Here in Acadiana our elders also enjoyed turtle meat and, like other seafood, there were many ways of cooking it. Although most restaurants feature the famous turtle soup, I do not recall ever eating the dish at home. I do remember eating turtle sauce piquant, etouffee, and stew. Turtle truly is a south Louisiana camp food. It was always something that the men in the family would cook at a camp supper.
Various species of turtles have different degrees of toughness and taste. The most common turtles that have been used locally for cooking are the yellow belly or red-earned turtle, which is small and the meat is tender. The yellow belly turtle is very plentiful in the swamps, lakes, and canals of Acadiana and are not to be confused with endangered species of turtles. The alligator snapping turtle yields the most meat because of its great size. Alligator snappers, often called loggerhead in South Louisiana, have been found that weighed over 100 pounds. But the meat is sometimes tough and muscular. The common snapping turtle is sometimes preferred because of its more delicate taste.
Turtles had to be caught before the cook could prepare the dish. The most common practice was to trap the turtle in lakes, bayous, and canals, but our grandparents used other methods as well. I remember my father getting up early in the morning, especially when there was dew on the ground so turtle trails could be followed. When there was no dew, my father used his rat terrier dog which he had trained to locate turtles by smell.
My grandfather told me how turtles would hibernate in winter and he would use a sharp stick to poke in the mud until he could hear a tap on the shell of the turtle then try to identify the shape of the shell by continually tapping. Once the shape was identified, he could stick his hand in the mud to pick up the turtle on its side so as not get bitten. When one turtle was located, the surrounding area usually had others because they often hibernate in the same area.
The larger sea turtles are getting rare and the federal government has placed many restrictions on the raising, selling, capturing, and killing of some species of turtles. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has suspended all commercial harvest of alligator snapper due to concerns about over harvesting. The once very popular soft-shell species of turtle greatly favored years ago is now seldom found in this area. Some types of turtles are endangered and should be protected. Like our elders, we can enjoy great turtle meals providing that we use only varieties that are plentiful.
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