The majority of the world’s population doesn’t have any tradition of eating whales. Indeed, many may consider the practice repugnant.

But in some places, like the Arctic, the Faroe Islands, Norway, Iceland, and Japan, killing and eating whales continues to this day, often in the face of international condemnation. In the U.S., on the other hand, the sale of whale meat is illegal.

In “Whale Meat in American History,” Nancy Shoemaker asks why Americans, who pioneered the global whaling industry, never took to eating whale meat.

In 1620, while the Mayflower pilgrims were exploring Cape Cod, they stumbled upon a group of Native Americans; it was their first encounter with a native population. A chronicler observed: “As we drew near to the shore we espied ten or twelve Indians very busy about a black thing.” This black thing, or what the pilgrims called a “grampus,” was in fact a pilot whale. The Native Americans were removing the meat for food, but for the English, whales were primarily  considered a source of oil. In other words, the Europeans saw whaling as a means to wealth, not sustenance.

Sure, 19th century American whalers sometimes ate whale meat. “Doughnuts,” hard bread or biscuits dipped in boiling whale oil, were considered a treat. But whalers were deeply ambivalent about it. They were more likely to dump the carcasses after extracting what they needed. Shoemaker identifies a racial element to the aversion: while dark-skinned primitive peoples ate the fat and the meat, white-skinned civilized people used the oil as fuel. To light a lamp, for example.

During World War I, when the whaling industry was dominated by Norwegian and British companies, the U.S. government, worried about food shortages, made a concerted effort to get Americans to eat whale meat. The effort was a notable failure, similar to their case for eating horse meat. A 1950s effort to market “Capt. Seth’s Frozen Tenderloin Norwegian Whale Steak” as a new taste sensation didn’t go anywhere, either.

Today, when pilot whales get stranded on Cape Cod, people rush to save them. The remarkable transformation in attitudes towards whaling and whales in general evolved into our current rift between those who continue to eat whales and those who do not.

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Environmental History, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Apr., 2005), pp. 269-294
Oxford University Press on behalf of Forest History Society andAmerican Society for Environmental History