c. 1843 | Indian Ocean

Preparing the Fish

A whale like a block of Berkshire marble.

While discoursing of sperm, it behooves to speak of other things akin to it, in the business of preparing the sperm whale for the tryworks. First comes white-horse, so called, which is obtained from the tapering part of the fish, and also from the thicker portions of his flukes. It is tough with congealed tendons—a wad of muscle—but still contains some oil. After being severed from the whale, the white-horse is first cut into portable oblongs ere going to the mincer. They look much like blocks of Berkshire marble.

Plum pudding is the term bestowed upon certain fragmentary parts of the whale’s flesh, here and there adhering to the blanket of blubber, and often participating to a considerable degree in its unctuousness. It is a most refreshing, convivial, beautiful object to behold. As its name imports, it is of an exceedingly rich, mottled tint, with a bestreaked snowy and golden ground, dotted with spots of the deepest crimson and purple. It is plums of rubies, in pictures of citron. Spite of reason, it is hard to keep yourself from eating it. I confess that once I stole behind the foremast to try it. It tasted something as I should conceive a royal cutlet from the thigh of Louis le Gros might have tasted, supposing him to have been killed the first day after the the venison season, and that particular venison season contemporary with an unusually fine vintage of the vineyards of Champagne.

There is another substance, and a very singular one, which turns up in the course of this business, but which I feel it to be very puzzling adequately to describe. It is called slobgollion; an appellation original with the whalemen and so is the nature of the substance. It is an ineffably oozy, stringy affair, most frequently found in the tubs of sperm after a prolonged squeezing and subsequent decanting. I hold it to be the wondrously thin, ruptured membranes of the case, coalescing. 

Gurry, so-called, is a term properly belonging to right whalemen, but sometimes incidentally used by the sperm fishermen. It designates the dark, glutinous substance which is scraped off the back of the Greenland or right whale, and much of which covers the decks of those inferior souls who hunt that ignoble leviathan.

Nippers. Strictly this word is not indigenous to the whale’s vocabulary. But as applied by whalemen, it becomes so. A whaleman’s nipper is a short, firm strip of tendinous stuff cut from the tapering part of Leviathan’s tail; it averages an inch in thickness, and for the rest is about the size of the iron part of a hoe. Edgewise moved along the oily deck, it operates like a leathern squilgee; and by nameless blandishments, as of magic, allures along with it all impurities.

But to learn all about these recondite matters, your best way is at once to descend into the blubber room. This place is the receptacle for the blanket pieces, when stripped and hoisted from the whale. When the proper time arrives for cutting up its contents, this apartment is a scene of terror to all tyros, especially by night. On one side, lit by a dull lantern, a space has been left clear for the workmen. They generally go in pairs—a pike-and-gaff man and a spade man. The whaling pike is similar to a frigate’s boarding weapon of the same name. The gaff is something like a boat hook. With his gaff, the gaff man hooks on to a sheet of blubber and strives to hold it from slipping as the ship pitches and lurches about. Meanwhile, the spade man stands on the sheet itself, perpendicularly chopping it into the portable horse pieces. This spade is sharp as hone can make it; the spade man’s feet are shoeless; the thing he stands on will sometimes irresistibly slide away from him, like a sledge. If he cuts off one of his own toes, or one of his assistants’, would you be very much astonished? Toes are scarce among veteran blubber-room men.


Herman Melville

From Moby Dick. In 1850 Melville discussed his novel-in-progress in a letter to Richard Henry Dana. “It will be a strange sort of book,” he wrote. “Blubber is blubber, you know; though you may get oil out of it, the poetry runs as hard as sap from a frozen maple tree.” Shortly after his death in 1891, the New York Times ran an appraisal of him. The text didn’t use his first name; the compositor had to guess. The headline ran: THE LATE HIRAM MELVILLE.