Chapter 34: The Cabin-Table

Although a vegetarian, I love fried chicken. Turkey holidays and fancy restaurants withstanding, fried chicken is the only meat I will occasionally eat. My friends don’t begrudge me my chicken, but they do often find it funny, since fried chicken is about as wide a departure as possible into the world of meat-eating this side of raw elk — fried chicken looks like an animal, and to eat it, you have to grab it with your hands, tear sinews, and gnaw at bones for every last scrap of meat and fat. It’s not pretty or dainty, and in some ways, that’s the way meat eating should be — primal and visceral.

In contrast, my wife and I went to a four-star French restaurant to celebrate her thirtieth birthday a few months ago. Foie gras aside, the meat we ate in no way resembled the animal from which it came, instead appearing as neatly ordered shapes complimenting similar shapes of vegetable. We ate with fork and knife, reserved and hands-free. Don’t get me wrong, it was one of the most amazing meals of my life, but it was a very different kind of eating experience, matched to a very different kind of delicious food, and a very different kind of pleasure.

“The Cabin-Table” explores similar ideas of food and pleasure, contrasting the restrained and formal eating experience of the mates, under Ahab’s “social czarship,” with the “frantic democracy” with which the harpooneers eat. In this contrast we see a pretty clear line drawn between the subdued pleasures (and displeasures) of hierarchy and social form, and the raucous freedom to express enjoyment afforded to both the underling harpooneers, who “dined like lords,” and to the very lords with whom Ishmael compares them. We see a freedom at the extremes, a no-one to impress, a nothing to lose — an ability, perhaps, to viscerally enjoy life in both the absence and fulfillment of ambition.

We see the full effects of ambition in poor Flask, the Pequod’s Third Mate, just over the bridge from crew to officer. Since becoming an officer, he notes, “peace and satisfaction . . . have for ever departed from my stomach.” Reaping the least of his rank, and losing the most of his freedom, Flask longs to “fist a bit of old-fashioned beef in the forecastle,” to break out of his required facade of good form, and be once again a free man. Such are the spoils of ambition!

Chapter 34: The Cabin-Table

Dinner, Mr. Starbuck.
Dinner, Mr. Stubb.
Dinner, Mr. Flask.

Gather ’round the table,
One and then the next —
Children at the altar,

We must be polite
To the lord of our dinner time —
A social emperor in his throne!

He sets the tone —
We’re everyday guests in Ahab’s home.
Alas, I’ll always be a butterless man!

Three bites of salt beef,
Stubb begins to stir,
Time for me to leave now,
Still hungry.

Farewell Flask,
Farewell Stubb,
Farewell Starbuck.
Doughboy set it up for our harpooneers.

Doughboy! Doughboy! Beef, Doughboy!

There once was a Doughboy, fat and tender.
He made a grave mistake!
He didn’t feed his cannibals
And his cannibals . . . ate him.

We must be polite
To the lord of our dinner time!
A social emperor in his throne.

He sets the tone.
We’re everyday guests in Ahab’s home.
Alas, I’ll always be a butterless man!

Time for me to leave now,
Still hungry!

(c) and (p) 2008 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea August 31, 2008
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea June 14, 2009