“The Whale as Dish” is the first of the chapters that is devoted to the idea of the commodification of the whale, as Ishmael begins by pointing out that Stubb is eating his whale steak by the light of a lamp lit by whale oil. He jokes that it’s the size of the whale that makes it less than appetizing:
The fact is, that among his hunters at least, the whale would by all hands be considered a noble dish, were there not so much of him; but when you come to sit down before a meat-pie nearly one hundred feet long, it takes away your appetite. Only the most unprejudiced of men like Stubb, nowadays partake of cooked whales; but the Esquimaux are not so fastidious. We all know how they live upon whales, and have rare old vintages of prime old train oil.
“Train oil” is an obsolete term for oil made from any marine animal and was used to refer not only to sperm oil, but also oil from baleen whales and small toothed whales. The term has nothing to do with locomotives, by the way: it’s a mid-sixteenth-century word that comes from the Middle English trane, the Middle Dutch trane and the Middle Low German tr?n — all meaning “tear” and referring to the fact that the oil was extracted in droplets.
Most whale oil comes from blubber, but sperm oil is extracted from the spermaceti organ of the sperm whale, as shown below:
[Image source: Wikipedia]
As the chapter suggests, whale oil was used both in lamps and as an ingredient in candle wax. Whale oil later had other commercial uses in the manufacture of woolens, margarine, and rust-proof paint for steel. It was heavily used from the mid-1700s to the mid-1800s, but its use would drop precipitously very soon after the publication of Moby-Dick. The increasing cost of securing whale oil, combined with the development of kerosene from coal (starting in 1846) and the discovery of petroleum in New England in the late nineteenth-century led to the development of alternatives to whale oil in most industrial applications. Sperm oil had originally been valued because it was practically odorless when burnt, was a fine grade oil for delicate mechanisms, and also withstand high temperatures make it useful in — yes, trains. It was even a component in automatic transmission fluid for automobiles until it was banned in the US by the Endangered Species Act (1973).
Ishmael’s goal in the chapter is not only to get us to think a little bit about the ways in which whales have been consumed historically, but also to use the occasion to get us to think a little about the savagery that’s necessary to give us the food we eat, even — perhaps, especially — refined delicacies like pâté de foie gras:
Go to the meat-market of a Saturday night and see the crowds of live bipeds staring up at the long rows of dead quadrupeds. Does not that sight take a tooth out of the cannibal’s jaw? Cannibals? who is not a cannibal? I tell you it will be more tolerable for the Fejee that salted down a lean missionary in his cellar against a coming famine; it will be more tolerable for that provident Fejee, I say, in the day of judgment, than for thee, civilized and enlightened gourmand, who nailest geese to the ground and feastest on their bloated livers in thy paté-de-foie-gras.
He’ll have a lot more to tell us about the process of turning the whale’s flesh into a commodity for supposedly civilized consumption in the chapters to come.
Appropriately, “The Whale as Dish” is read by British celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. The illustration is by Michael Hall and is entitled Monochrome Exasperations: Jaw (2010; tonal transfer and beeswax on linen).
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[Cross-posted with Patell and Waterman's History of New York]