Friday, June 25, 2010

The Spermaceti Beeswax dichotomy

Just now I am reading and enjoying Philip Hoare’s The Whale, though at times I am not entirely sure why since much of the book recounts Moby Dick and I have read Moby Dick several (twice, actually) times and love it immensely. (And if you doubt that feel free to read my very amusing story, No, I am not a Loose-Fish and Neither are You, in the Southwest Review, Vol. 91, #3, 2006, which is likewise full of Moby Dickian lore)) On the other hand, yet another aspect of my deficient education is that I never read Moby Dick in school or college, and so I was unacquainted with 20th century literary theory that explains that when the whalers take the foreskin of the whale’s penis and turn it into a “cassock” we need to understand that “cassock” turned inside out becomes “ass/cock” and hence alludes to homosexual activity amongst the whalers. I could never have figured that out on my own.

I have been equally interested to learn about the process of making candles from the whale, since it was the advent of industrial whaling in the 17th century that caused pure-burning whale oil to supplant beeswax candles as the light giver of choice.
Whale oil candles burn cleaner, purer and brighter. So I am told. And as for the difficulty of extraction, I suppose it is a matter of whether you would rather take your chances with 60,000 “virgin daughters of toil” (as Maeterlinck calls them) or a leviathan of the deep.
The complex process of making spermaceti candles came to America with Jacob Rodriguez Rivera, a Sephardic Jew originally from a Marrano family in Seville, Spain. He arrived in Newport in 1748 and upon arriving in America, Jacob and his family reclaimed their Jewish identity and were founding members of the Touro Synagogue, the oldest in the US (and a building frequently visited – and discoursed upon - by my mother when giving her justly-famous architectural history tours).
First you have to find and harpoon the whale. Spermaceti – up to three tons of it - comes from the head cavity of a sperm whale. With the head of the whale either alongside the ship or on deck, the whalers would remove the spermaceti with buckets passed through a hole in the head casing. This was then loaded into barrels. Back in port, in the bustling whale towns of New Bedford, Nantucket and Hudson, New York the spermaceti was heated up in huge wooden kettles to evaporate the water and remove the impurities. The result was loaded into woolen sacks that could be squeezed in a wooden press – I perform a similar process with yogurt and cheesecloth in my kitchen – and the spermaceti trickled out. As with the first press of olive oil which is considered to be the most virgin of all (Extra virgin – an odd concept if examined too closely) this first pressing is called “winter-strained” sperm oil and is the most prized.
In one of the many ways in which they differ from whales, honeybees can produce wax without first being killed. In the second stage of the worker bee’s short life (a mere 5 weeks), the wax glands on the ventral side of her abdomen come into maturity so that she can secrete the wax she will use to build the honeycomb. When she is using the wax she transfers it from her abdomen to her mouth for masticating into a pliable construction material.
Before the 19th century invention of movable frame hives by the Rev. Lorenzo Langstroth, allowing beekeepers to extract honey without destroying the honeycomb, all the honeycomb was removed from the hive along with the honey. But I assume that the ancients processed the wax more less as I do it in my kitchen: I heat up the capping wax with a little bit of water, skim off dead bug bits, pollen and other debris, and strain it into an empty milk container. Once it has solidified, I repeat the process and strain it through cheesecloth into another milk container. (Orange juice works equally well.)
According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, beeswax candles were the preferred illumination in Christian churches because the wax was produced by virgins. It goes on to say that the virgin worker’s beeswax represents “in a most appropriate way the flesh of Jesus Christ born of a virgin mother.” [Seriously.]
All over Europe, monasteries kept their own beehives, producing honey for sweetness and wax for holy light, all thanks to those virgins.
In its purest form, beeswax is ivory in color, but as the bees re-use the honeycomb for pollen it can darken in color, making it less appropriate for liturgical purposes. Along came Piscator Langstroth, uncle to the aforementioned Lorenzo. Early in the 19th century he developed a method for bleaching the beeswax so that it was even more desirable for use in church. He kept his method a secret and grew rich from it; biographers suggest that this impressed his young nephew and motivated him to take up beekeeping,imagining it to be a lucrative venture.
When as children we played with candle stubs my mother collected - we dripped wax onto our hands to create lumpy waxen multi-colored gloves, a favorite but rarely allowed pleasure - I don't think we ever thought about the bees who had worked so diligently exuding the wax from their mirror glands, masticating it and then creating the geometrically perfect honeycombs, and I am sure we didn't think about their virginity. We should have. It might have made the strange enterprise more entertaining, but maybe not.

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