Please visit Valerie Stivers and Hank Zona for a virtual Melville-themed wine tasting on Friday May 7th at 6am P.M. on The Paris ReviewInstagram account. For more information, please visit our events page or scroll to the bottom of the article.
Whenever I told someone I cooked at Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick For my next column, they cheerfully shouted, “Whale steaks!” And I would shiver a little and explain that no, these are illegal in America, and that instead I intended to make two forms of chowder, clam and cod, that wouldn’t be very different from each other. In our chowhound-dominated, extremely eating world, I felt a little silly. Chowder is a simple dish, and while there’s a violent conflict between the primacy of the New York style (tomato-based) and New England style (white) and the finer variations, the subject seems to instill passion in inverse proportion to its meaning . (Potatoes or no potatoes? Avast.) Indeed, as Perry Miller reports The Raven and the Whale: Poe, Melville, and the New York Literature SceneMelville meant for Moby-DickThe chapter on chowder is meant to be a sardonic answer to such an ongoing foodie feud. (Thanks to the writer Caleb Crain for lending me Miller’s book and for writing two excellent essays on Melville, sexuality, and cannibalism that were published in A Journal of Melville Studies and American literature.)
Moby-DickHowever, it is a book where pulling on a single thread can reveal a universe. I had contact with it in my girls’ middle school – just enough, in my memory, to ask why this book was like this tail in the title and so many mentions of “sperm” on its pages – but only as an adult did I fall madly in love. I now understand it as a “lifelong meditation on America,” as Melville biographer Andrew Delbanco writes in his introduction to my own edition. As I looked at the two main food passages in the book – one about chowder, the other about eating whales – I found a central theme: the question of which man (specifically gender) man) here in America does what he cooks and how it nourishes him. In this system, eating chowder is on our better natures side and eating whales is on our worst natures side, so I felt a little better about my meal plans.
Herman Melville (1819-1891) wrote Moby-Dick quick: the first reference to this appears in his letters in 1850, and the novel was published in 1851. He believed he was working on a masterpiece – and he also had to write a masterpiece because he constantly ran out of money. (“Dollars damn it,” he wrote famously as he composed it.) The married Melville may have been in love too – and not just with Nathaniel Hawthorne, as suggested for decades, but also with the married woman who lived next to him Berkshires, a bluish poet and free spirit named Sarah Morewood. The biographer Michael Shelden makes a speculative but powerful argument for it in his 2016 book Melville in love. Whatever Melville’s reasons, he set out in a fire of divinity to do nothing less than “project a vision of the essential constitution of the world,” as Richard H. Brodhead writes New essays on Moby-Dick.
Literary history and legions of readers say it was successful. In addition, the symbolic structure of the text has enabled it to keep pace with the times almost seamlessly. It is extraordinary how the reader directly presents today’s topics even though language and ideas have changed. In 1851, Melville would have had neither a word nor a concept for it homosexuality, but Moby-Dick could be considered America’s first piece of queer literature – our greatest novel in the heart of America, queer! Nor did he always speak of a race in the terminology that would seem correct today, but it is called the ship on which our heroes set sail Pequod, named after a Native American tribe who were massacred by Puritans in the 18th century. The multiracial crew of the boat is towed, tricked, financially motivated and, most threateningly, inspired to his downfall by a troubled white man, a creature of blind will, in search of an “evil” white whale. The correspondence with today’s issues is clear.
Since the book is a cultural artifact that is known rather than read, it contains many surprises for the adult reader. The first for me was Ishmael and Queequeg’s relationship. In the first few chapters, our hero – a dreamy, educated white boy who wants us to call him Ishmael even though we never know if that is really his name – is forced to share a bed in an inn with a “cannibal” tattooed non-white “savages” named Queequeg. After the terrible moment when Queequeg discovers Ishmael in his bed and threatens him, Melville undermines expectations. Ishmael decides that Queequeg “looks pretty,” and because, in his view, “it’s better to sleep with a sober cannibal than with a drunk Christian,” he likes to pull back the sheets. More than happy. The two achieve what now reads as a sexual union in bed, an idyllic, mutual feeling that Melville compares to “married”. Overcoming his hesitation about Queequeg’s difference, Ishmael says, “The man is a person like me,” which must have been provocative to some readers since the book was published in the lead-up to the civil war. The roommates set out as a “cozy, loving couple” to sign up for a whaling trip. (“I wrote a bad book,” Melville said in a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, “and I feel immaculate like the Lamb.)
Another surprise was the treatment of the whale. because Moby-Dick It is about whaling and does not reveal any modern prudence on the matter. It takes some time to realize that what many readers think of as the boring parts, the chapters on cetology act as meditation on the deep beauty, spiritual worth, and wondrous body of the whale. Even Moby-Dick, the antagonist, “leaves behind when he glides through a dark blue sea at noon”, “a Milky Way of creamy foam, all dotted with golden shimmer”. Melville celebrates the whale’s head, tail, eyes, skin, lungs, skeleton, and even the composition of its spout (is it water or steam?). In one of the most beautiful sections of the book, Melville states that the whale has no skin behind a glass-like transparent membrane under which “the visible surface of the sperm whale … is crossed at an angle and crossed anew with countless straight lines, thickly arranged markings, something like that finest Italian line engravings. “In such passages the whale is born.
There are two main food passages in Moby-Dick: a couple of chapters on whale eating and one on chowder eating. Melville understood the tragedy of whaling. The scenes in which one of the shipmates, Stubb, kills the book’s first whale and then devours fresh steaks from his back are among the most terrifying. The author writes that Stubb “slowly tossed his long, sharp lance into the fish and held it there, carefully churning it up, as if carefully looking for a gold watch that the whale might have swallowed … But this gold watch he did was looking for, it was the inner life of the fish. “Thereafter, Melville Stubb explains” a high liver … which the whale likes a little moderately as a tasty thing for the palate. ” Stubb orders a black crew member to jump overboard onto the whale’s carcass and “cut me one of his little one”. Next, he wakes up another black crew member, the cook, and humiliates him as he stuffs himself with “reddish bites”[s]. ”
In these scenes we see a continuity of horror: the abuse of other races by the white man, his exploitation of nature, his destructive power, his thoughtless sadism. And perhaps more importantly, Melville portrays this behavior as the white man’s destruction of himself. The next chapter, “The Whale as a Dish,” begins and ends with the suggestion that eating a whale is akin to cannibalism. We learn that most people think whale meat is too rich, but there are a few exceptions: “In a small sperm whale, the brain is considered a fine dish. The skull’s casket is broken into with an ax, and the two plump, whitish rags that are pulled out (just like two large puddings) are then mixed with flour and cooked into a delicious mess. “In the face of cannibalism, such passages are just as excruciating as the bright, narrative tone of the narrative. The author emphasizes that we achieve our terrible goals with joyful diligence, ingenuity, and strength. D. H. Lawrence, who writes a little feverishly about it Moby-Dick In the 1920s, the whale was called “the deepest blood creature of the white race. He is our deepest blood nature. And he is hunted, hunted, hunted by the manic fanaticism of our white mental consciousness. “
Moby-Dick is a tragedy – Delbanco calls it an “elegy of democracy” – but it suggests alternatives. The chapter where the characters eat chowder is one of them. When Ishmael and Queequeg arrive in Nantucket, they spend the night at an inn called Try Pots and discover in a comic strip that the place only serves two types of chowder, “mussel or cod”. The clam soup consists of “small, juicy clams, hardly larger than hazelnuts, mixed with a crushed ship’s biscuit and salted pork that is cut into small flakes; the whole thing enriched with butter and richly seasoned with pepper and salt. “The cod is just as tasty, but” with a different taste “. Ishmael and Queequeg have “chowder for breakfast, chowder for dinner, and chowder for dinner, until you started looking for fishbones coming through your clothes.” This abundant meal is a type of wedding feast celebrating a relationship that “is a critique of power in society that Melville portrayed,” writes Robert K. Martin in his seminal book The Theory of Queer Hero, Captain, and Stranger: Male Friendship, Social Criticism, and Literary Form in Herman Melville’s Maritime Novels. Martin believes that Ishmael and Queequeg’s love represents “a democratic eros … a generalized pioneering power that is not directed at control or production,” the Melville Captain Ahab’s “hierarchical eros expressed in social forms of male power, the so are different like whaling, factory ownership, military conquest. “If that’s true, then it’s also important that chowder be a mixed, sloshing, ill-defined type of dish that is subversive in definition and structure.
So I am firmly in favor of eating chowder and against eating whales. Like the try pots, I made both mussel and cod and took a recipe from my literary chef sister Cara Nicoletti that the mussel soup was made from Moby-Dick in her 2016 book Insatiable. My recipe for cod soup is from Sam Sifton’s “recipe without a prescription” for quick fish soup in the New York Times. And although the try pots weren’t a wine list and most of the drinks were in Moby-Dick Since I drank from the barrel of a harpoon, I wanted to celebrate Melville’s time in the Berkshires with a wine pairing. In 1850, shortly after meeting Sarah Morewood, Melville abruptly bought a property he could hardly afford next to hers in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Pittsfield was a wealthy place then, and Mrs. Morewood was known for picnics, meals, and entertainment. During a remarkable excursion with Melville, it is documented that she brought “brandy cherries”, champagne and “additional supplies of rum and port” with her.
My interest in Sarah Morewood is more than just gossip-related. What strikes me the most Moby-Dick is not that the author condemns the things we should condemn, but that he wrestled with which men are. Is the human will itself the problem – the urge of a wise ape to expand, create, innovate, colonize, dominate, write, whale? Or is the problem unlimited, without containment or partner? The weirdness in Melville’s work, which runs through all of his books, is a form of redefinition of the hierarchy of power. I see the reveal of the large white phallic symbol on the front cover of the book as a different one – brave Melville, the penis isn’t as powerful when it’s hanging out there for school kids to giggle for all eternity. Putting the work of art in the context of a relationship could be a third. It might be silly to find Morewood “the muse of Moby-Dick“As the subtitle of Shelden’s book does, but uses one’s own strength to do something for somebody is also a better use.
My chowders were delicious – and they are to the You! Nicoletti’s clam soup recipe includes instructions on how to make your own clam soup, a necessary step that defines the taste of the dish. The only tricky part is adding the flour and butter to the sauteed onions, then slowly whisking the broth without forming lumps, a process similar to making gravy. The recipe only calls for small amounts of bacon, celery, onions, and potatoes, and I was tempted to over-fill to give the impression of bounty that fits Melville’s chowder chapter, but I followed the recommended amounts and was glad i did: the broth to bite ratio was spot on. Nicoletti also allowed me to skip a potentially tedious step by explaining that the ship’s biscuit in Melville’s recipe was used as a thickening agent “in the days when heavy cream was not so readily available”. I was considering making ship biscuits (recipes can be found on Prepper websites), but the cream was a better choice.
The cod soup also did justice to the raw material. The premise of Sifton’s “over-the-counter recipes” is to provide the chef with guidelines for cooking while improvising. For his fish soup, he suggests bacon, onions, potatoes, corn, and carrots (similar to Nicoletti’s recipe, except that it calls for celery instead of carrots). Because the no-recipe premise allows one to invent it, and because I wanted the two dishes to be different, I made my own adjustments. When Sifton said to use fish broth, white wine, water, or any combination of the above ingredients to make broth, I used water, white wine, and tomato juice to create the second New York style bowl. The wine and tomato broth was ambrosial and the results were wonderful, although I found myself a little foolish to override my own cooking instincts to follow the no-recipe words. Undermining structures is more difficult than it seems.
For the wine pairing, my spirits employee Hank Zona suggested an American drink that was all the rage in Melville’s time and is currently experiencing a revival: a sparkling rose made from Catawba grapes. These wines, Zona said, are “lean, pink, fruity, slightly funky, slightly sweet” – perfect for a picnic like the one Melville had with Mrs. Morewood. The new versions “probably taste the same as they did back then.” Zona obtained two from the nearby finger lakes. One comes from Chëpika, a collaboration between winemaker Nathan Kendall from Finger Lakes and a woman who is a pillar of the natural wine movement, Pascaline Lepeltier. The other is from Lakewood vineyards; I found it canned at Convive Wine & Spirits in New York’s East Village for a steal of five dollars a can. The Chëpika is sour, flowery and light in alcohol; it has a summery taste, like a rhubarb bush. The Lakewood has a mild sweetness with pink fruits, balanced with flowers and a fragrance characteristic of the grape.
My picnic was wonderful, although I was a little sad, as probably all Melville lovers do. Moby-Dick In its day it was a commercial flop and mostly a critical one. Melville was “bitterly shocked,” writes Delbanco when he received the book. His next book, Pierre, cemented his lack of economic viability and eventually gave up publishing, moved back to New York City and accepted a salaried job. Moby-Dick would be rediscovered around the turn of the 20th century and undergo a major revival in the twenties, never to go dark again. Melville died long before, 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 Insatiableby Cara Nicoletti. Serves two.
Note: I divide clams into the vague classifications of quahogs and steamers. Quahogs are hard-shelled and contain common supermarket varieties such as bottlenecks. Steamers have a shallower, thinner shell and usually have the foot hanging out. In my experience, steamers contain sand and must be processed differently than the recipe below requires. The quahogs I’m buying aren’t sandy, but be sure to check yours once you’ve made the stock.
2 dozen clams
2 cups of water
a diced strip of bacon
1/2 celery ribs, chopped
a small chopped onion
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp flour
a small potato, diced
1/2 cup corn kernels, fresh or frozen
a sprig of thyme
a bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup of heavy cream
Oyster crackers for serving
Carefully wash the clams under cold running water. Transfer to a medium saucepan and cover with two cups of cold water. Bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for about five minutes until the mussels have just opened. Don’t cook too long. Strain, keep mussels and boiling liquid. Ideally, you want to pour the clam liquid into a bright opaque bowl so that you can see sand. Remove the clam meat from the shells. Discard the clams.
Rinse out the pot in which you cooked the clams. Add the bacon and cook crispy over medium heat. Reservations. Turn the heat to medium-low, add the onions and celery and sauté until the onions are wilted and translucent. Add the butter and let it melt. Stir in the flour and let it cook until it is lightly toasted and smells like a biscuit – this should take a minute or two. Stir in the mussel liquid one at a time until everything is incorporated, leaving sand at the bottom of the bowl.
Add the corn kernels, potatoes, bay leaves, thyme leaves and salt and simmer for ten to twelve minutes, until the potatoes are forked.
Add the clam meat. Add the cream and stir to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with oyster crackers.
Fast fish soup
Adapted from the New York Times.
a diced strip of bacon
a small chopped onion
a carrot, diced
a small potato, chopped
1/2 cup corn kernels, fresh or frozen
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 cup of white wine
1 cup of tomato juice
a pound of cod fillets, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 tbsp heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon Aleppo pepper
crispy bread (for serving)
Cook the bacon in a medium Dutch oven over medium heat until crispy. Remove the bacon and save. Add the onions to the bacon fat. Reduce the heat and cook for about ten minutes, until wilted and golden brown. Add the carrot, potatoes, corn, salt, and paprika. Throw to combine. Add white wine and tomato juice and bring to a boil. Simmer covered until the vegetables are soft. Add the cod and cook until it is white and flaky for about five minutes. Finish with the cream and the Aleppo pepper. Serve with crusty bread.
Please visit Valerie Stivers and Hank Zona on Friday, May 7th at 6am P.M. for a virtual Melville-themed wine tasting The Paris ReviewInstagram account. We will discuss the food at Melville’s work and recommend wines that are inspired by his life.
The wines 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 minimum of six bottles). As an alternative, we recommend any high-quality sparkling wine in a can, for example from Underwood or Old Westminster. Anyone who wants more specific advice on choosing a wine to taste can email us ([email protected]).
Valerie Stivers is a writer and lives in New York. Read previous installments of Eat Your Words.