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culture

Historicist: Reinventing the Whale

The First World War brings some changes to Toronto dinner plates.

Advertisement for SEI brand canned whale steak. The Toronto Star, June 6, 1919.

Toronto, like so many other Canadian communities, was forced to change its habits during the First World War. In addition to losing so much of its citizenry and labour to service, Toronto also lost access to many of its supplies, as many items were either produced in smaller numbers or else prioritized for those fighting in the trenches. In the case of fuel, this meant significantly colder winters during the later years of the war, when coal was in short supply. At the dinner table, this meant substantial changes in diet.

'The kiddies simply clamor for it': SEI advertisement featuring a recipe for Salisbury Whale Steaks. The Evening Telegram, September 12, 1919.

By the time the First World War began, Toronto was “Hogtown.” Led by the William Davies Company, pork had grown to become one of the city’s chief industries, with Toronto supplying meat not only to its own citizens, but also to other parts of Ontario and the overseas market in Great Britain.

The meat industry had grown with the railroads, as Toronto developed the infrastructure to accept livestock from other parts of the country and to ship processed meat back out. Initially concentrated downtown, the twentieth century saw a shift to the Junction, where many businesses were attracted by a combination of low tax rates and convenient access to multiple rail lines. In 1903, the Union Stock Yards opened for business on a site at Keele and St. Clair, a location which soon attracted the Harris Abattoir and numerous meatpacking companies. With all these facilities within easy access to one another, animals could come to the Junction by rail, and be sold, slaughtered, and distributed to butchers at a fantastic rate.

In The Stockyard Story, D.R. McDonald writes that many viewed the concentration of meatpacking facilities in the Junction with concern, as they believed that these industries might collude with one another to fix prices or control production. This was one of the factors which led to Toronto opening a municipal abattoir in September of 1914 on Niagara Street, just west of Tecumseth Street, where local butchers could acquire city-inspected meats.

Toronto meat industries did a booming trade during much of the war, but not necessarily serving Torontonians. Pork was prioritized for export to Europe, and the William Davies Company did very well—so well, in fact, that some local newspapers hinted at suggestions of profiteering, which the company successfully refuted.

The Toronto Municipal Abattoir, seen in May of 1916. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 513.

With concern over resources growing in 1917, Canadians were encouraged to sign a voluntary “Food Service Pledge,” in which they promised to reduce consumption of meat and wheat, and to cut down on the waste of household food. As the war continued, Toronto newspapers increasingly featured columns with suggestions for how to get more out of vegetables, or what cheaper, more available foods could substitute for old favourites. One promotional notice for the Food Service Pledge in a 1917 edition of the Globe advised that “fish are just as appetizing and nourishing on Tuesdays and Thursdays as on Fridays [the traditional day for fish], and if you and your neighbors [sic] will buy fish any day in the week, you will get cheaper fish and better fish.” This same notice includes a crash course in nutrition, explaining the concept of “calories” to indicate that fish is, indeed, nourishing.

Advertisers tried to promote their products as viable wartime alternatives. Ads for Shredded Wheat, for example, promote its nutritional value, asking customers to “make Shredded Wheat your ‘meat.’”

As the drive for meat alternatives continued, the war effort also promoted a culture of conservation. Waste became the enemy on the home front, and an effort was made to find additional uses for by-products. In 1918, the western world began looking more closely at whales.

Although whale meat seems to have been unknown to Torontonians prior to the war, other whale-based products were certainly available. Whalebone had long been used for a variety of purposes, most notably in corsets and for the handles of brushes. The main resource from whales during the war, however, was oil.

“Whale oil” can refer either to a substance derived from boiled whale blubber, or to a specific product harvested exclusively from the head cavities of sperm whales, alternatively referred to as “spermaceti.” Both products had valuable industrial applications, ranging from use in the production of fabrics and chamois leather to serving as an industrial lubricant. British Columbian whaling existed mainly at this time to harvest this oil and to ship it to other parts of Canada and the overseas market. One article in the Globe suggests that the war had discovered an additional use for whale oil as a rub which could help prevent trench foot.

(Above: A suggested wartime menu from the Federal Government. The Toronto Star, December 1, 1917.)

The meat of the whale, however, was usually discarded, although there is evidence that at both British Columbia and Newfoundland whaling stations it was sometimes consumed by the local population. Whale meat was also consumed by some First Nations groups in Canada’s north, although whaling in the north did not generally happen on as large an economic scale as it did further south.

With all this meat being wasted, talk of marketing it to consumers as an alternative to traditional beef and pork began to gain momentum in early 1918. In February of that year, a luncheon was held in New York—at, appropriately enough, the American Museum of Natural History. A group of businessmen and scientists, including famed polar explorer Admiral Robert E. Peary, dined on a menu which included planked whale steak “a la Vancouver” and “cold whale hash in jelly.” The Star wrote that “when it was over they declared the big mammal furnished as delicious and appetizing a dish as any meat market affords.”

A Toronto butcher's meat display, ca. 1910. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 337.

Ten days later, the Star reported that 50 pounds of whale meat, described as “choice cuts near the wishbone,” had been sent to Ottawa courtesy of the Victoria Whaling Company, a company with offices in Toronto, for the purpose of having “domestic science experts” explore the possibility of marketing it to the public. This is likely the same meat which, two days later, found itself served at Toronto’s National Club.

In a luncheon held by the Canadian Food Control Board, a select group of Torontonians, including Ontario’s Commissioner of Agriculture and several members of the press, had their first taste of whale meat. The Globe wrote that “the whale steak was found to resemble a veal cutlet in appearance, though darker, and to taste much like venison, though with a slight suggestion of an oily flavour.” The Star and the World agreed that it tasted like venison, with the World noting its tenderness and calling it “an excellent indication of the existence of many forms of perfectly good food that up to this time have been allowed to go to waste.” All the Toronto newspapers who reported on the lunch expressed surprise that the meat tasted so little like fish, with the Star writing “whale is not fish. When the scientists told us that we thought it was mere quibble or a piece of pedantry. But eating whale is convincing.”

A second shipment of whale meat reached Toronto by rail in April, and was taken to the municipal abattoir to be sold and distributed to local butchers, making use of the very infrastructure which had been designed to ship pork out of the city. The Star reported that the whale meat was quickly purchased by restaurants and clubs (including the Albany Club), and that a butcher on King Street, who purchased the majority of the first shipment, “could have sold double the quantity.” The Star noted that “looking at the whale delicacy through the shop window, it could not be distinguished from beef tenderloin.” More positive opinion on its taste followed, with the quotes this time coming from butchers and those in the food industry—although it is difficult to determine if this feedback is representative of true opinion, or was carefully reported so as to encourage sales. Both the Star and the Globe also took this opportunity to report that many Toronto butchers were now selling beaver meat, which had come from Algonquin Park.

In the months following these supposedly successful trials of whale meat, the Toronto newspapers grow quiet on the subject, suggesting a delay in bringing the meat to the city on a large scale. As it made its Toronto debut at the National and Albany Clubs, it is possible that there was an active hunt amongst the city’s political elite for capital that could support the venture. Prospective retailers may also have needed time to organize other shipping infrastructure: as whale meat had not previously been marketed, facilities were presumably needed on the British Columbia end to process, inspect, and ship the product.

Whale meat arrives in Toronto, near North Toronto Station, probably in December of 1918. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1939.

In December of 1918, after the armistice but before the official end of the war, the Toronto Star reported on the arrival of 70,000 pounds of whale meat in Toronto. Whereas previous shipments to Toronto are implied to have been fresh, this shipment arrived in cans. Previous reports focused on the city’s elite eating choice cuts of meat, but this shipment of canned whale meat was intended for the general customer, with a reported retail value of a competitive 20 cents per pound.

The subsequent advertising campaign indicates that the company behind this venture was the Consolidated Whaling Company, a recently established amalgamation of whaling companies with stations in British Columbia, headquartered at this time in Toronto with an office on King Street. Consolidated Whaling appears tied, through corporate connections, to the Victoria Whaling Company who had brought the first shipment to Ontario earlier that spring, and with the Toronto Insurance and Vessel Agency, all of which shared offices in the same building. William Schupp, with an address at the King Edward Hotel, is listed in city directories as the company’s president, with George Denison, of 89 Indian Grove, as vice-president and secretary-treasurer. In later years, Toronto Insurance and Vessel is linked in the city directories with the transportation of oil products, further suggesting that its fortunes were linked to the whaling industry.

The movement to promote whale meat to Toronto was likely sunk by the end of the war. Although the cost of living did not plummet overnight, a gradual return to normalcy meant a lowered demand for alternative foods. Nevertheless, Consolidated Whaling made an earnest effort to promote its product. In the spring of 1919, the company began placing advertisements in the Toronto newspapers promoting their canned whale meat, which they sold under the SEI brand.

SEI advertisements promote whale as tasty, economical, and wholesome, with one ad referring to it as “a highly nutritious, satisfying food, which the world has just realized to be one of the most delicious meats nature had provided.” In an effort to allay fears consumers might have about the conditions in which it was canned, many of the ads also stress that the meat is “obtainable at all grocers and butchers in sanitary, air-tight tins” and comes “direct from scrupulously clean canneries.”

(Above: Prices at Eaton’s in December of 1918 show whale meat, listed under ‘Groceries,’ selling for 20 cents a pound, the same price as the cheapest shoulder roast of beef. The Toronto Star, December 27, 1918.)

As consumers would presumably not know what to do with whale meat, many of these advertisements include some simple recipes. One ad, for “Whale Steak Pie,” suggests chopping the whale meat, seasoning, and then topping with mashed potatoes, gravy, and butter. Another, for “Whale Steak With Sauce,” advises simmering the meat in a simple sauce made with water, butter, onions, vinegar, salt, and pepper.” Other SEI brand recipes include a whale-based Irish Stew, “Whale Loaf,” and “Whale Steak Croquettes,” the latter of which asks the cook to blend the whale with rice and seasoning and then fry in small rolls.

'Give the Family a Treat': advertisement for SEI brand whale steak, featuring a recipe for Whale Steak Pie. The Toronto Star, September 25, 1919.

These advertisements disappear from the Toronto newspapers in October of 1919, and this appears to have been the end of whale meat in Toronto. The Toronto Insurance and Vessel Agency remained active in Toronto into the 1960s. Consolidated Whaling remained headquartered in Toronto until 1932, when they appear to shift corporate offices to Seattle; the company itself remained active in British Columbia whaling activities until the Second World War.


Additional material from: Derek Boles, Images of Rail: Toronto’s Railway Heritage (Arcadia Publishing, 2009); The Toronto Daily News (March 1, 1918); The Globe (September 15, 1917; February 9, March 1, March 2, April 4, April 5, April 17, December 24, 1918; September 13, September 20, 1919); D.R. McDonald, The Stockyard Story (New Canada Press, 1985: Toronto); Ian Hugh Maclean Miller, Our Glory & Our Grief: Torontonians and the Great War (University of Toronto Press, 2002); The Toronto Star (October 28, 1913; September 28, December 19, 1917; February 5, February 9, February 16, March 1, March 4, April 3, April 6, December 18, December 27, 1918; June 6, June 19; September 11, September 15, September 18, September 22, September 25, September 29, October 8, October 14, October 20, 1919); The Evening Telegram (April 3, September 12, September 17, 1918); The Toronto World (March 12, October 1, 1914; March 1, 1918).


Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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