The Real Reason No One Eats Turtle Soup Anymore

American food often unfairly gets pigeonholed as consisting of hamburgers, pizza, hot dogs, and the like. That overlooks the country's large variety of offerings of which turtle soup must take a starring role. In a short overview of the fortunes of mock turtle soup, Atlas Obscura details how early American figures like George Washington, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton dined on turtle soup as a delicacy, a status the dish would retain over a century later when it was one of President Taft's favorite meals.

However, one may notice that such a celebrated dish is now relegated to the status of a culinary oddity. History puts this down to the difficulty with which one prepares a turtle for consumption. Turtle soup declined in popularity in the twentieth century with the rise of more affordable foods that were easier to prepare, like TV dinners and Spam.

In a long and winding piece for Saveur, Jack Hitt found that after lopping a turtle's head off, you then had to cut through the shell and separate the meats you want from the fats you should leave alone. The theories he proposes, though, are a mixture of the turtle being depicted as a charming cartoon character, increased prevalence of indoor plumbing which caused turtles to retreat back to the wild, and a brief mention of the turtle's degraded habitat. When putting all that together with the comparative inconvenience of making turtle soup, Hitt laments but understands the disappearance of the national dish. 

Did Hitt miss the mark?

A few months after the Hitt piece was published, David Steen wrote a strong article in Slate that spelled out how wrong Hitt's conclusion was: "That's like writing an entire article about cheeseburgers and never mentioning beef ... or cows." You follow Hitt as he experiences a turtle hunt, but you never learn the somewhat obvious fact that because we have eaten so many turtles, there are not enough to make turtle soup on a sustainable scale. Many turtles belong to endangered species under governmental protection, partly because humans used them as soup.

The biggest hurdle for those who would want a sustainable diet of turtles is their survival strategy depends on ensuring just enough turtles survive. Most baby turtles die due to predators – picture the scenes where sea turtles make a mad dash to the water while seagulls pick them off and you can start to imagine why most do not survive to maturity. However, turtles live a long time, which means they can usually lay just enough eggs to replace each generation. In the 1960s and '70s, alligator snapping turtles were nearly hunted to extinction to make soup. The number of new baby turtles birthed could never keep up with the demand for adult turtle flesh.

That said, as the opening bit with Atlas Obscura suggests, if you still want a very popular imitation, try mock turtle soup.