Thumbing through my wife’s classic Chilean cookbook, La Gran Cocina Chilena , I came across this recipe in the fish and seafood section:
Breaded Whale Cutlets (Escalopas de Ballena)
1 kg. whale
2 teaspoons vinegar
¼ lt. of oil
¼ kg. bread crumbs
Salt, pepper, parsley
Cut the meat into thin cutlets, and soak in vinegar water for approximately 48 hours. Then season with salt, pepper and parsley. Beat the eggs and pass the cutlets through the beaten egg and then through the bread crumbs. Heat the oil in a skillet and fry the cutlets. (All translations mine unless otherwise noted)
Aside from confirming my suspicion that the 2000 edition had not received much editing from previous editions (Chile stopped commercial whale hunting in 1983), it made me curious—and cost me several weeks of research.
Was whale once important in Chilean diet?
Well, yes ...and no.
Except for a brief and evidently unsuccessful marketing campaign to bring whale meat to the urban population in the 60s, whale meat was important only to indigenous Chileans. Whale oil, on the other hand, was a major ingredient in Chilean margarine for many years.
Whales in Aboriginal Diet
On the coast of
Chilean Patagonia, like other coasts where whales and humans existed, a beached whale, with it’s tons of meat and fat, was a gift not to be refused. The Chilean coast, from the Island of Chiloe south to Tierra del Fuego, was the home of maritime hunter-gathers, the Yaghan, Kawésqar, and Chono “Canoe Indians.” They lived on an almost exclusively meat diet, and traveled long distances trough the channels of the southern archipelago in bark canoes warmed by fires built on sod platforms. The men hunted seals and the women dove for shellfish in the frigid water. They had no clothing other than seal skin capes. , like most other Europeans, reacted to them with a mixture of pity and horror: Darwin
While going one day on shore near
, we pulled alongside a canoe with six Fuegians. These were the most abject and miserable creatures I anywhere beheld. ….these Fuegians in the canoe were quite naked, and even one full-grown woman was absolutely so. …These poor wretches were stunted in their growth, their hideous faces bedaubed with white paint, their skins filthy and greasy, their hair entangled, their voices discordant, and their gestures violent. ….Whenever it is low water, winter or summer, night or day, they must rise to pick shellfish from the rocks; and the women either dive to collect sea-eggs, or sit patiently in their canoes, and with a baited hair-line without any hook, jerk out little fish. If a seal is killed, or the floating carcass of a putrid whale is discovered, it is a feast; and such miserable food is assisted by a few tasteless berries and fungi. Wollaston Island
Contemporary anthropology, with a different perspective than Victorian England, views them with neither pity nor horror (although their treatment by civilized people evokes both), but with interest and respect for their adaptation to a difficult environment. But
’s observation was substantially correct: the mainstay of their diet was seal meat, but beached whales--and shell fish and sea birds--were important. Darwin
Kawésqar seal hunting 
The strong tides, narrow channels and shallow inlets made stranded whales relatively common, but sick or injured whales were actively hunted. Martin Gusinde, Catholic priest and anthropologist who conducted research among the peoples of the Chilean archipelago in the 1920s writes:
It seems almost incredible that the little Yámanas and Alaculufes [Yaghan and Kawésqar], with their fragile and weak canoes, dare to approach live whales in that violent and powerful ocean. In fact they do so, confident as much in their personal skill as in the efficacy of their harpoons. The Fuegians never approach a completely healthy whale, as that would be very dangerous. But there is a chance of success when they approach a whale that has been harassed by a sword fish or is mortally wounded. Then many canoes approach from all directions. The men throw their long harpoons and all pull violently on the lines to enlarge the many grave injuries of the animal. It is attacked from all sides, until at last, each man has thrown all his weapons at hand. It is strange to see the whale riddled with so many harpoons, javelins, and darts! Sometimes it happens that after so many hours of work by the Indians the animal escapes, in spite of being gravely wounded. But if the men are able to kill a sick or wounded animal, then they drag the enormous prey to the beach, taking advantage of the tide to push the deformed body of the animal as far on land as possible. This fish, of incalculable abundance, feeds many families for several weeks; its meat and oil, bones, tendons, barbels, and teeth have many uses.
By 1946-48, when they were studied by French ethnographer Joseph Emperaire, the Kawésqar had largely abandoned their mobile way of life, and lived mainly in the
village of Puerto Eden on . Mestizo hunters had greatly reduced the seal population and the Kawésqar lived largely on shell fish, small game and food provided by the Chilean government—a diet much different from their fat-rich diet of the past. Wellington Island
But occasionally a stranded whale was found, and those families who retained a semblance of independence…
…would leave silently during the night, steering toward where the whale was stranded. Camp was established as close as possible to the beached whale, and for as long a time as the Alcalufe [Kawésqar] temperament could endure it, they fed themselves on the whale meat. Later the families returned to Puerto Eden completely transformed… The children, in particular, became unrecognizable with the layer of fat that accumulated under their skin. In other times, according to the old people, the stranding of a whale was the pretext for parties and dances among the entire group.
Whales were also important to other Chilean indigenous costal people like the Lafquenches, Mapuche speakers of south central
Chile, and Changos of northern Chilean and southern . The Changos not only scavenged beached whales, but according to Spanish monk, Antonio Vazquez de Espinosa who visited the area (in 1615?), they hunted whales using harpoons or lances with copper points. Peru
Commercial whaling off the Chilean Coast
We’ll never know when the last stranded whale fed the remaining Kawésqar, but by the 1790s American whalers had discovered the rich whaling grounds of the Pacific and Chilean whales were (metaphorically) feeding the
New Bedford and Yankees. Nantucket, Massachusetts
The year 1792 marks the opening of the bold and innovative whaling cycle. Participating in these events were ore that 24 English vessels, 8 from
Dunkirk, 6 from Nantucket and one form , all crewed almost completely by North American officers and crews. The harvest was plentiful. Most returned to their ports of origin with full cargos. Bedford
By the 1830s whalers from Europe and
crowded Chilean ports; over 100 were active in 1834. But while they were allowed to enter and restock at major Chilean ports, they were not allowed to hunt in Chilean waters, leaving the productive inshore waters (more or less) untouched. This opportunity was not ignored; in 1840 Chilean José Olivares began hunting sperm and humpback whales from the Caleta (fishing village) of Tumbes in America . His family continued the enterprise until 1944, joined over the years by many others from Concepción Bay to Coquimbo. Punta Arenas
Another Chilean whaling family, the Macayas, got their start some 40 years later. In about 1880 Don Juan Macaya, farmer and father of 14 children, welcomed a young immigrant to the island Santa María, south of Concepcíon. He was Juan Da Silva, descendant of an old Portuguese whaling family. Da Silva, overwhelmed by the numbers of whales of all species seen off the island’s shore, convinced Macaya to become a whaler, saying, according to family historian, "You’re wasting time on land, because these whales you see there are a millionaire business.” 
During the 19th century the main products from whales were oil and baleen or whale bone. Whale oil was used for lighting, especially important in
Captured whales were dismembered at sea or in on-shore whaling stations and stripped of their oil-bearing blubber and whale bone. Small quantities of meat were sometimes taken, to be fed to the crews, but the carcass and most of the meat was simply discarded into the sea.
By the last third of the 19th century petroleum largely replaced whale oil and synthetics began to take the place of whale bone, and as the price of whale oil went into a sharp decline, so did the whaling enterprise.
But starting in 1905 a new technology, hydrogenation, by which oil was converted to a solid, created new markets for whale oil, this time as human food in the form of margarine and shortening. And at about the same time19th century whaling methods, the open whale boat, and the hand-thrown harpoon, were replaced by motorized ships with harpoon canons and harpoons with explosive charges. Whaling became much more efficient and profitable, and whaling became a major Chilean industry as new companies were formed in
Valparaiso, Punta Arenas, on Chiloe Island, , and Corral. Valdivia
But the largest was established in 1936 in the fishing
village of Quintay, south of , by a Chilean conglomerate, the Compañía Industrial INDUS, manufacturer of a wide range of products from animal and vegetable oils. Facing a shortage of raw materials, Valparaiso INDUS went into the whaling business and established a large on-shore whale processing plant. Two years later INDUS opened a hydrogenation plant.
In its period of maximum production (decade of the 50s) [INDUS’] operation accounted for 2% of the whales captured and 1% of whale oil production world wide, all destined for the national market. The main species taken were the fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) and sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus).
INDUS 6 in
Quintay workers, 1960
Photos: Balleneros de Quintay
The table below shows
’s whale catch in relation to the rest of the whaling world for individual years from 1910 to 1980. Chile
Whale Meat in 20th Century
peak of Chile’s whaling production, an article entitled “Nutritional value of whale meat consumed in ” appeared in a Chilean journal of nutrition, public health and toxicology.  It began: Chile
The Chilean dietary panorama manifests a scarcity of proteins of animal origin. At the same time, consider the reality that the national territory possesses an extension of more than 4,000 km of coast, and therefore, great fishery resources, thus promotion of consumption of fish, shellfish and whales assumes an indisputable importance. ….whales used for consumption belong to the varieties finback, blue and humpback, always referring to young animals. The sperm whale is not eatable by man due to the composition of its fat, but it is processed for the preparation of meal for animal feeds. The variety of whale preferred in the country is the finback, whose meat is quite similar to that of beef, especially when coming from young animals.
The conclusion, in an English summary was, “The results show that this meat is an excellent source of good quality protein which is highly digestible.”
The article is followed by a public service ad from the Chilean national commission to encourage consumption of “fishery products,” and although whale is not mentioned, the sea creature pictured looks reasonably whale-like.
I did not discover a campaign specifically promoting whale meat, but there was a campaign to promote whale products, including meat. The poster below, from Balleneros de Quintay, shows foods (translated in red) prominently.
Products obtained from the whale
(click to enlarge)
(click to enlarge)
Ultimately, however, whale did not become popular in Chilean diet, and production was largely exported or converted into whale meal.
The hunting and butchering of whales in
was focused primarily on the production of oils, meat meal, bone meal, and finally, meat. This was largely because the species most commonly token, the sperm whale, was destined exclusively for the production of oils, derivatives, and secondary products; consumption of its meat never gained a place in the national market due to objective problems (difficulties in preservation and cooking) and subjective values (whale meat was considered second class). Loin meat of fin whales [Balaenoptera physalus], was preferred for human consumption. The production of meat, principally meat from fin whales, required a series of additional steps during the hunt. The animal could not be harpooned in the loin; and had to be chilled through the opening in the abdominal cavity from the anus to the diaphragm. Only during the last three seasons that the Quintay plant operated (1964-67), working with three modern whale hunting ships provided by their partner, the Japanese Nitto Whaling Company, did the production of whale meat become important. As much as nine thousand tons of meat was exported to Chile in 1965. Meat left over from rendering [the oil] was made into meat meal used in the production of feed for cattle, poultry and domestic animals. It is estimated that for every 5.45 kilos of whale meat 1 kilo of meat meal was obtained. Japan
But some Chileans did become enthusiastic eaters of whale meat. Workers at the Chome whaling station “remember the abundance of the weekly 15 kg. of the prized meat of these large cetaceans that the industry provided to each family of its workers.”
The whaling station at Quintay is now the site of the Centro de Investigación Marina Quintay (
) of the Universidad Andrés Bello and a museum. Go for a visit; Quintay is also home to excellent sea food restaurants. Quintay Marine Research Center
passed a bill banning all whaling and declaring Chilean waters to be a whale sanctuary. Chile
Centro Ballena Azul Blue Whale Project. “Since 1997, Dr. Rodrigo Hucke-Gaete has researched blue whales in
Chile and in Antarctica. Within this work he was able to discover the largest aggregation of blue whales in the Southern Hemisphere, in the area of Chiloé-Corcovado, south of . Further research has mainly focused on identifying the summer arrival of whales in southern Chile .” Chile
Centro de Conservación Cetáceas Center for Cetacean Conservation
 Alfaro, Mónica T. 2000. La Gran Cocina Chilena, 8th Edition. Santiago: Ediciones Occidente S.A. p. 303
 Who caused the decrease in whales? Greenpeace. On line at http://www.greenpeace.or.jp/campaign/oceans/factsheet/3_en_html.
The Yaghan are also known as the Yámana or Yamana; the Kawésqar are AKA Alacalufes. There is only one surviving Yaghan speaker, about 20 Kawésqar speakers and no surviving Chono speakers.
 Darwin, Charles. 1909. The Voyage of The Beagle. The Harvard Classics
Edited By Charles W Eliot LLD.
: P. F. Collier & Son. p. 228-29. On line at http://www.archive.org/details/voyageofbeagle00darwuoft New York
 Schiavini, Adrián. 1993. Los lobos marinos como recurso para cazadores-recolectores marinos: El caso de tierra del Fuego. Latin American Antiquity 4(4):346-366.
 Barros Valenzuela, Alvaro. 1975. Aborígenes australes de América. Santiago : Lord Cochrane, Chapt. 5. En el país de Ayayema. On line at http://www.memoriachilena.cl//temas/documento_detalle.asp?id=MC0001753
 Gusinde, Martin. 1951. Hombres primitivos en la tierra del fuego. Sevilla: Escuela de Estudios Hispano-Americanos de Sevilla. p. 212. On line at http://www.memoriachilena.cl/temas/documento_detalle.asp?id=MC0004214
 Emperaire, Joseph. 1963 (French original, 1955) Los Nómades del Mar. Ser Indígena - Portal de las Culturas Originarias de Chile. P. 86. On line at http://www.serindigena.cl/territorios/recursos/biblioteca/libros/pdf/nomades_mar.pdf
 Bollaert, William. 1860. Antiquarian, Ethnological and Other Researches in
New Granada, Ecuador and . Chile : Trubner & Co. p. 171 on Line at books.google.com London
 Vázques de Espinosa. 1942 (1628) Compendium and Description of the
West Indies. Translated by Charles Upson Clark. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, Vol. 102. On line at http://www.archive.org/details/smithsonianmisce1021942smit
 Pereira Salas, Eugenio. 1971. Los primeros contactos entre Chile y los Estados Unidos: 1778-1809.
: Andrés Bello. p. 42 On line at http://www.memoriachilena.cl/temas/documento_detalle.asp?id=MC0033424 Santiago
Ballenas en la bahía de Concepción. Tell Magazine. Feb. 16, 2009 On line at http://22.214.171.124/tell.cl/concepcion/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=article&sid=640&mode=thread&order=0&thold=0
 Jorsep (Jorge Sepúlveda Ortiz) 1977. La epopeya de la industria ballenera Chilena. Revista de Marina Armada de Chile En Línea, 1997 #6 On line at www.revistamarina.cl/revistas/1997/3/filippi.pdf
 “Baleen” and “Whale Oil” from Wikipedia.
 Jorsep, op. Cit.
 Balleneros de Quintay: Historia, Educación, y Conservación de un Pueblo Ballenero. On line at http://ballenerosdequintay.unab.cl/index.php?page=inicio
 Valor nutritivo de la carne de ballena consumida en Chile.
Schmidt-Hebbel H., Pennacchiotti L, Pérez J.,González C., Meruane J. 1965.
Rev. Nutrición, Bromatología y Toxicología, 1:155
Schmidt-Hebbel H., Pennacchiotti L, Pérez J.,González C., Meruane J. 1965.
Rev. Nutrición, Bromatología y Toxicología, 1:155
 Balleneros de Quintay, op. cit.