Moby Dick

The Perennial Question: Clam or Cod?

The equivalent of 1/6 of a whaling voyage has passed since I wrote my last entry on Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, or, the Whale. That’s 8 whole months to those who aren’t paying attention. In that time I’ve been dealing with some minor leviathans of my own, a few pilot whales perhaps, and one sperm whale. I’ve been fired from a job I hated by a man who rivaled Ahab himself for megalomania, hired short-term at a job I loved, moved away from San Francisco, city of my heart, and embarked on a trip of indefinite length and nebulous itinerary to South America. Like I said, there have been some developments of leviathan proportions this year. But, here at the furthest culmination of all that excitement, sitting in a room on San Cristobal Island, in the Galápagos, where I’m staying for free in exchange for working (barely) at the hotel, it is comforting to think back to the first day of 2014, when I took on the semi-daunting task of cooking two different kinds of chowder.

If you haven’t read Moby-Dick before, just know that, of all food-related scenes in literature, the 15th chapter of this novel is one that has always stuck with me. Maybe you’ll agree:

[Mrs. Hussey] ushered us into a little room, and seating us at a table spread with the relics of a recently concluded repast, turned round to us and said- “Clam or Cod?”

“What’s that about Cods, ma’am?” said I, with much politeness.

“Clam or Cod?” she repeated.

“A clam for supper? a cold clam; is that what you mean, Mrs. Hussey?” says I, “but that’s a rather cold and clammy reception in the winter time, ain’t it, Mrs. Hussey?”

But being in a great hurry to resume scolding the man in the purple shirt who was waiting for it in the entry, and seeming to hear nothing but the word “clam”, Mrs. Hussey hurried towards an open door leading to the kitchen, and bawling out “clam for two”, disappeared.

“Queequeg,” said I, “do you think that we can make a supper for us both on one clam?”

However, a warm savory steam from the kitchen served to belie the apparently cheerless prospect before us. But when that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained. Oh! sweet friends, hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuits, and salted pork cut up into little flakes! the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt. Our appetites  being sharpened by the frosty voyage, and in particular, Queequeg seeing his favourite fishing food before him, and the chowder being surpassingly excellent, we despatched it with great expedition…

Now if that’s not the kind of writing that makes you feel like you’re sitting right there on that bench between Ishmael and Queequeg, trying to shake off the chill by getting a warm meal of delicious chowder, I don’t know what is. In my attempt to stave off the not nearly comparable (to New England) winter chill of San Francisco, I looked up a recipe for clam chowder on my go-to, TasteSpotting, and found the perfect recipe on the blog Inspiration Kitchen. With my chef roommate and a New Year’s Day hangover in tow, I drove all over San Francisco looking for the ingredients. Once I’d found everything I needed, we headed back home, pulled out my big stockpot usually used for storing baking supplies, and set to work. Several hours later, I served the finished product to my famished and equally hungover friends, along with a Porter from the local Anchor Steam brewery. I was very pleased with the results as I had been a little worried by the amount of clam juice called for in the recipe which, in spite of the fact that it is clam chowder, seemed exorbitant. It was the perfect meal on a day when it was cozy within and dreary without, and the chowder was well-received and vivifying, as I hoped it would be.

DSC_0001I love soups. All soups. In fact, I can’t think of a soup I’ve ever run into that I didn’t like, including my recent encounter with some kind of chicken-based soup with very questionable looking pieces of what may or may not have been stomach lining. Tasty. I also love to make soups, but they can definitely be labor-intensive, especially, I found, chowders. But I wasn’t happy with just one chowder. I had to make two, simultaneously, and in my tiny kitchen, that was no small feat. But I couldn’t not make the fish chowder, not when it comes from such a great scene.

… when leaning back a moment and bethinking me of Mrs. Hussey’s clam and cod announcement, I thought I would try a little experiment. Stepping to the kitchen door, I uttered the word “cod” with great emphasis, and resumed my seat. In a few moments the savoury steam came forth again, but with a different flavor, and in good time a fine cod-chowder was placed before us.

We resumed business; and while plying our spoons in the bowl, thinks I to myself, I wonder now if this here has any effect on the head? What’s the stultifying saying about chowder-headed people? “But look, Queequeg, ain’t that a live eel in your bowl? Where’s your harpoon?”

Fishiest of all fishy places was the Try Pots, which well deserved its name; for the pots there were always boiling chowders. Chowder for breakfast, and chowder for dinner, and chowder for supper, till you began to look for fish-bones coming through your clothes. 

I used, of course, cod for this chowder, and paired it with Drake’s Drakonic Imperial Stout. Unfortunately, I was not as happy with this chowder as it was neither as thick nor as tasteful as I had hoped. It could also have been that we ate this one after the flavor-packed clam chowder and so it seemed lackluster in comparison, but in any case, the clam chowder definitely took the prize. I think Ishmael, Queequeg, and Mrs. Hussey would have applauded my effort, if not wholeheartedly my results. If the latter were around, I would definitely ask her for a few pointers.

DSC_0006Ultimately, I very much enjoyed making these chowders that are so lauded in Moby-Dick. Perhaps the making of hearty, hangover-relieving soups needs to become a New Year’s Day tradition.

Next up: One Hundred Years of Solitude (or Cien años de soledad since I read it in Spanish!) by Gabriel García Márquez. Thanks for staying tuned!

 

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Self-Sacrifice Aboard the Pequod

Imagine for a moment spending four years on a ship. It is musty with dampness, creaky, never for an instant motionless. You are without exception subjected to every whim of the weather, with no choice but to stand watch during the worst storms, in winter or summer, at other times unshielded from the fiercest beatings of the sun. Your duty will be to chase creatures as large as the ship you inhabit, whose slightest movement could crush you like waves crush rock into sand. You will not set foot on land for 1,460 days and see no other human being other than those on board with you. And no, you do not have a smart phone. Can you imagine it?

Neither can I.

In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the narrator, Ishmael, is our window into the exclusive and now mostly extinct world of whaling. Although he both begins and ends the novel as a man with his own will and personality, his time on board the Pequod is characterized by an almost total lack of either. He has in essence become only another appendage of the many-limbed animal that is an efficient whaling crew, his every action dictated by the mates, his captain, and above all, the sea. To be a valuable part of a crew, or any team in which the only hope of success lies in working together seamlessly and almost instinctually, there has to be a certain sacrifice of one’s individuality, at least temporarily. Ishmael likens signing on to a whaling voyage to suicide when he says,

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses… then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship (2).

In this case, Ishmael seems to welcome this relinquishment of personality, of individual responsibility and care in exchange for becoming part of the unified body of the ship’s crew. For further proof of this self-sacrifice, one only need look at Queequeg, the fascinating cannibal whom Ishmael goes into such detail about in the beginning of the novel. Queequeg is a towering man, covered from head to foot in tribal tattoos, who goes everywhere accompanied by his razor-sharp harpoon. And yet both Ishmael and the reader quickly come to find that his threatening exterior conceals a gentle and tolerant soul, which contrast makes Queequeg one of the most intriguing characters in the book. Before embarking on the whaler, Ishmael and Queequeg become fast friends, and Ishmael even makes sure that Queequeg is hired on the same ship. However, almost immediately after setting foot aboard the Pequod, Queequeg is suddenly mentioned rarely, and often only in passing. It seems that Melville created this fascinating and wild character and then almost completely muted him in order to show the reader just how little individuals mattered aboard a whaling ship. However, the bond between Ishmael and Queequeg is not broken by joining the crew; instead it is transformed from one of friendship to one of universal interdependence. In one of the gruesome scenes where the dead whale is being carved into its valuable parts, Ishmael reflects on the extent to which their fates, and ultimately the fate of the crew, are interwoven:

So strongly and metaphysically did I conceive of my situation then, that while earnestly watching his motions, I seemed distinctly to perceive that my own individuality was now merged in a joint stock company of two; that my free will had received a mortal wound; and that another’s mistake or misfortune might plunge innocent me into unmerited disaster and death. Therefore, I saw that here was a sort of interregnum in Providence; for its even-handed equity never could have sanctioned so gross an injustice. And yet still further pondering… I saw that this situation of mine was the precise situation of every mortal that breathes; only, in most cases, he, one way or other, has this Siamese connexion with a plurality of other mortals. If your banker breaks, you snap; if your apothecary by mistake sends you poison in your pills, you die…. Nor could I possibly forget that, do what I would, I only had the management of one end of it (329).

In this excerpt, Ishmael brings up a very interesting point. How connected are we to the people around us? The answer is invisibly and irrevocably so. While driving on the freeway, you are unconsciously trusting that the people around you are paying attention. Should the driver in front of you lose focus and then suddenly slam on the brakes to avoid something, you will most likely smash into him. Should the person making your dinner fail to wash the vegetables they’ll be serving you, you may find yourself becoming all too intimate with the toilet. Or, if a chemical processing facility near your town should forgo safety checks on the containment of hazardous materials, you just might find yourself without clean water for drinking, preparing food, showering, or any other of the daily things we think so little about when we have them at our disposal.

It is a wonderful asset of literature that it allows us to find parallels between our own lives, whatever they may consist of, and the very different lives of others. I would never have considered that my life had any similarities with that of a whaler aboard the Pequod, but as Ishmael states above, in some ways there is very little difference. So although I started this entry by attempting to have you imagine being a whaler and pointing out that we could not know what it felt like, perhaps now you’ll agree with me. There is no occupation, no social status, no state of wholeness nor disability, that does not maintain within it some thread of similarity with the existence of every single other human being on the planet. I think the world would be a nicer place if we all reminded ourselves of that more often.