Saturday, 16 November 2013

How to Cook a Rotten Whale

     I would really love to see the scientific results of the Japanese whale kill ostensibly performed for "scientific research". Just the same, the continuation of whaling by Japan and Norway (everyone forgets them) does not fill me with outrage as it does many others. It is well established that minke whale populations have rebounded and that the kill is sustainable. That does not, of course, mean that I am enthusiastic about it. To put it bluntly, there ain't no humane way to kill a whale. I would turn vegetarian if I thought the bullocks, pigs, and lambs I eat had been killed by someone on an all terrain vehicle shooting them with an explosive harpoon, then allowing the frantic animal to charge headlong over the terrain, dragging the vehicle with it, until it succumbed.
     Be that as it may, the demise of big time whaling has meant that the world has lost some of the interesting bytes of information it once produced. Like, why a whale left standing - or rather, floating - too long was referred to as "burnt", rather than "rotten".
     In 1950 - a year which seems immensely distant now -  Dr Robert Blackwood Robertson joined a large Antarctic whaling fleet as the senior medical officer, and later described his experiences in Of Whales and Men (Macmillan, 1956). He soon discovered one vital aspect of his job: that no matter how seriously ill or sick a seaman might be on another ship, he could not treat him until a whale had been caught. The reason, of course, was obvious, once you think of it. They could not allow two ships to come together in the surging Antarctic seas unless a whale could be strapped between them to act as a buffer. It was known as the "fender whale".
     Now, the rules of the International Whaling Commission required that a whale be butchered and boiled down no longer than thirty-three hours after being killed. There was a tendency to stretch this a little - to hide a few whales among the ice flows for two or three days, just to have them ready for the end of the season. However, one of the very peculiar exceptions to the IWC rules was the fender whale, which could go into the boiler no matter how long it had been dead.
     Dr Robertson watched as the last fender whale of the season was butchered. By this time, it had been dead for a week, and two days beforehand it had exploded. "That is to say, the accumulated gases from the decay of its intestines had burst its mighty belly wide open with a report like a cannon shot and an outrush of putrid fumes like the discharge from fifty morgues." As soon as the blubber - the last thing to decay - was removed, and the rotten flesh underneath revealed, one of the flensers, despite a stomach stronger than any ten land lubbers', immediately threw up. It was putrid, it was vile, it was unspeakable - and it was also a foot deep, and about to be quite legally committed to the boiler.
     Just then, the bosun appeared and announced that no flenser could expect to gain employment the following season unless every last spoonful of the abominable filth was cleaned out and cast overboard. Their language, I suspect, as they went about their task, was as foul as the material they were clearing.
     When the fetid outer flesh was cut from the whale, Davison [the bosun] showed me what he meant by the 'burnt' part, which he grudgingly, but on sound hygienic principles, permitted to join the oil. It was a strange phenomenon, which I had seen before in the farmyard dung-heap and in the bacteriological laboratory, but never to this degree. The bacterial action in the decaying whale carcass raises heat just as it does in the disintegrating heap of compost or in the culture tube on the bacteriologist's rack. But in the case of the whale the heat is so intense, and so insulated by the thick blubber from escape by conduction or radiation, that the deeper layers of meat are actually cooked, rendered sterile, and sometimes even charred by the intense activity of million of billions of heat-producing bacteria. Davison invited me to put my hand deep into the flank muscle of the old fender whale, and I withdrew it with a yelp of pain, for the underlying flesh was blistering hot. Then he offered to share with me a well-done - almost overdone - steak that he cut from the muscles of the back; but this I declined, for I had just seen and smelled the oven that cooked the steak.
     'That's why we always speak of a "burnt" whale, and never a rotten one, doctor,' the old whaleman explained. (pp 229-230 of the 1958 Reprint Society edition)

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