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Though calling someone a ‘turtle’ is now a favorite insult in D.C.; it used to be how you called people for dinner | COMMENTARY

Sad turtle
(Drew Sheneman / The Star-Ledger, Newark, N.J.)

When Anderson Cooper recently described President Trump as “an obese turtle on his back, flailing in the hot sun, realizing his time is over,” the characterization may not have hit its mark, as he eventually stated his regret. But it did hit right to the heart of Washington in a way many might not realize.

Let me explain.

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If you live on the East Coast, particularly in and around Washington, D.C., then you are likely aware of the diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin), the small, brackish water turtle that has inhabited these lands since long-before the America that we know today ever existed.

Archaeological and historic records indicate that the Indigenous peoples of eastern North America consumed this turtle, as did the Continental Army in the 1700s and enslaved African Americans on tidewater plantations. Eventually, however, historic records also clearly highlight the enormous overexploitation brought upon this species by Euro-Americans, who began consuming these particular turtles voraciously in the 19th century.

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For example, in 1885 the Evening Star reported that over $1.5 million worth of diamondback terrapin were collected, sold and consumed from the Chesapeake Bay annually — approximating 600,000 turtles. Several years later, in 1893, it was reported that while “[e]picures are divided in opinion as to the culinary value of the terrapin from these different localities … the terrapin of the Chesapeake Bay are the most widely known and highly esteemed.”

In Washington, diamondback terrapin were a staple of upper-class meals, especially the political elite. The once famous “Iron-Clad” restaurant owned by the Harvey brothers was known for serving terrapin, and for serving — in a different manner — Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and every president in-between for over 60 years.

A lunch of terrapin, and perhaps Champagne and cigars, was also the known, choice delicacy in which to manipulate members of Congress and other state senators during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Terrapin were served when General Myer, along with Captain Howgate, convinced members of Congress to appropriate funds for the signal service (Howgate was later indicted for embezzlement during this period). It was once reported that a lobbyist received $12,000 from a client, “merely for dinner expenses, with which to buy Champagne and terrapin for Congressmen whose votes he wished to woo.”

Several federal and state senators also actively hunted and farmed diamondback terrapin. U.S. Sen. George Dennis of Maryland and New Jersey State Sen. John Gardner were both known for their terrapin farming pastime. Gardner was once quoted as saying that, “the so-called [terrapin] farms” were “merely place to keep and fatten them for market.”

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In one telling account, U.S. Senator Charles Gibson of Maryland shared his recipe for terrapin, which involved putting, “a hot poker for a moment on the back of the terrapin, making it poke out its head, then seize the head with a two-pronged fork and with a knife cut off the head,” prior to boiling in hot water. As recently as 1938, Washington newspapers wrote of U.S. Senator Joseph Guffey from Pennsylvania, who was among “distinguished” guests at the “first annual terrapin and wild turkey dinner.” And U.S. Sen. James Bayard Jr. from Delaware was “famous” for his terrapin cooking.

Presidents, too, partook in the terrapin gluttony. John Adams, Andrew Jackson and most famously, William Taft, loved eating terrapin. The Evening Star once questioned in 1909, “whether Mr. Taft really prefers opossum as a steady diet to Chesapeake oysters and terrapin.” The list goes on. Clearly, turtles were at one time synonymous with the wealth, power and prestige of Washington.

Today, unfortunately, the diamondback terrapin is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List due to a variety of threats and impacts, including this historic over-exploitation.

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Surely, if Mr. Cooper — and the president himself, who recently described the Food and Drug Administration commissioner as “a big, old, slow turtle” — were aware of the animal’s illustrious past, they would have chosen another symbol to make their points: a lame duck, perhaps.

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Cyler Conrad (cylerc@unm.edu; Twitter: @cylerconrad) is an adjunct assistant professor of archaeology at the Department of Anthropology within the University of New Mexico.

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