“The Whale as Dish” is the first of the chapters that is devoted to the idea of the commodification of the whale, as Ishmael begins by pointing out that Stubb is eating his whale steak by the light of a lamp lit by whale oil. He jokes that it’s the size of the whale that makes it less than appetizing:
The fact is, that among his hunters at least, the whale would by all hands be considered a noble dish, were there not so much of him; but when you come to sit down before a meat-pie nearly one hundred feet long, it takes away your appetite. Only the most unprejudiced of men like Stubb, nowadays partake of cooked whales; but the Esquimaux are not so fastidious. We all know how they live upon whales, and have rare old vintages of prime old train oil.
“Train oil” is an obsolete term for oil made from any marine animal and was used to refer not only to sperm oil, but also oil from baleen whales and small toothed whales. The term has nothing to do with locomotives, by the way: it’s a mid-sixteenth-century word that comes from the Middle English trane, the