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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. Read More