Please join Valerie Stivers and Hank Zona for a virtual, Melville-themed wine tasting on Friday, May 7, at 6 P.M. on The Paris Review’s Instagram account. For more details, visit our events page, or scroll down to the bottom of the article.
Whenever I would tell someone I was cooking from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick for my next column, they would gleefully shriek, “Whale steaks!” And I would dither a bit and explain that no, those are illegal in America, and that I was instead planning to make two forms of chowder, clam and cod, that weren’t going to be very different from each other. In our Chowhound-fueled, extreme-eating kind of world, I felt a little silly. Chowder is an easy dish, and while there’s raging conflict over the primacy of New York style (tomato-based) versus New England style (white), and the finer variations of each, the topic seems to inspire passion in inverse proportion to its importance. (Potatoes or no potatoes? Avast.) In fact, as Perry Miller reports in The Raven and the Whale: Poe, Melville, and the New York Literary Scene, Melville meant for Moby-Dick’s chapter on chowder to be a sardonic response to just such an ongoing foodie feud. (Many thanks to the novelist Caleb Crain for loaning me Miller’s book and writing two excellent essays on Melville, sexuality, and cannibalism, published in A Journal of Melville Studies and American Literature.)
Moby-Dick, however, is a book in which pulling on a single thread can reveal a universe. I had some contact with it in my all-girls middle school—to my recollection, just enough to ask why this book had dick in the title and so many mentions of “sperm” in its pages—but it’s only as an adult that I’ve fallen madly in love. I understand it now as a “lifelong meditation on America,” as the Melville biographer Andrew Delbanco writes in his introduction to the edition I own. So when I looked at the book’s two main food passages—one on chowder, the other on eating whale—I found a central theme: the question of what man (specifically gendered man) is doing here in America, what he’s cooking up, and how it nourishes him. In this system, eating chowder is on the side of our better nature, and eating whale is on the side of our worst, so I felt a little better about my dinner plans.
Herman Melville (1819–1891) wrote Moby-Dick quickly: the first reference to it appears in his letters in 1850, and the novel was published in 1851. He believed he was working on a masterpiece—and he needed to write a masterpiece, too, because he was perennially short of money. (“Dollars damn me,” he famously wrote while composing it.) The married Melville was also possibly in love—and not just with Nathaniel Hawthorne, as has been suggested for decades, but with the married woman who lived next door to him in the Berkshires, a bluestocking poet and free spirit named Sarah Morewood. The biographer Michael Shelden makes a speculative but powerful case for this in his 2016 book Melville in Love. Whatever Melville’s reasons, he set out in a blaze of divinity to do nothing less than “project a vision of the world’s essential constitution,” as Richard H. Brodhead writes in New Essays on Moby-Dick.
Literary history and legions of readers say he succeeded. Moreover, the symbolic structure of the text has allowed it to keep up nearly seamlessly with the times. It’s extraordinary how the reader finds today’s themes directly present, despite how language and ideas have changed. In 1851, Melville would have had neither word nor concept for homosexuality, but Moby-Dick could be considered America’s first piece of queer literature—at the heart of America, our greatest novel, queer! Nor did he always speak of race in terminology that would seem correct today, but the ship our heroes set sail on is called the Pequod, named after an American Indian tribe massacred by Puritans in the eighteenth century. The boat’s multiracial crew is dragged, tricked, financially incentivized, and, most ominously, inspired to its doom by a deranged white man, a creature of blind will, in pursuit of an “evil” white whale. The congruence with today’s issues is clear.
Since the book is a cultural artifact more known than read, it contains many surprises for the adult reader. The first, for me, was the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg. In the opening chapters, our hero—a dreamy, educated white boy who wants us to call him Ishmael, though we’ll never know if that’s really his name—is forced to share a bed at an inn with a “cannibal,” a tattooed nonwhite “savage” named Queequeg. After the terrifying moment when Queequeg discovers Ishmael in his bed and threatens him, Melville subverts expectations. Ishmael decides that Queequeg is “comely looking,” and because, as he reasons, it’s “better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian,” he’s happy to pull back the sheets. More than happy. The two achieve what now reads as a sexual union in the bed, an idyllic, mutual feeling that Melville compares to being “married.” Ishmael overcomes his hesitations about Queequeg’s difference, saying, “the man’s a human being just as I am,” which must have been provocative to some readers, since the book was published during the run-up to the Civil War. The bedmates set out as a “cozy, loving pair” to sign up for a whaling voyage. (“I have written a wicked book,” Melville said in a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, “and feel spotless as the lamb.)
Another surprise was the treatment of the whale. Because Moby-Dick is about whaling and betrays no modern squeamishness over the matter, it takes some time to realize that what many readers imagine to be the boring parts, the chapters on cetology, function as a meditation on the whale’s profound beauty, spiritual value, and miraculous body. Even Moby-Dick, the antagonist, “when seen gliding at high noon through a dark blue sea,” leaves behind himself “a milky way of creamy foam, all spangled with golden gleamings.” Melville celebrates the whale’s head, his tail, his eyes, his skin, his lungs, his skeleton, and even the composition of his spouting (is it water or vapor?). In one of the most beautiful stretches of the book, Melville observes that the whale has no skin beyond a glass-like transparent membrane, beneath which “the visible surface of the Sperm Whale … is all over obliquely crossed and re-crossed with numberless straight marks in thick array, something like those in the finest Italian line-engravings.” In such passages, the whale becomes the world.
There are two main food passages in Moby-Dick: a pair of chapters on eating whale and one on eating chowder. Melville understood the tragedy of whaling. The scenes in which one of the shipmates, Stubb, kills the book’s first whale and then gobbles up fresh steaks from the small of its back are among its most terrible. The author writes that Stubb “slowly churned his long sharp lance into the fish, and kept it there, carefully churning and churning, as if cautiously seeking to feel after some gold watch that the whale might have swallowed … But that gold watch he sought was the innermost life of the fish.” After this, Melville declares Stubb “a high liver … somewhat intemperately fond of the whale as a flavorish thing to his palate.” Stubb commands a Black crewmate to jump overboard onto the whale’s carcass and “cut me one from his small.” Next, he awakens another Black crew member, the cook, and humiliates him, all while stuffing himself with “reddish morsel[s].”
In these scenes, we see a continuity of horrors: the white man’s abuse of other races, his exploitation of nature, his destructive power, his thoughtless sadism. And perhaps more significantly, Melville portrays this behavior as the white man’s destruction of himself. The next chapter, “The Whale as a Dish,” starts and ends with the suggestion that to eat a whale is akin to cannibalism. We learn that most people consider whale meat too rich, but there are some exceptions: “In the case of a small Sperm Whale the brains are accounted a fine dish. The casket of the skull is broken into with an axe, and the two plump, whitish lobes being withdrawn (precisely resembling two large puddings), they are then mixed with flour and cooked into a most delectable mess.” Viewed in the light of cannibalism, such passages are excruciating, as is the narration’s bright, reportorial tone. The author emphasizes that we accomplish our awful ends with cheerful industry, ingenuity, and vigor. D. H. Lawrence, writing somewhat feverishly about Moby-Dick in the twenties, called the whale “the deepest blood-being of the white race. He is our deepest blood-nature. And he is hunted, hunted, hunted by the maniacal fanaticism of our white mental consciousness.”
Moby-Dick is a tragedy—Delbanco calls it an “elegy to democracy”—but it indicates alternatives. The chapter where the characters eat chowder is one of these. When Ishmael and Queequeg arrive on Nantucket, they stay at an inn called the Try Pots and, in a comic sequence, discover that the place serves nothing but two types of chowder, “clam or cod.” The clam chowder is made of “small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with a pounded ship’s biscuit, and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt.” The cod is just as savory but “with a different flavor.” Ishmael and Queequeg have “chowder for breakfast, chowder for dinner and chowder for supper, till you began to look for fish-bones coming through your clothes.” This wildly abundant food is a wedding feast of sorts, celebrating a relationship that is “a critique of power in the society that Melville depicted,” writes Robert K. Martin in his groundbreaking book of queer theory Hero, Captain, and Stranger: Male Friendship, Social Critique, and Literary Form in the Sea Novels of Herman Melville. Martin posits that Ishmael and Queequeg’s love represents “a democratic eros … a generalized seminal power not directed toward control or production,” which Melville opposes to Captain Ahab’s “hierarchical eros expressed in social forms of male power as different as whaling, factory-owning, military conquest.” If that’s true, then it’s also significant that chowder is a mixed, sloshy, ill-defined kind of dish, subversive in definition and structure.
Thus I am firmly for eating chowder and against eating whale. Like the Try Pots, I made both clam and cod, taking one recipe from my cooking-from-literature sister Cara Nicoletti, who made the clam chowder from Moby-Dick in her 2016 book Voracious. My recipe for cod chowder comes from Sam Sifton’s “no-recipe recipe” for speedy fish chowder in the New York Times. And though the Try Pots was not a wine-list kind of place, and most beverages in Moby-Dick are quaffed from the barrel of a harpoon, I wanted to pay tribute to Melville’s time in the Berkshires by adding a wine pairing. In 1850, shortly after meeting Sarah Morewood, Melville abruptly bought an estate he could ill afford situated next door to hers in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Pittsfield was a wealthy place back then, and Mrs. Morewood was known for her picnics, dining, and entertaining. On one notable excursion with Melville, she is documented as having brought “brandy cherries,” champagne, and “extra supplies of rum and port wine.”
My interest in Sarah Morewood is more than gossip-related. What strikes me most about Moby-Dick is not that the author condemns the things we should condemn but that he was wrestling with what men are. Is man’s will itself the problem—that clever-monkey urge to expand, create, innovate, colonize, dominate, write, whale? Or is the problem will without limit, will without containment or partner? The queerness in Melville’s work, which runs through all his books, is one form of redefining power hierarchies. I see the exposure of the great white phallic symbol on the book’s title page as another—brave Melville, the penis is not so powerful when it’s hanging out there for schoolchildren to giggle at for all eternity. Placing the work of art in the context of a relationship could be a third. It might be silly to call Morewood “the muse of Moby-Dick,” as the subtitle of Shelden’s book does, but using one’s power to make something for someone is also a better use.
My chowders were delicious—and they are for you! Nicoletti’s clam chowder recipe gives instruction for making your own clam stock, a necessary step that defines the flavor of the dish. The only tricky part is adding flour and butter to the sautéed onions, then slowly whisking in the stock without creating lumps, a process similar to making gravy. The recipe calls for only small amounts of bacon, celery, onion, and potato, and I was tempted to overstuff in order to create an impression of bounty befitting Melville’s chowder chapter, but I followed the recommended quantities and was glad I did so: the broth-to-morsel ratio was just right. Nicoletti also allowed me to skip a potentially tedious step by explaining that the ship biscuit in Melville’s recipe was used as a thickener “in the days when heavy cream wasn’t so readily available.” I had considered making ship biscuit (recipes exist on prepper websites), but the heavy cream was a better choice.
The cod chowder also lived up to the source material. The premise of Sifton’s “no-recipe recipes” is to give the home chef guidelines on how to cook while improvising. For his fish chowder, he suggests bacon, onion, potato, corn, and carrots (similar to Nicoletti’s recipe, except that hers calls for celery instead of carrots). Because the no-recipe premise allows one to make it up, and because I wanted the two dishes to be different, I made my own adjustments. When Sifton said to use fish stock, white wine, water, “or any combination of the above” to make broth, I used water, white wine, and tomato juice, making the second bowl more New York style. The wine-tomato broth was ambrosial, and the results were wonderful, though I found myself, somewhat foolishly, overriding my own cooking instincts in order to follow the words of the nonrecipe. Subverting structure is harder than it seems.
For the wine pairing, my spirits collaborator, Hank Zona, suggested an American beverage that was all the rage in Melville’s time and is currently having a revival: a bubbly rosé made from Catawba grapes. These wines, Zona said, are “light-bodied, pink, fruity, slightly funky, slightly sweet”—perfect for a picnic like those Melville went on with Mrs. Morewood. The new versions “probably taste much like they did back then.” Zona sourced two from the nearby Finger Lakes. One is from Chëpika, a collaboration between the Finger Lakes winemaker Nathan Kendall and a woman who is a pillar of the natural wine movement, Pascaline Lepeltier. The other is from Lakewood vineyards; I found it in cans at Convive Wine & Spirits in New York’s East Village, for a bargain at five dollars per can. The Chëpika is tart, floral, and light in alcohol; it has a summery flavor, like a rhubarb shrub. The Lakewood has mild, pink-fruit sweetness, balanced with florals and a foxy scent characteristic of the grape.
My picnic was wonderful, though I felt some sadness, as all Melville lovers probably do. Moby-Dick in its time was a commercial flop and mostly a critical one, too. Melville was “bitterly shocked,” Delbanco writes, by the book’s reception. His next book, Pierre, cemented his lack of commercial viability, and he eventually gave up publishing, moved back to New York City, and took a job as a clerk. Moby-Dick would be rediscovered around the turn of the twentieth century and undergo a major revival in the twenties, never to be obscure again. Melville died well before that, by all accounts an angry and broken man: he had written Moby-Dick and seen it fail. Could any amount of posthumous chowder make up for that?
Adapted from Voracious, by Cara Nicoletti. Serves two.
Note: I divide clams into the vague classifications of quahogs and steamers. Quahogs are hard-shelled and include common supermarket varieties like littlenecks; steamers have a flatter, thinner shell and usually have the foot hanging out. In my experience, steamers have sand in them and need to be processed differently than the recipe below calls for. The quahogs I buy aren’t sandy, but do check yours once you’ve made the stock.
2 dozen clams
2 cups water
a strip of bacon, diced
1/2 rib celery, chopped
a small onion, chopped
2 tbs butter
2 tbs flour
a small potato, cubed
1/2 cup corn kernels, fresh or frozen
a sprig of thyme
a bay leaf
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup cream
oyster crackers to serve
Carefully wash the clams under cold running water. Add them to a medium saucepan, with two cups of cold water to cover. Bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for around five minutes, until the clams have just opened. Do not overcook. Strain, reserving both clams and boiling liquid. Ideally, you’ll want to pour the clam liquid into a light-colored opaque bowl so you can see any sand. Remove the clam meat from the shells. Discard the shells.
Rinse the pot you boiled the clams in. Add the bacon, and cook over medium heat until crispy. Reserve. Turn the heat down to medium-low, add the onions and celery, and sauté until the onions are wilted and translucent. Add the butter, and let it melt. Whisk in the flour, and let it cook until it is lightly toasted and smells fragrant, like a biscuit—this should take a minute or two. Whisk in the clam liquid, a little at a time, until it is all incorporated, leaving any sand at the bottom of the bowl.
Add the corn kernels, potatoes, bay leaf, thyme leaves, and salt, and simmer until the potatoes are fork-tender, ten to twelve minutes.
Add the clam meat. Add the cream, and stir to combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve with oyster crackers.
Speedy Fish Chowder
Adapted from the New York Times.
a strip of bacon, diced
a small onion, chopped
a carrot, diced
a small potato, chopped
1/2 cup corn kernels, fresh or frozen
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp smoked paprika
1 cup white wine
1 cup tomato juice
a pound of cod filets, cut into one-inch chunks
2 tbs heavy cream
1/4 tsp Aleppo pepper
crusty bread (to serve)
Cook the bacon in a medium-size Dutch oven set over medium-high heat until crispy. Remove and reserve the bacon. Add the onions to the bacon fat. Lower the heat, and cook until wilted and golden, about ten minutes. Add the carrot, potatoes, corn, salt, and paprika. Toss to combine. Add the white wine and tomato juice, and bring to a boil. Simmer, covered, until the vegetables are soft. Add the cod, and cook until it has turned white and flaky, about five minutes. Finish with the heavy cream and Aleppo pepper. Serve with crusty bread.
Please join Valerie Stivers and Hank Zona on Friday, May 7, at 6 P.M. for a virtual, Melville-themed wine tasting on The Paris Review’s Instagram account. We will discuss food in Melville’s work and recommend wines inspired by his life.
The wines seen in the story are the Chëpika Catawba and the Lakewood Vineyards Bubbly Catawba. The Lakewood Bubbly Catawba can be ordered through the vineyard’s website (there is a six-bottle minimum). For an alternative, we recommend any high-quality sparkling wine in a can, such as those from Underwood or Old Westminster. Anyone who would like more specific advice on choosing a wine for the tasting can email us ([email protected]).
Valerie Stivers is a writer based in New York. Read earlier installments of Eat Your Words.