Dispatches

My Endangered Dinner

What happens when a cultural appetite clashes with the ecosystem.

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In the Cayman Islands, there’s chicken, and then there’s what the locals refer to as the “other white meat”: endangered sea turtle.

Most vacationers misunderstand and consequently avoid the native dishes on the island that feature turtle, but I wasn’t an ordinary tourist during the trip I took to the Caymans last month. I was returning to a place where I had lived as a young girl, and I longed for the distinct taste of turtle that marked my childhood. When my family lived there, dishes with turtle in them were a regular part of my diet. I ate the meat in stews and soups, as well as in the form of pan-fried steaks. Consuming turtle was the normal thing to do, and I never thought much of it.

If I had been anywhere else, consuming the animal would have been frowned upon and restricted. But I was in the Caymans, the only place in the world where it is legally permitted. When Christopher Columbus found the clustered group of islands, he named them Las Tortugas because of the abundance of sea turtles he saw in the surrounding waters. Turtle inevitably became deeply rooted in the culture, featured in local dishes and even on the back of the 10-cent coin.

Long before sea turtles were classified as endangered, natives learned how to catch, kill, and cook them as a means of survival – both for food as well as a steady source of income. But when the species was overhunted and its populations drastically declined in the early 1900’s, hunting it was banned internationally. This meant no more turtle meat for the Caymans, and meals long ingrained in the islands’ history were threatened with extinction.

In an effort to save the culinary traditions that dated back centuries, the Cayman Turtle Farm opened with intentions to support the local market. It began to breed enough green sea turtles to support the needs of the island, as well as to help conserve the species by annually releasing them into the wild. Today every restaurant in the Caymans that serves turtle gets its supply from the farm.

Sea turtles at the Cayman Turtle Farm

Sea turtles at the Cayman Turtle Farm

So when finally presented with the opportunity to eat endangered sea turtle for the first time in more than a decade, I was surprised to find myself feeling conflicted. Never had I questioned the morality of a meal, and I certainly had never turned down sea turtle before. But for the first time in my life I hesitated to order the most obscure, and definitely controversial dish on the menu.

What had changed since I had last eaten turtle? It wasn’t as if I hadn’t tried stranger foods after we moved off the island. When I traveled to Lisbon, I carefully picked tiny pieces of cartilage from every bite of the stewed stingray I ate. In Sydney, I had no problem eating a juicy kangaroo steak while sitting among friends who had opted for chicken fingers instead.

But something suddenly felt ethically wrong. When I was nine, I hadn’t the slightest idea what the word “endangered” meant. When I returned to the island to taste it again, I brought my adult knowledge and sensibilities along with me, and I struggled to justify eating the endangered animal once again. If I ate a bite of green sea turtle, would it give me bad karma? There was a chance. Could I live with myself if I was now to be personally responsible for the declining numbers of these beautiful and majestic sea creatures? I’m sure I could find a way to manage. Would I regret letting the chance to taste this endangered animal pass me by if I chose to order a more sustainable meal instead? No doubt.

After a battle between my conscience and my desire to experience this cuisine that teetered on the ethical line, I ordered with confidence. “I’m going to have the Cayman-Style braised turtle.” Our waiter paused for a moment before taking my menu. “A great choice,” he said with eyes full of surprise. “But I must ask, are you sure you want to try it? Many tourists get squeamish when I clarify that it is indeed green sea turtle.” “Yes, I’ve tried it before,” I nodded. “And I am in the Caymans, after all.” “Well, you are a very brave woman,” he said to me with a wink. “You won’t be disappointed.”

After he walked away, I tried to get my family as excited as I was to try sea turtle again. But they weren’t looking forward to the arrival of my dish as I had hoped they would.

“Noooooo thank you,” my sister whined. “I’ll be more than fine with my shrimp and linguine.” As a young girl she didn’t enjoy the taste of sea turtle, and her eating habits hadn’t matured as she did.

I glanced across the table and saw a horrified expression stretch across my father’s girlfriend’s face. It was her first visit to the Cayman Islands and she wasn’t aware of the local food culture. She shook her head from left to right until the topic of conversation changed.

By the time I saw our plates of dinner heading our way, I admittedly was feeling less courageous as a wave of guilt hit me. Just thirty minutes earlier, I had been holding a baby green sea turtle above its tank at the turtle farm as it flapped wildly against the back of my hands. While snorkeling that morning, I had seen two gigantic turtles peacefully gliding through the water. Now I was preparing to enjoy the taste of the magnificent animal purely for my own pleasure.

“Enjoy!” the waiter said as he placed my colorful dish in front of me.

There it was – small pieces of the green sea turtle shaped strikingly similarly to their flippers, which sat among tomatoes, local red and green peppers, and onions. The meat had a coloring slightly lighter than beef and a texture that closely resembled over-cooked pork. The highly anticipated moment had arrived, and my family watched anxiously as I took my first bite.

“Well? How is it?” my father asked. “As good as it used to taste?”

I smiled wide and pointed my fork in his direction. “Why don’t you try a piece for yourself?” His girlfriend gave him a forbidding look, and so he didn’t bite. “Come on, it’s no big deal. You know that sea turtle’s just the other white meat of the Caymans.” He refused again and I kept chewing.

To my disappointment, the turtle was chewier than I recalled, and tasted more like a piece of overdone veal than anything else. It wasn’t the same exotic meat I had remembered it being, and I wasn’t exactly delighted to be consuming an endangered animal either.

The greatest part of the dish may not have been its outstanding flavors or the thrill of eating dangerously. But savoring the memories of my childhood with each and every bite of turtle wasn’t agonizing for me at all.

Photos by javajoba via Flickr (Creative Commons) and Paul W. Locke via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Comments

  1. Norman says:

    Growing up in Key West, turtle meat was more common on our table than expensive cuts of beaf. We caught them in our shrimp nets frequently. If they were live we put them back over board but if they were dead we ate them.Shrimp nets today are designed to release turtles as they pass through the nets.As a child i enjoyed turtle steaks smothered in gravy like liver. I have no qualms with some one eating farm raised turtle as it doesn’t deplete the number that is in the wild. If they weren’t being raised on farms, a lot of people would still be poaching them in big numbers. Turtles lay a lot of eggs. Maybe a good thing would be for the farms to release a certain number back into the wild.

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