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Saving the Whales (And Eating Them Too?)

What does whale meat taste like, and is it anything like jojoba oil, prosciutto or jellied crustaceans?

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Poster via Gulf of Maine Cod Project, NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries/Courtesy of National Archives

In 1951, the Richfield Spring Mercury ran the following:

Bravely doing his bit to combat the high cost of meat, the manager of the New Jersey Bell Telephone Company’s cafeteria recently listed on the menu “pot roast of whale-prize beef of the deep.”… It was an experimental project, resulting in varied reactions to the finny fare, even though it was “on the house” Some said it tasted like fish, though the whale is a mammal. The overall reaction, however, was good enough to warrant a return of the mammal delicacy on a “pay-as-you-go” basis.

Sixty years later, whales rarely, if ever, enter our cafeterias or our culinary consciousness. The prevailing approach to the charismatic megafauna plays out in the cat-and-mouse game (with its own sensationalist reality TV show) between whaling ships and environmentalists in the waters around Antarctica. We tend to see whales as symbols of conservation, and sometimes even symbols of conservation’s excesses.

A temporary worldwide moratorium on commercial whaling went into effect in 1986, but given its exceptions and loopholes, more whales are being killed annually than before the ban. Something is awry. If the efforts of whale huggers worldwide aren’t working, then could markets be the solution? Three American scientists recently resurrected an idea first floated by ecologist C.W. Clark in 1982 to save the whales by setting a price on their heads. The article appeared in the journal Nature. Much like carbon credits, conservationists could buy whale quotas, pocket the credit, and save as many whales as money could buy. A minke might fetch $13,000, whereas fin whales might be priced at $85,000.

It’s an intriguing proposal—one that made me wonder if we’d soon be eating whale again. Well, barring the unforeseen and unlikely overturn of the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, don’t expect to see whale margarine or “beef of the deep” making a comeback.

Here’s where D. Graham Burnett, the author of an epic history on cetacean science called The Sounding of the Whale comes in. With the help of artist Keil Borrman, he’d like to give you a taste of the taboo flesh—or rather a reproduction of the flavor and texture taste of whale meat. On Saturday, he’s planning to serve an elk carpaccio infused with jojoba oil essences (a botanical alternative to spermaceti oil), a pan-fried pork belly served with jellied crustacean court-bouillon and a lightly smoked ham prosciutto, served in linen. So it’s not exactly whale.

“We want to sensitize people to the quirkiness of the different possible relations one can have with these animals,” Burnett told me. “Nineteenth century whale men had certain kinds of intense intimate relationship with their quarry—in part based on food. They not infrequently ate from the carcasses whales they killed. They cut them up right there.”

We no longer experience those tastes and senses. They’ve long been cut off from the modern cafeteria—perhaps for good reason—but the playful provocation does raise the question of what it really means to know these animals.

D. Graham Burnett’s book launch and “whale” meat tasting will be held on January 28 in Brooklyn.

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