30 pound turtle, 2 hours for calipee.
[v] Britons enjoyed symmetry, and cookbooks generally instruct the server to set one turtle shell at each end of the table, and arranging the other dishes in between.  See, for example, John Farley, The London Art of Cookery, and Housekeepers Complete Assistant (London, 1800) and Elizabeth Clifton, The Cook Maid’s Assistant, or art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (London, 1775).
[vi] Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1992).