Consider the Whale

Christine Whelan | Posted on 03/12/10

contradictions are inherent in this whole debate... I like a good steak, a fresh piece of sushi, and even a lovely bit of fois gras as much as the next girl, but thinking about the whole process of how it got to my plate makes me queasy.

After being outed at the Oscars for illegally selling whale sushi, today a Santa Monica sushi chef is facing $100,000 in fines and a year in prison. Yes, it’s illegal. And that’s bad. But should we be morally outraged? I don’t think so.

Japhy Grant at True/Slant warns the LA Times editorial board that now is not the time to start lecturing us:

Our national horror at eating whale meat isn’t based on any empirical truths, it’s just a cultural choice we make. Unless you’re a hardcore vegan, you’re making morally shaky decisions every day about what you decide to toss into your pie hole and what you won’t, which is why your outrage at another culture’s preference is ultimately little more than gastronomic nationalism.

Brian Palmer of Slate muses about the taste of whale meat—kujira in Japanese—and seems to bemoan that the “finer points of cetacean butchery have been lost over time.” He notes that:

While the United States is now a strong opponent of whale consumption, it, too, once turned to whale during times of shortage. Federal authorities at the American Museum of Natural History in 1918, trying to push whale as a home-front substitute for the beef that our troops craved. (The menu was prepared by the head chef from Delmonico's.) One attendee called the meat "as delicious a morsel as the most aesthetic or sophisticated palate could possibly yearn for." Others said it was "not very different from plain, ordinary pot roast, only a little richer."

Trevor Corson weighed in on The Atlantic food blog, arguing that harvesting non-endangered whales, as they do in Japan, Norway and several other countries, is only plagued by the same moral concerns we have about killing lobsters, cows and every other animal: “how sentient is the creature, and how much did it suffer during the process?”

Killing a whale yields a lot more meat than killing a cow, but because of a whale's size, I would probably argue that killing one is also inherently more difficult and prolonged than killing a cow. Surely the whale suffers more. Certainly that's the case with low-tech, traditional whaling operations that don't use modern weaponry, such as the Inuit whale hunters in northern Alaska. And yet it is exactly this sort of traditional, subsistence whaling that is probably the one type of whaling that most of us today, myself included, might be willing to condone.

Such contradictions are inherent in this whole debate. A few years back, I read the late David Foster Wallace’s brilliant Gourmet essay, Consider the Lobster, and honestly, I wish I hadn’t. Don’t get me wrong—I like a good steak, a fresh piece of sushi, and even a lovely bit of fois gras as much as the next girl, but thinking about the whole process of how it got to my plate makes me queasy.

And yet that’s precisely what’s wrong with so much of our debate about food today: Most of us think that chicken is created in breast-form under plastic wrap.

This past summer I spent a day with the 2009 Pork Princess at the Iowa State Fair. She told me how frustrating it is to explain to city folks that her family isn’t cruel to animals and that no, pork chops don’t just appear in the refrigerated section of the supermarket without a lot of care and toil from farmers nationwide. 

So on this Friday, as millions of Americans head out for some fish in observance of Lent, let’s try to be a bit more aware of where our food comes from—and the men and women who work so hard to get it to us—before moralizing from our plush restaurant chairs.

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