The US President Who Enjoyed Turtle Steak

The favorite foods of U.S. presidents certainly run the gamut of tastes. From fruit (John Quincy Adams) and French vanilla ice cream (Thomas Jefferson) to cottage cheese with ketchup (Richard Nixon) and sauerkraut (James Buchanan),  While some dishes, like fried chicken (Theodore Roosevelt) and grilled cheese sandwiches (Franklin D. Roosevelt) are still popular today, others like caramel tomatoes (Herbert Hoover) and squirrel stew or soup (William Henry Harrison and James A. Garfield) seem far more unusual, in part due to changing tastes (and access to ingredients). Another presidential dish which seems downright bizarre, and likely illegal, these days is turtle steak, a favorite of Chester A. Arthur, the 21st U.S. president, who served from 1881 to 1885, and who was known as a gourmand.

Although the thought of eating turtle today just sounds wrong, turtle was a really popular dish once upon a time, and certainly during Arthur's presidency. Most popularly enjoyed as a soup (and the reason mock turtle soup was invented), Arthur preferred to eat his turtle as a steak. Although there's not much information on how he liked his turtle steak cooked (compared to the steak orders of 17 U.S. presidents), we do know that he enjoyed having his turtle steak along with macaroni pie with oysters.

Loved nearly to extinction

Chester A. Arthur was not the only president to have enjoyed eating turtle, which also counted among its culinary admirers John Adams, James Buchanan, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. From the mid 1800s to the 1920s, turtle was so popular in the U.S. that prices skyrocketed and terrapin turtles were severely over-harvested to the point of near extinction. The turtle population was only saved by the passage of Prohibition of all things — sherry, as it happens, was an essential ingredient for turtle soup. In the Caribbean, in the 1700s and 1800s especially, turtle was enjoyed in a different way: Sea turtles were prized for their green flesh and often turned into burgers, steaks, or soups. Elsewhere in the U.S., snapping turtles were — and sometimes, are still — used for turtle soups.

Today, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, all six species of sea turtles found in the waters of the U.S. are protected under the Endangered Species Act, which means you cannot kill, harm, or otherwise take a sea turtle and use it for consumption, including as turtle soup or turtle steak. The diamondback terrapin is recovering, and it's protected in several states where it's a native species. Even other forms of turtles that are not on the Endangered Species Act (such as alligator snapping turtles) are starting to receive protection under state law, which means they can no longer be turned into soup either.