Register Tuesday | June 25 | 2019

Great White Pancake

Ahab's Culinary Obsession

Though much new criticism of Moby-Dick was published to coincide with the novel’s 150th anniversary in 2001, it’s now obvious that a great deal of it predictably missed the point. Melville, the Überkünstler of American letters, couldn’t have telegraphed his themes more clearly, and yet generations of critics have run aground on this, his great Masterverk. Until now, that is. It’s high time for a commonsense reading of the text, in which its only truly significant theme—food—is served up à la carte. Consider, for instance, a crucial scene early in the novel where Ahab himself makes pancakes[1] and distributes them carefully among his mates: Starbuck, three pancakes; Stubb, two pancakes; Flask, two pancakes.[2]

Starbuck ventured to Ahab in chef’s hat: “Excellent pancakes, sir.”

“By all that is right in me, I so wanted ye to eat them,” Ahab replied.

Stubb hooked a thumb in one armpit and belched negligently.

Ahab’s aspect reddened and his brow steamed as though he would sauté Stubb’s giblets. “Are ye clearing thy worm-plowed gullet for more?” said Ahab, “or are ye trying to speak the bubble of thy brain?”

Starting at the old man’s unforeseen invective, Stubb was speechless a moment; then he rallied. “Neither, sir, and can I say I am not used to being served in such a tone, sir. I doubt that I like it, sir.”

“I shall serve thee at my whim and such fare as will make this late pancake breakfast seem no more to thy belly than a grain of wheat. Think on it! Or I’ll flay thee alive!”

Stubb recoiled as if struck with a spatula.

Ahab pivoted on his ivory leg. “Ahoy, Starbuck,” he intoned, his voice suddenly as unctuous as a tub of spermaceti, “and what will ye say to thy captain when he serves thee with—a rasher of bacon and two biscuits?”

“I don’t follow you, sir.”

“No, I think not. Men, the sea is like a huge body of water. It sweeps across vast portions of the globe. It is a place of unsounded depths—filled with fishes big and small. Above the sea broods a great absence. That’s bitter, isn’t it, men? The absence?”

“What would you have up there, sir, if I may ask,” Stubb laughed nervously.

“I’d fly pennants of thy flayed skin and make a menu of thy bones,” said Ahab, but with more excitement than anger, “and beneath that menu I would float an enormous spit on which a tremendous slab of oily meat might be roasted. But what’s this long face about, Mr. Starbuck; wilt thou not taste such ponderous meat? Art thee not game for Moby Dick?”

Obviously, the presence of the spatula suggests the rapid industrialization of America (and the class violence that accompanied it), and Stubb’s belch represents the rank and dubious outcomes of rampant consumerism. Furthermore, the massive airborne spit on which is rotating “a tremendous slab of oily meat” amazingly prefigures the political apotheosis of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Yet we must ask ourselves, why is a white whale the pièce de résistance at Ahab’s seagoing dinner party? And what are the upshots of the culinary theme?

Melville suggests one possible answer midway through the book. When Ishmael loses a biscuit overboard,[3] Queequeg dives for it and retrieves it in his mouth. Ishmael gently and ironically reproves the tattooed and muscular heathen for munching into his biscuit, but when Ishmael, finishing off his soggy scone, bites down on a small pearl, his whole outlook on the biscuit’s unfortunate fall changes. Up to this point, Ishmael has lost a total of four biscuits overboard, but this is the first biscuit to have been saved. Clearly Melville is implying that soggy food has an unexpected redemptive quality.

But this hope for redemption goes astray as Ahab, increasingly deranged by the memory of Moby Dick snacking on his leg, monomaniacally drives his crew to overeat. In chapter 179, aptly entitled “Deep Fryer,” the diabolical Ahab force-feeds his crew plate after plate of fried cheese and doughnuts filled with pure lard. His famous soliloquy at sunset makes clear just how delusive his fantasies of consumption have become and subtly foreshadows his doom: “The sea is like a great big bowl of liquid food. Would I could swallow it whole . . . But it is too vast, too wavy, to be eaten by any one person. It scalds the brain! My mind sizzles and spatters. It scalds! It scalds!”

As Moby Dick is finally sighted and the chase ensues, Melville deftly inserts three chapters devoted to shellfish recipes. These serve as an “appetizer” for the novel’s climactic meal: Ahab himself, seized in the baleen-hung jaws of the enraged white whale and “swallowed in one bite like a stuffed mushroom.”

As the flotsam and jetsam of the sunk Pequod bobs to the surface before Ishmael’s rueful eyes, the reader apprehends that Melville has reached an almost unbearable insight into the food chain, one that packs into a single lasagna, if you will, all the diverse thematic cheeses of this layered work: namely, never try to eat something that has previously bitten you.

Faced with such a dark culinary vision, it’s no wonder that critics have averted their eyes. But it’s time we all swallowed the acid-reflux-like truth of this great American novel.