Q. I have your recipe for turtle soup and you make it sound delicious. But I’m having a problem finding turtle meat. Who has it?
A. Not many places. In recent years there’s been a shortage of local turtle meat. Almost all of it now comes from Virginia, North Carolina, Kansas (!), and Iowa(!!). Even in those places, the season is short, and wholesale dealers have to buy as much as they can and freeze it.
What happened to the local turtles? In the 40 years I’ve covered this beat, I’ve seen three species come and go as their populations were harvested to the point of endangerment. In the early 1970s, many species were made illegal for commercial sale. The pressure moved to green sea turtles, which made the threatened list in the 1980s. Then it fell on the alligator snapping turtle (also known on the bayou as “cowan,” pronounced in the French way).
A number of commercial turtle farms appeared to raise these turtles, and it looked promising until they discovered something that should have been obvious: turtles do everything slowly, including reproduce. All the turtle farmers went broke, or shifted to alligator. Wild cowans continued to be caught and sold, but then they too were restricted to recreational catch only. (This is why you sometimes see turtles for sale at roadside stands out in the wetlands. It’s illegal, but enforcement is difficult.)
Speaking of alligator: the idea has been floated now and then to make turtle soup with alligator meat. Indeed, the first restaurant to do this, in 1972, was Antoine’s, where the alligator soup made in the style of turtle soup is still on the menu. It’s not very good, frankly. Alligators are probably more closely related to chickens than they are to turtles, and the turtle flavor isn’t there.
However, some substitutes have been found. For decades, Commander’s Palace has used as much veal shoulder as it does turtle meat in its highly-acclaimed soup. The Bon Ton and Mandina’s, two restaurants rightly famous for their turtle soup, use no turtle meat at all. So you are not the only one with this problem.
I believe that in my lifetime I will see turtle soup become extinct on menus. We’re already to the point where the soup is so rarely encountered that I order it everywhere I find it. (Say! Maybe I’m to blame for the problem!)
A little bit of good news: I had a superb mock-turtle soup not long ago made with rabbit legs, from the hand of Le Foret’s chef Brandon Felder. I think I could have been fooled into thinking it was made with genuine turtle meat. (Write and insert your own tortoise-and-the-hare story here.)
But to get back to your original question, frozen turtle meat is found regularly (if not always) at Dorignac’s, Langenstein’s, and some other local stores. And there’s always that grizzled old guy sitting on the fender of his pickup truck next to the bayou. He has some fresh-caught cowan he’d like to share with you. But not me. Much as I love turtle soup, I think the last turtles ought to be left alone.