Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A “Conservation Luncheon” in 1918 featured whale meat


If you follow the restaurant scene and food events in your area, you will frequently see menus or special dinners concentrating on sustainable seafood, like local salmon, sardines, "trash fish", or the new harvest of dungeness crab.  Or, if you read recent Clover-Stornetta milk cartons, you'll see that the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Cooking for Solutions event is happening this weekend, and one of the main themes will be how our dining choices can help or harm ocean life.

You won't see a menu like the one that appeared in February 1918, during World War One.  If you were part of the right crowd in New York City that year, you might have gotten an invitation to a "conservation luncheon" at the American Museum of Natural History, with cooking by the head chef of the legendary Delmonico’s Restaurant.  The featured ingredient:  whale meat.  Yes, whale meat, a food that is a “‘delicious a morsel’ as the most aesthetic or sophisticated palate could possibly yearn for,” according to Federal Food Administrator Arthur William, as reported in an article in the February 9, 1918 New York Times. (The full text of the article is included after the break.)

The luncheon menu featured whale meat prepared using several different methods, as well as the dishes of the day:
Hors d'Oeuvre -- Whale.
Whale pot au feu.
Celery. Olives. Radishes.
Corn pone. Nut butter. Delmonico war bread.
Boiled skate. Mustard sauce.
Parsley potatoes.
Planked whale steak, a la Vancouver.
Border of sanip. Onion sauce.
Vegetable salad.
Ice cream. Bisque of black bread,
a la Delmonico.
Ginger bread with raw sugar.  Coffee.

The guests were impressed, saying that it tasted like venison or beef pot roast.

(I’m a little intrigued by the bisque of black bread, a la Delmonico, which might be a sweet item since it is listed next to ice cream, possibly some kind of bread pudding?  Perhaps there is a Delmonico’s cookbook with the recipe somewhere...)

The 1918 Context for “Conservation”
It’s important to note that the word “conservation” doesn’t have the same meaning as it would today – the organizers weren’t so interested in conserving the wild population of whales, but rather in reducing the quantity of food needed in wartime America so that exports to Europe could be maximized.  To illustrate this point, the same page contained four short articles about the food saving:
  1. A member of the U.S. Food Administration “asks the rich to set an example in saving” because food production had dropped by 45-50% in England and by 60% in France.
  2. Senator Smoot (R-UT) suggested that all Americans observe a “fast day” during which two meals are skipped. Smoot said, “We have in our own country a food administration asking our people to observe meatless days, wheatless days, porkless days, and to stop the waste of all kinds of food…If every American citizen would abstain from eating two meals upon that fast day the health of one hundred million Americans would be benefited and, further, we would have more of the necessaries of life to send to the people of Europe, now compelled to live on the shortest of rations.”
  3. The Food Administration will be sending experts on tours to teach bakers and grain millers about “Victory Bread,” a family of loaves that use less wheat than a standard loaf via substitution of oats and other grains.  (Note the presence of "Delmonico war bread" in the menu above. Cooks.com has a recipe for War Bread that might fit into this category since it has plenty of oats.)
  4. Food Administrator (and future president) Herbert Hoover decrees that American soldiers en route by ship to the battlefields in France will need to comply with regulations that specify wheatless, meatless and porkless days.
The Food Administration was a government agency in charge of the national effort to save food and produced many booklets and posters, like the poster above, a poster calling on Americans to “Be patriotic – sign your country’s pledge to save food” and a list of six short rules for eating that are quite relevant to today’s food discussions (more on this poster at Vox and in links provided in the Twitterverse).

The Praises of Whale Meat
In the next day's edition, the Times published a rather skeptical review of the whale meat luncheon (full text is below the break). Sure, they write, these worldly and adventurous diners will rave about whale meat at a special luncheon prepared by an expert chef, but what about the average home cook (who they call Bridget -- perhaps this name had a meaning to readers)? And anyway, this wasn't anything really new: "There was the Ichthyaphagus Club, a generation ago, formed to promote the eating of inedible fishes. The Bureau of Fisheries began to boom whale last Summer, and it seems to be a fact that whale meat has been sold in the fish markets of Seattle and Portland." They conclude, "A little whale will probably go a long way until its merits are appreciated."

Another Meaning of "Conservation"
One major omission from both the article and the editorial was any consideration that popularizing whale meat might decimate their populations.  By the year 1918, whaling ships were mechanized, with powerful engines that enabled hunting of the fastest whales and extra-deadly explosive-tipped harpoons. With the rapid pace of technological development that was occurring between the wars -- bigger ships, more powerful engines, on-board refrigeration, to name a few -- whales wouldn't have had a chance if there was major market demand.  By 1931, the whalers were so numerous and effective that in that year alone, "the modern industry killed more than 10 percent as many whales as the American industry had destroyed in the entire nineteenth century. Well over 1,000,000 whales were captured between 1904 and 1978, compared with something over 350,000 during the nineteenth century." (quote from In Pursuit of Leviathan: Technology, Institutions, Productivity, and Profits in American Whaling, 1816-1906, chapter 15. Full text available from the National Bureau of Economic Research)

I haven't investigated how much additional effort the Food Administration put into their whale project, but whatever they tried it didn't make whale meat a mass-market food, as this quip from the July 22, 1918 "Pen Points" column in the Los Angeles Times hints:

What finally became of that scheme for everybody to eat whale meat?



Notes
I first read about the whale luncheon in Eric Jay Dolin’s Leviathan: The History of Whaling In America, a fascinating book about an industry that was critical to the United States becoming an industrial power. The chapters about the golden age of whaling are especially compelling.

Image credit:  United States Food Administration poster, 1918, public domain.  Downloaded from the University of North Texas Digital Library.


Random link from the archive: Introducing the depluminator





New York Times, February 9, 1918, page 22, columns 1-2.  Article is in the public domain because it was published before January 1, 1923.

WHALE MEAT LUNCH TO BOOST NEW FOOD

Natural History Museum Presents War Substitute for Beef, Pork, and Mutton.

NOTABLES TRY THE FEAST

Some Say It Tastes Like Pot Roast, and Others That It Much Resembles Venison.

A conservation luncheon with whale meat served as steaks and in three other dishes was given at the American Museum of Natural History yesterday as a demonstration of the utility of whale meat as a substitute for beef, lamb, pork and other meats which the nation is advised to conserve.  The dishes were prepared under the direction of an expert chef, and the luncheon was attended by the local Food Administrators, Admiral Peary, Dr. William T. Hornaday, and others who had eaten the meat on exploration tours.

It is important for the public to know that the humpback whale is the sort most frequently captured on the Pacific Coats, "and makes the best eating."  It reaches a length of fifty-four feet and weight approximately forty tons. Not such a whale but a part thereof was consumed by the guests who attended the demonstration at the museum yesterday.  The guests included men prominent in scientific, business, and professional spheres.  In addition to Admiral Peary and Mr. Hornaday, those who partook of the whale meat were Director Charles H. Townsend, William Fellowes Morgan, Severo Salcedo, Rutger B. Jewett, Oswald G. Villard, Don G. Seitz, Caspar Whitney, George H. Sherwood, Dr. Frederic A. Lucas, Roy Chapman Andrews, Herbert L. Bridgman, and Dr. Bashford Dean.  President Henry Fairfield Osborn was the host.

The menu follows:
Hors d'Oeuvre -- Whale.
Whale pot au feu.
Celery. Olives. Radishes.
Corn pone. Nut butter. Delmonico war bread.
Boiled skate. Mustard sauce.
Parsley potatoes.
Planked whale steak, a la Vancouver.
Border of sanip. Onion sauce.
Vegetable salad.
Ice cream. Bisque of black bread,
a la Delmonico.
Ginger bread with raw sugar.  Coffee.

The deep-sea mammal, served en casserole, or pot au feu or planked, had a striking resemblance to venison both in appearance and taste.  So said Federal Food Administrator Arthur William, who has has international experience in sampling menus, and who was, therefore, in a position to know.  In his opinion it was about as "delicious a morsel" as the most aesthetic or sophisticated palate could possibly yearn for.  Others who tasted the whale, and had not had Mr. Williams's breadth of experience in those matters, declared it was not very different from plain, ordinary pot roast, only a little richer.

Opinions were expressed by some prominent guest at the luncheon as to the advisability of introducing whale meat to the general public inasmuch as Henry Fairfield Osborn, President of the Museum of Natural History, had ascertained from reliable sources that 100,000,000 pounds of whale meat could be supplied to the people of this country annually at 12 1/2 cents a pound [ed. note: $0.125 in 1918 is equivalent to $1.95 in 2014, via BLS inflation calculator].  The speakers were almost unanimously in favor of having whale meat substituted for beefsteak and urged its immediate adoption as a feature of the national war diet. Admiral Peary praised President Osborne [sic] for agitating whale meat, saying:

"There will be an intense practical advantage to this movement if we can ever get the American people to substitute whale meat for beef, mutton, and pork.  It can be kept indefinitely in tin cans the way they are now putting it up for the market.  There have long been such canneries on the coast of Labrador, and there used to be some on the Newfoundland coast, but the Newfoundland canneries have gone out of business, being unable to compete with the Labrador plants which could get the whales at less cost."

To cite some further facts on "Whaling Stations and Canning Factories," as presented by museum authorities, there are at present on the Pacific Coast of America seven whaling stations. Only three of these are equipped to handle whale meat for food. Most of the whale production on the Coast is utilized for the manufacture of fertilizer. About 1,000 whales are captured annually on the coasts of America, and "if all the stations in operation at the present time were working at full capacity for the production of whale meat for food there should be available during the Summer months alone about 20,000,000 pounds of whale meat for distribution throughout America."

The guests at yesterdays feats [sic] were informed as to the possible methods of preparing whale meat for consumption by Seraphin Millon, head chef from Delmonico's, who designed the menu. He explained to them that there were nearly a dozen ways of cooking whale meat. It could be done up as a stew and as a pot roast.  It could be curried and served on toast. It could be made into a "Deep Sea Pie," as delicious as any pot pie that was ever invented. It could be chopped up and shaped into conical croquettes -- in fact, it is susceptible to almost any culinary manipulation known to the versatile cuisinier.



New York Times, February 10, 1918.  Page 4-E, columns 4-5. Article is in the public domain because it was published before January 1, 1923.

THE PRAISES OF WHALE MEAT.

It seems only the other day that the tilefish was introduced to American households by the United States Fishery Service.  Its lines were not graceful and it did not vie with the rainbow trout in color effects, but the tile proved to be palatable, something like sturgeon, with a suggestion of halibut. Unfortunately, the new fish became so popular or the trust was so quick to regulate the supply that prices of tile soared. And it was to be abundant and cheap! Now the whale, the humpback variety, (Megaptera longimana) is commended as a candidate for the poor man's table. Dr. Henry Fairfield Osborn's luncheon at the American Museum of Natural History to selected epicures, explorers, biologists, and notables should establish the claim of Humpback to be a toothsome morsel, well endowed with protein. Whale Pot au Feu and Planked Whale Steak with trimmings sound appetizing, but perhaps it depends upon the chef. Whether Bridget could make whale edible from roast to picked-up dishes, culminating in hash, the American housekeeper must be shown. These set feasts of strange viands, kangaroo, giraffe, lions -- and now whale -- never fail of approval by guests who are summoned into the limelight and expected to display a sporting spirit.

Nevertheless, if Humpback can be offered at 12 1/2 cents a pound [ed. note: $0.125 in 1918 is equivalent to $1.95 in 2014, via BLS inflation calculator], and is as good as, or better than horse, which has become a war meat in England, Dr. Osborn should be regarded as a benefactor. But could Mr. Hoover keep the price within bounds? When Senator Smoot threatens us with fast days once a week, whale to the rescue should be welcome.  Admiral Peary's commendation is not conclusive. He has consumed whale in higher latitudes, but in circumstances beyond his control. And as a good sportsman he could not make a wry face over Dr. Osborn's manu. Dr. Hornaday has supped on mysterious provender in Borneo and elsewhere in Asia. He was estopped from not smacking his lips over whale soup. As Director Townsend of the Aquarium holds that every swimming fish is wholesome, though one fish might tempt the appetite more than another, he could not draw the line at Humpback.

But these gentlemen are not the pioneers. There was the Ichthyaphagus Club, a generation ago, formed to promote the eating of inedible fishes. The Bureau of Fisheries began to boom whale last Summer, and it seems to be a fact that whale meat has been sold in the fish markets of Seattle and Portland at 10 cents a pound to hotels, restaurants, and private consumers. [ed. note: $0.10 in 1918 is equivalent to $1.56 in 2014, via BLS inflation calculator] In a bulletin on the subject, the bureau says:
Whales (and porpoises) are mammals, like cattle and sheep, and their flesh is "meat" and not "fish." In texture and appearance it resembles beef, tough the color is darker red. It is devoid of all fishy taste. It is likely that it will soon be obtainable fresh, corned, and canned, and it is recommended to those who have the opportunity to purchase it.

Dr. Osborn's diners testified that whale had a rich venison taste, which suggests an accompaniment of a full-fruited burgundy. There seems to be no reason, then, to reject Megaptera longimana as an addition to the war larder. One can have too much any good thing. So it will not be necessary to treat Humpback as the thrifty do the Thanskgiving turkey, serving it up in ingenious forms, with warmed-up mince pie, until the family revolts. A little whale will probably go a long way until its merits are appreciated.

2 comments:

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Elise said...

Hi Marc,
What an interesting post! Thank you for your research. The book looks like one I would like. Much in the vein of Cod or Salt.
When I lived in Japan I was served whale sashimi, and not knowing what it was I had a bite. Delicious. It was rather upsetting to learn what it was. The Japanese skirting of international law with the reason of "scientific research" is completely bogus.