A close up of a juvenile northern diamondback terrapin. (Getty Images)
By Keith Randall, Texas A&M University Marketing & Communications
- Two Texas A&M-Galveston professors pored through 150 years of menu data and found that dining trends pushed the northern diamondback terrapin to the brink of extinction.
- The study reveals how prestige-driven consumer demand for seafood dishes affects marine life.
- Now, researchers are trying to create a similar prestige-driven demand for the lionfish, an invasive species that is damaging Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico ecosystems.
Funny thing about restaurant menus. They often are among the best gauges of telling us how tastes have changed – quite literally – and how economic good times come and go.
Seafood menus are especially good hooks, so to speak, of capturing revealing fads through the ages. Lobster, for example, was considered a “trash fish” 150 years ago and almost could not be given away, and it was fed to prison convicts and youngsters in orphanages to save money at mealtime. Compare that to today when a lobster dinner is often one of the most expensive at any seafood restaurant.
What might be the “catch of the day” today was likely not the catch of yesteryear, as shown by Texas A&M University at Galveston professor Glenn A. Jones and doctoral student Raven Walker who have poured through thousands of restaurant menus spanning the last 150 years. They learned that the northern diamondback terrapin, the only North American brackish-water turtle found along the Eastern Seaboard, was once a near shell of itself in terms of sheer survival – it went from not very popular at all, to insanely popular, to hard-to-find and then to virtually non-existent on seafood menus from the 1850s to the 1970s.
Their work has been published in the current issue of Marine and Coastal Fisheries.
The researchers found that the cost of northern diamondback terrapin went up almost 1,000 percent and with its rise in popularity it was – in uncharacteristic turtle terms – racing to near commercial extinction at breakneck speed.
“The same thing has happened to abalone on the West Coast,” Jones explains.
A show of wealth at the dinner table
“It went from a ‘who-cares’ dish to one of the most expensive items on the menu. But the terrapin was unique. Its story covers about 125 years and at its height, Terrapin a la Maryland, a sort of stew dish, was the must-have meal at elite Eastern restaurants, selling for more than three times the price of lobster, or swordfish today when adjusted for inflation.”
The researchers say the popularity of the northern diamondback terrapin is an excellent example of conspicuous consumption, a notion first coined by economist Thorstein Veblen in 1899. In short, the theory says that the more expensive an item is, the more popular it can become and its price can skyrocket quickly.
“It means people like to show off their wealth,” says Jones, “and that’s exactly what happened to this terrapin. Once a few well-to-do people started eating it, more of their friends also did just to show others they could afford it. It was considered stylish to eat it and to let others see you eating it. Pretty soon it became so popular that its numbers declined dramatically and it became scarce in many regions. People literally ate it to near extinction.”
The northern diamondback terrapin was once sold by the dozens at fish markets. By the early 1900s they were sold individually, and ordering Terrapin a la Maryland in a restaurant would set you back about $100 in today’s dollars, Jones says.