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Best of 2013: Sunday Favorites: Manatee Burgers and Sea Turtle Soup


A harpooned manatee is pulled ashore by a group of Seminole natives in 1886.

Photo: Florida Memory Project

MANATEE -- What we consider Florida cuisine these days isn't that far removed from the days of the pioneers, before the state was overrun with northerners and non-natives who decided to snatch up all the land. We rely on the sea, like they did a generation ago, and we eat the citrus and other subtropical fruits and veggies that grow abundantly in our state.

But, we don't dine on sea turtles or their eggs, we don’t cook up some snowy egrets and we don’t fry up huge chunks of manatee at our favorite local watering holes. Those things would land you in jail today, but years ago, they were a vital and important part of the diet. Its funny how times, and opinions about food, change throughout the years.

Today, the West Indian Manatee that inhabits the Gulf, is protected under federal law by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, but generations ago it was a source of food, supplies and sustenance and the manatee had far more to worry about back in the day than a no wake zone. 


Fishermen in Key West bring in a large catch of sea turtles to be slaughtered for turtle soup.

Photo: Florida Memory Project

The Tocobaga natives that inhabited the central west coast of Florida hunted West Indian Manatees from dugout canoes in the winter months, according to Janet Snyder Matthews in her book “The Edge of the Wilderness: A Settlement History of the Manatee River and Sarasota Bay.” 

Snyder describes how the natives would rope the sea cows then jump on the massive creature, driving a stake into both of its nostrils. They then tied the 500-pound creature to their canoes and pulled it into shallow waters where the other natives helped slaughter the peaceful beast. Every part of the animal was used. The meat that was too tough to eat was ground into powder, which would last for months, and used in gravies and soups. Later, Seminoles and pioneers used harpoons to hunt the creatures.

While the West Indian Manatee's first cousin the Steller's sea cow was hunted to extinction in 1768 by the sailors following the Bering's route past the islands to Alaska, the former miraculously made it to the 21st century despite an entire race of humans trying to kill it.

Possibly even more ruthless than chopping a manatee into a hundred pieces, 19th-century American cookbooks advised homemakers about the best methods for killing, cooking and consuming sea turtles. Cook books from the era state that for the best soup one should choose a turtle about 120 pounds in weight, as a smaller one would not have enough fat, and a bigger one would have too strong a flavor. 


These men caught this 350 pound turtle in 1885 in Key West.

Photo: Florida Memory Project

It started with the natives, who would turn a mother sea turtle showing up on the beach on moonlit nights to lay eggs, on her back while they gathered her eggs, then came back and slaughtered her too. 

Turtle soup happened to be President William Taft’s favorite food. He supposedly hired a private chef to prepare it for him at the white house. Could you imagine President Obama hiring a chef specifically for their skills at cooking endangered species?

But, turtle eggs were also popular, a succulent delicacy that was considered no more rare than eating plain ol' chicken eggs today. According to “the Rise and Fall of Turtle Soup”, an article on History.com by Stephanie Butler, turtle eggs appeared on Plymouth Colony dinner tables, figuring prominently in diets throughout American history. 

In Florida, is was not uncommon for pioneers to spend a day searching for sea turtle nests along the beach where they would dig up several dozen eggs they were sold at community general stores, just like eggs are now. 

In “Caladesi Cookbook: Recipes from a Florida Lifetime”, compiled by Terry Fortner and Suzanne Thorp, the authors describe how their grandmother said turtle eggs made the moistest cake and cornbread because the white didn’t dry with the heat. The practice was also done with gopher tortoise eggs, according to the book.

Today, of course, sea turtles and gopher tortoises are protected under federal law and even looking at a nesting site is enough for federal and state wildlife officers to swoop down on your head and slap you with a pretty hefty charge. 


Turtle eggs were eaten just like chicken eggs are today.

Photo: Florida Memory Project

But sea turtles, with their leathery skin and armor shells, is nothing compared to eating Sea Sqaub, a name given to a baby pelican, which pioneers used to take from the nest and cook like chicken, according to Fortner and Thorp. They said the birds didn’t put up much of a fight and were therefore easily harvested, but I can’t imagine that grabbing a baby bird and strangling it was all that difficult to begin with.

So, the next time you order that grouper sandwich or a heaping helping of conch chowder, just imagine a generation from now when doing so is considered taboo, or just down right illegal. The efforts of the pioneers to survive are something we could never understand today, so we should be careful when, or if, we judge their habits. 


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