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The Whale as Food

I don’t care what you say– Moby Dick is the bomb. Didn’t like it the first time? Read it again.

I wrote this paper for english junior year.

“Moby-Dick on a Stick”: The Whale as Food

(December 16th, 2008)

Chapter 64 of Moby-Dick, Stubb’s Supper, is an example of an unusual case: an American sailor who considers whale a delicacy. When presented with a newly killed sperm whale, he jumps at the opportunity to enjoy a piece of whale steak. While this chapter is sometimes seen as another example of  “Melville’s fanciful access”,[1] Melville does mention that “These fishermen do not, as a general thing… make the enemy defray the current expenses of the war, yet now and then you find some of these Nantucketers who have a genuine relish for that particular part of the Sperm Whale designated by Stubb” (236). In the American fishery, whales were meant for extracting oil and bones—not for eating. Why, then, are there countries such as Japan and Iceland whose whale-based meals can be traced back thousands of years? Why is there a cultural divide? How these different views regarding the whale originated is a difficult question to answer, but in exploring the role of the whale in the kitchen and the manner in which it was cooked, we can also come to conclusions as to why these cultures relate to whales today in the ways that they do.

Perhaps the question to begin with is what does whale meat taste like, anyway? Different sources tell us that it has a “dark, gamey taste, like beef, but richer,”[2] is “both gamey and fishy,” and has the “absence of a fishy taste.”[3] As you can see, the only way to truly know what whale tastes like is to taste it for yourself, a concept that becomes more controversial every day. But when did this controversy start? The (mainly Western) idea of “save the whales” is not the reason why Americans didn’t eat whale originally—in the 1930s, a stranded whale was seen as unsightly and dirty—not until decades later would it be seen as in need of human protection. In fact, environmental organizations weren’t active until 1970s.[4] However, America has always attached a certain stigma to the whale that has prevented it from becoming integrated into its cuisine. Part of this was, of course, rooted in prejudice and the idea that whale meat was for the poor and uncivilized—Melville too says that “only the most unprejudiced of men like Stubb, nowadays partake of cooked whales” (241). This is not to say that whales were never eaten in America—there was occasional experimentation, such as the popular “doughnuts” that consisted of either bread or biscuits dipped in boiling whale oil, as well as “pilot whale,” either in the form of balls of whale meat with a bit of pork added in, or as whale brains fried as pancakes.[5] Sailors often ate whale for the “exotic” experience, taking advantage of the opportunity to try new things while away from home. However, despite all this, whale meat was never seen as anything special, let alone something to seek out solely for eating purposes. It is especially interesting to consider why these “food taboos” exist, or simply why whales never appealed to Americans (and other water-bordering countries such as England), but is considered delicious in others. Some ideas as to why whales were rare eating are: 1) people try not to eat what reminds them of themselves and 2) the whale is difficult to classify. There may be something to this theory, as the Japanese have always considered whales fish, while Americans have always recognized that, being a mammal, they are somewhat of an “in-between species,” which makes them feel uneasy.[6] In 1918, a whale banquet was held at the Museum of Natural History in an attempt to convince Americans to start substituting beef and other meats with the more economical whale. While being served a lunch of whale pot au feu and planked whale steak à la Vancouver , the chef explained that among the many ways whales could be cooked, they could be made into stew, pot roast, or even into “Deep Sea Pie.”[7] This is an ironic choice of dish, as Melville says “When you come to sit down before a meat-pie nearly one hundred feet long, it takes away your appetite” (241). Perhaps the rest of America would agree with him on this point, as the luncheon had little influence on America’s eating habits.

Whale Pie[8]

20 oz whale meat
One bay leaf
1 Stalk celery
6 Peppercorns
1 tbsp Salt
1/2 c Butter
1/2 c Flour
1 c Light cream
1/8 tsp Pepper
1/4 tsp Salt
One 1 pound can pearl onions
1 4-ounce can sliced mushrooms
1 package Frozen peas
2 cans Pimentos
Box pastry mix

Whale meat is a very strong tasting, but marinades may be used to help tenderize and add flavor, such as red wine, oil, juniper berries, port, spices, bay leaf and peppercorns.

Cut the whale meat up and place in a large kettle and cover with water ( or use crock pot). Add bay leaf, celery, peppercorns and 1 tablespoon salt. Bring to boil, cover and cook over low heat for 2 hours or until the meat is tender.

Melt the butter in a saucepan, add flour and stir until blended. Add light cream, pepper and salt. Cook stirring, until thickened.

Arrange whale meat pieces, onions, mushrooms, peas and pimentos in 2 quart casserole. Add sauce to within 1 inch of top.

Prepare the pastry mix. Cut pastry circle 1/2 inch larger than casserole and place over the whale-mixture, turning edge of pastry under and pressing to casserole with fork or spoon.

Bake in preheated 450 degree oven 15 min. or until crust is golden brown.

Serves 4 to 6.

After all this talk about America and its whale aversion, we move on to the different cultures who do eat whale, the most well-known being Norway, the Inuits (Eskimos) of Alaska, Iceland, and Japan. The problem about today’s whale controversy is that the dichotomy of “Whale-eaters vs. Non-whale eaters” is difficult to classify. The two sides cannot always be ranked as polar opposites—i.e. civilized vs. non-civilized, because most of these cultures are on the same level of economic and social prosperity as the United States.[9] The truth must lie in these cultures’ history, which we now investigate. For the Inuits, whale hunting has always been seen as a celebration of finding a bounty for the community. The traditional use of using hand thrown harpoons, some of them hundreds of years old, as well as the way in which the whale (typically Bowhead whales) is divided and cooked, has stayed the same throughout their history. The hunters are respected by the entire community, and interestingly enough, so is the whale itself. Former Mayor of the Alaskan village of Nuiqsut, Leonard Lampe, says, “It’s about respecting nature. It’s reminding people and crews that we live in a unique land and for a creature this size to give itself to the community is a real honor.”[10] This idea offers an alternate perspective: interestingly enough, we see here the same interpretations suggested in Moby-Dick: that whales, while threatening, are also a mighty force to be revered. What differs in the Inuits’ ideology is their taste palette.[11] Because whale meat spoils quickly after the protective blubber is removed and it is exposed to warm(er) air, it must be either preserved or eaten quickly. A few typical Inuit whale dishes are muktuk, raw and frozen whale blubber, mimakiag, a fermented mixture of whale meat, blubber, blood, and tongue, and “tied-in-the-middle,” boiled whale blubber that has been threaded onto cedar bark and dried.[12] However, the most unusual has to be their ice cream, akutaq, which uses either whale, seal, or walrus oil.

Akutaq[13]

What you’ll need:

1 lb. dried (grated or shredded)

reindeer fat

1 c. seal/whale oil

1 pint salmonberries

3 c. blackberries

1 c. sugar

What to do:

Add water to reindeer fat and

seal oil till frothy.

Add berries and sugar.

Enjoy!

However, whereas the tradition of eating whale has been sustained throughout the Inuits’ history, for Iceland and Japan, it is mainly today’s older generation who remember what it tastes like. In Iceland, whale is traditionally eating browned in a pan with onions and potatoes, or in the form of pickled blubber.

Whale steak[14]

3/4 to 1 kilo whale meat (or beef/horse)
50 g butter, tallow or lard
2-3 onions
Salt and pepper
Laurel leaf (optional)
600-700 ml water
Sauce coloring (caramel)
50 g flour
200 ml milk

Clean the meat: some say it’s enough to slice off about a centimeter off each side of the piece, others recommend soaking in milk overnight. This is only to ensure there will be no oily taste to the meat, but if it has been properly handled in the first place, it will not taste oily. Cut into steaks and beat with a meat mallet.
Slice the onions. Heat the cooking fat in a frying pan, brown the meat on all sides and put in a cooking pot, sprinkle with salt and pepper. Brown the onions in a frying pan and add half to the pot with the meat, along with the laurel leaf, if using. Set half the onions aside. Pour water into the frying pan and deglaze. Pour over the meat and cook for 15 to 30 minutes or until the meat is tender. Arrange the steaks on a serving dish and arrange the browned onions that were set aside on top.
Make a paste with the milk and flour and use it to thicken the cooking liquid left in the pot. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve with cooked potatoes and vegetables arranged around the meat and sprinkle parsley or cress over the dish. Serve gravy on the side.

Sour pickled whale blubber – súr hvalrengi[15]
Chunks of whale blubber are washed under cold running water and cooked until firm, then removed from the cooking liquid, cooled and kept in cold water for 1-2 days, cut into smaller pieces and dropped into strong whey. Ready for eating in 4-6 weeks.

Today, Iceland’s top chefs have deviated from traditional—Reykjavik’s restaurant Lobster House is now offering Minke whale sashimi with a wasabi crust and a ginger tea shot on the side, as well as whale ceviche and schnitzel. However, their most popular dish is, ironically, their “Moby Dick on a Stick” whale brochettes.[16] The idea behind these innovations is not simply to expose tourists to whale cuisine, but rather to change whale from nostalgic comfort food for the older generation to something everyone will want to eat. Needless to say, this idea is not especially popular, especially with environmentalists.

In most whaling countries, whale was eaten in impoverished conditions when it was a cheaper alternative to beef and pork. However, Japan is unique for a number of reasons: first of all, it is the only country whose whaling industry exists primarily for the consumption of meat, although they put the rest of the whale to use as well. Japan’s whaling industry can be traced back one thousand years, but was most prominent during the 17th century. However, the industry underwent a hiatus that ended during World War Two, when food was scarce. Ironically, it is said to have been U.S. occupant who encouraged the Japanese to take advantage of this cheap protein source.[17] Japanese whale dishes are also extremely diversely prepared: the meat, blubber, and tongue can all be grilled, fried as bacon, eaten as sashimi, dried and salted, marinated, pickled, or used as flavoring for soup. Like Iceland Japan is also trying to revive the taste for whale by serving whale meatballs, burgers, spaghetti, and Chinese stir-fry in cafeterias, as well as inviting schoolchildren to watch the butchering process, allowing them to “learn that these creatures gave their lives for humans to live, and they (the children) were then sincerely grateful for their food.”[18] Like with the Inuits, we see the same reverence that allows society to both eat whale and appreciate it at the same time, an idea that most countries are unable to grasp.

From Mrs. Ohnishi’s Whale Cuisine: Kara-age (for one) [19]

200g of whale meat, cut into 5mm bite-sized slices
50ml soy sauce
50ml sake (Japanese rice wine)
katakuri (water chestnut) powder
green peppers
lemon to garnish

Mix soy sauce and sake and marinate the meat well in the mixture. Coat the meat with katakuri powder. Dust off any excess powder. Heat frying oil to 180C. Add the meat slices slowly, fry for about 30 seconds. When golden brown, drain and place on a paper towel. Fry green peppers, if desired, cutting incisions into them to prevent them exploding in the oil. Serve with seasonal vegetables and lemon wedges, squeezing lemon juice on freshly fried meat.

Obake (whale) in miso soup
200g obake
200g of gobo (burdock) root shavings
1 liter of broth
100g of miso paste of choice

To prepare obake: Cut into thin slices. Add, one slice at a time, to a deep pan of boiling water. When slices become crinkly, remove immediately. Dip in icy water and wash in running water. Keep immersed and store in refrigerator for 2 to 3 days, changing water regularly. Wash gobo. Make fine cuts into the root toward the centre without cutting off completely, and shave off slices.

For the soup: Cut obake into bite-sized pieces. Bring broth to the boil. Melt the miso paste with a little liquid, and add to broth. Add gobo shavings and boil. Add obake and heat to hot without boiling. Garnish with diced green onions, ground Japanese pepper or shichimi (a spice mixture).

Of course, almost every country bordered by a body of water has had a whaling industry at some point, but very few countries are still whaling today. Much of this has to do with the environmental concerns that have been mounting during the past few decades. When whaling was at its peak, there was no system of regulating how many whales an individual country could take, nor any classification by species of whale. Thus, different countries competed with each other to take as many whales as possible. Because it would be getting “more bang for your buck” to kill one big whale as opposed to six small whales, it is the largest whales, such as the Blue whale, that are close to extinction today.  Of course, it would be better if everybody stopped whaling, but what has inevitably happened is the classification of whaling countries as inhumane and barbaric without bothering to see whale consumption in its cultural context.  In Norway, the Lefoten islands are a small community that rely completely on their fishing and whaling industry for their income. According to one islander, “People… give the whale a soul. They make it a kind of human being… if you humanize whales, you dehumanize any human being that touches the whale god.”[20]

Norwegian Whale Steak with Green Peas[21]

One 2lb joint of whale meat
4 dl red wine
2 dl water
15 juniper berries
2 dessert spoons of black currant cordial, cream, cornflour.

Brown the joint on all sides in a stewpan, add the red wine, water and mashed juniper berries. Simmer under lid for about 30 minutes. Place a weight on the lid. Remove the meat and wrap it in aluminium foil while finishing making the gravy.

Gravy: Add the black currant cordial to the juices in the pan. Add cream to taste and thicken with cornflower. Cut the meat in thin slices and serve with potatoes, green peas, sprouts and mountain cranberries.

Joint of Whale Meat Steeped in Red Wine Marinade[22]

6-8 portions:
1 1/4 kilos of whale meat
3 dl red wine
1 dl vegetable oil
3 ground cloves
1/2 teaspoonful of coarsely ground pepper
2 teaspoonfuls of salt

The Marinade
3/4 liters of juices from the meat, Thickening (milk and flour), 4 dessert spoonfuls of sour cream, Sugar coloring , Salt

It may be a good idea to bind the joint to help it keep in good shape. Place it in a small oven dish and pour the marinade over. Leave the joint there until the next day, turning it at regular intervals. Remove the joint from the dish, dry it well and rub it with salt. Cook the joint until it turns a pleasant brown color all over, turn down the heat and add water to reach 2-3 cm up the side of the joint, approx. 3/4 liter. Let the joint simmer for about 20 minutes, turn it over and leave it for another 20 minutes. Measure enough of the juices to make enough marinade, about 3/4 liter. Add the thickening to the marinade, and then the sour cream to taste. Serve with boiled beans or other vegetables, and potatoes – boiled or fried in the pan.

Stepping back, we have to ask, when did whales become “special?” Why is it so immoral to eat whale when we slaughter millions of cows, pigs, and chickens every day? Of course, whales are not farmed, so numbers are limited, but that doesn’t explain why each individual creature is humanized and pardoned in such a way that other animals are not. Moby Dick is a perfect example of a specific whale given a soul: was Melville exhibiting the general American mentality at the time? Either way, the whale controversy is one that is especially difficult to resolve: it is impossible to deny the environmental consequences, but it is a sore subject, one that has roots in both historical and cultural differences. It can be said, pardon the pun, that depending on which stance you take, this whole issue is a “matter of taste.”

Works Cited

Abraham, Chris. “Cook the Whale Eat the Whale.” Chris Abraham. 06 Apr. 2008. 16 Dec. 2008 <http://chrisabraham.com/2008/04/06/cook-the-whale-eat-the-whale/&gt;.

Brown, Anthony. “Stop Blubbering.” The Guardian. 09 Sept. 2001. 16 Dec. 2008 <http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2001/sep/09/foodanddrink.features4&gt;.

Buncombe, Andrew. “The whaling debate: Arctic lament.” Ezilon. 13 Oct. 2005. 15 Dec. 2008 <http://www.ezilon.com/information/article_11436.shtml&gt;.

D’Oro, Rachel. “Alaskan Thanksgiving Feast: Whale Meat.” CBS News. 18 Nov. 2006. 15 Dec. 2008 <http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2006/11/18/ap/national/maind8lf4rf02.shtml&gt;.

Duncan, Carl. “DESTINATION: Western Canada Lonely road north.” SFGate. 02 Mar. 2003. 15 Dec. 2008 <http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2003/03/02/tr242983.dtl&gt;.

Hoogendorn-Alowa, Lee Ann. “The story of Eskimo ice cream.” Nortonsoundhealth.org. 16 Dec. 2008 <http://www.nortonsoundhealth.org/kaniqsirugut/k49/page20.pdf&gt;.

“How to cook a whale.” Icelandic cooking, recipes and food culture. 05 Aug. 2006. Blogspot.com. 16 Dec. 2008 <http://icecook.blogspot.com/2006/08/how-to-cook-whale.html&gt;.

“LIVING OFF THE SEA, Minke Whaling in the North East Atlantic.” High North Alliance. 16 Dec. 2008 <http://www.highnorth.no/library/culture/recipes/no-wh-me.htm&gt;.

McNeill, David. “Japan and the Whaling Ban.” Zmag. 14 Feb. 2007. 15 Dec. 2008 <http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewarticle/2041&gt;.

Michaels, Daniel. “Supersize Me: Whale Meat Resurfaces on Iceland Menus.” The Wall Street Journal. 2002 Sept. 08. 15 Dec. 2008 <http://online.wsj.com/article/sb122031777512289251.html?mod=googlenews_wsj&gt;.

“No matter how you slice it, whale tastes unique.” Planet Ark. 23 May 2002. Thomson Reuters. 15 Dec. 2008 <http://www.planetark.org/dailynewsstory.cfm/newsid/16090/story.htm&gt;.

Shoemaker, Nancy. “Whale Meat in American History.” History Cooperative 10 (2005). History Cooperative. Apr. 2005. 15 Dec. 2008 <http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/eh/10.2/shoemaker.html&gt;.

Toolis, Kevin. “Eat it or Save it?” The Guardian. 27 Oct. 2001. 16 Dec. 2008 <http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2001/oct/27/highereducation.features&gt;.

Watanabe, Haruko. “Whale Meat Again in Wadaura.” The Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan. 2007 Aug. E007. 15 Dec. 2008 <http://www.e-fccj.com/node/2568&gt;.

“WHALE MEAT LUNCH TO BOOST NEW FOOD.” The New York Times. 19 Feb. 1918. 16 Dec. 2008 <http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9a0ce0d7143aef33a2575ac0a9649c946996d6cf&gt;.

“A Whale of a Dinner.” The Old Foodie. 10 Nov. 2006. Blogspot.com. 15 Dec. 2008 <http://theoldfoodie.blogspot.com/2006/11/whale-of-dinner.html&gt;.


[1] Shoemaker, “Whale Meat in American History.” <http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/eh/10.2/shoemaker.html&gt;.

[2] “No matter how you slice it, whale tastes unique.” Planet Ark. <http://www.planetark.org/dailynewsstory.cfm/newsid/16090/story.htm&gt;.

[3] Buncombe, Andrew. “The whaling debate: Arctic lament.” Ezilon. <http://www.ezilon.com/information/article_11436.shtml&gt;.

[4] Shoemaker, “Whale Meat in American History.”

[5] Shoemaker

[6] Shoemaker

[7] “WHALE MEAT LUNCH TO BOOST NEW FOOD.” The New York Times. 19 Feb. 1918. <http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9a0ce0d7143aef33a2575ac0a9649c946996d6cf&gt;.

[8] Abraham, Chris. “Cook the Whale Eat the Whale.” Chris Abraham. <http://chrisabraham.com/2008/04/06/cook-the-whale-eat-the-whale/&gt;.

[9] Shoemaker

[10] D’Oro, Rachel. “Alaskan Thanksgiving Feast: Whale Meat.” <http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2006/11/18/ap/national/maind8lf4rf02.shtml&gt;.

[11] Whale blubber, as it turns out, is rich in Vitamin C and therefore a staple in the Inuits’ diet. Maybe if most sailors had known this, they wouldn’t have suffered from scurvy.

[12] Duncan, Carl. “DESTINATION: Western Canada Lonely road north.” <http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2003/03/02/tr242983.dtl&gt;.

[13] Hoogendorn-Alowa, Lee Ann. “The story of Eskimo ice cream.” Nortonsoundhealth.org. 16 Dec. 2008 <http://www.nortonsoundhealth.org/kaniqsirugut/k49/page20.pdf&gt;.

[14] “How to cook a whale.” Icelandic cooking, recipes and food culture. <http://icecook.blogspot.com/2006/08/how-to-cook-whale.html&gt;.

[15] “How to cook a whale.” Icelandic cooking, recipes and food culture.

[16] Michaels, Daniel. “Supersize Me: Whale Meat Resurfaces on Iceland Menus.” The Wall Street Journal. <http://online.wsj.com/article/sb122031777512289251.html?mod=googlenews_wsj&gt;.

[17] McNeill, David. “Japan and the Whaling Ban.” Zmag. <http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewarticle/2041&gt;.

[18] Watanabe, Haruko. “Whale Meat Again in Wadaura.” The Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan. <http://www.e-fccj.com/node/2568&gt;.

[19] Brown, Anthony. “Stop Blubbering.” The Guardian. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2001/sep/09/foodanddrink.features4&gt;.

[20] Toolis, Kevin. “Eat it or Save it?” The Guardian. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2001/oct/27/highereducation.features&gt;.

[21] “LIVING OFF THE SEA, Minke Whaling in the North East Atlantic.” High North Alliance. <http://www.highnorth.no/library/culture/recipes/no-wh-me.htm&gt;.

[22] “LIVING OFF THE SEA, Minke Whaling in the North East Atlantic.”

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. tangentbot permalink
    January 21, 2011 3:09 am

    I love this essay… very nice. Whale is delicious, by the way. I’ve eaten it while in Japan on vacation.

    • January 21, 2011 2:05 pm

      thanks so much! wow– don’t know whether it’s too un-PC to say that i’m jealous.
      how did it taste? more like red meat or fish?

      • tangentbot permalink
        January 21, 2011 3:38 pm

        Well, I had it prepared a bunch of different ways in a restaurant in Shibuya that specializes in whale. It tastes like red meat with a fishy undertone, but that gets less pronounced the more you cook it. I’ve had it raw, as steak, in a hotpot, as jerky and I’ve even had whale tongue (which is chewy and strange, but not bad).

  2. January 21, 2011 8:04 pm

    Which was your favorite? I’m sure sashimi would be interesting and rich, almost like beef carpaccio or something. I’d be most intrigued to have it as steak though (environmental concerns aside). Or maybe a super rare burger?
    Wonder how much that would cost…

    • tangentbot permalink
      January 21, 2011 8:46 pm

      I like the whale partially cooked, just seared on the edges… it had the most flavor and the best texture. It is very flavorful on its own, but a bit of shoyu and cracked black pepper does miracles.

      I read an essay awhile back on the “environmental concern” over eating whale which was really well written piece, but I cannot find the link. It argued that, unlike most livestock, whales are all free-range, they live a happy carefree life up until death – they aren’t crammed in tiny pens or taken from their mothers or shot full of antibiotics, and the meat feeds hundreds of people. They require neither valuable land resources nor special diets, and can live virtually everywhere.

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