What’s Cooking Wednesday: Whale Surprise!

Recipes for Whale Pot Roast and Curried Whale from the Records of the U.S. Food Administration, RG 4 (National Archives at Kansas City)

Today’s guest post comes from Jennifer Audsley Moore, who is an archives technician and volunteer coordinator at the National Archives at Kansas City.

Whale: It’s what’s for dinner.

At least, that is how the U.S. Food Administration and U.S Bureau of Fisheries would have it. During World War I, the U.S. Food Administration was established under the Lever Act to ration food and stabilize prices. With farmers and other industries mandated to comply with the act, certain food items such as sugar, wheat, and beef became difficult to procure.

But for the majority of Americans, participation in food rationing was more strongly suggested than mandatory. Advertisements designed to admonish Americans into forgoing sugar, beef, pork, wheat in the name of patriotism abounded. American soldiers fighting in France needed beef and sugar rations, and Uncle Sam needed the ships normally used to import sugar and other luxuries for the war effort.

So just what were Americans at home supposed to serve for dinner? Not beef. Not pork. Chicken perhaps? No. How about whale? Yes, whale.

Perhaps this might not seem far-fetched in Alaska or even New England (although in the Midwest we tend to identify the East Coast with clam chowder and Maryland crab, not whale). But what about in Missouri, the heart and breadbasket of the nation? Catfish and trout may be plentiful in our rivers and lakes, but generally speaking, whales do not tend to find their way to the landlocked Midwest on their own.

This minor detail was of no concern to the good people at the U.S. Food Administration. Together with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, they promised to “give this new food a wide distribution” and even developed recipes for housewives to expand their culinary repertoire. Women were instructed to invite friends over for dinner and “casually mention” that whale would be the main course. While waiting for their friends “surprise” to find out how delicious whale could truly be (with one caveat: it must be cooked “right”), the World War I–era housewife could take pride in her patriotic sacrifice and new skills searing and roasting whale.

Whale could be prepared in a number of ways: as a steak with a few drops of butter and some Worcestershire sauce and parsley. If “Whale Steak” was not to your liking, perhaps “Pot Roast of Whale” would be more appetizing. The whale should be seared in a hot pan before being covered in boiling water and simmered with pickling spice, parsley, bay leaf, and onion.

Another recipe for whale for dinner! From the Records of the U.S. Food Administration, RG 4 (National Archives at Kansas City)

And what was one to do with all that leftover whale? How about “Curried Whale” the next day? The leftover roast whale meat should be chopped coarsely with ½ teaspoon of salt for every cup of whale meat. To this mixture add curry sauce and cook in a double boiler, “stirring constantly for 20–50 minutes.” It is suggested that this concoction be served hot, with crackers. Whale leftovers sound quite involved. Hungry yet? Perhaps these thoughtful recipes just did not meet our ancestors’ palates with approval. Maybe the guests at their little dinner demonstration were overcome not with surprise and delight, but horror or disgust at the idea of dining upon whale. Or maybe the hostess did not take the Food Administration’s warning to heart about preparing the whale “right.”

Unfortunately, no evidence in our records suggests that whale was ever made widely available here in Missouri, nor do many patrons or staff seem to have any cherished family recipes dating back to the Great War that call for whale as a main course. This can only lead us to conclude that perhaps “Whale For Dinner” was a failure on the part of Midwestern Food Administrators.

If you would like to see our whale recipes or any of our treasures from the Records of the U.S. Food Administration, RG 4, in person, please send an e-mail to kansascity.archives@nara.gov or call 816-268-8000.

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