Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, by Mark Kurlansky

When Europeans first came to North America, the passenger pigeon was numerous enough to seem an unending resource. Fish and seafood seemed not far behind–wasn’t there a petition passed around among servants of the eighteenth century to request that their employers serve them lobster and oysters no more than three times a week?

Mark Kurlansky has done several “microhistories”, or books specializing in some specific aspect of a subject–salt or oysters, the Basque nation, the Works Project Administration’s “America Eats” project during the Great Depression–and now here in this book, the codfish. As with his other books, this is approachable without being simplified and reasonably reliable.

Why cod?

Even today, who regards cod as being remotely valuable as a fish? This is the stuff of fish fingers and fish-and-chips wrapped in a newspaper, dried cod, salt cod, chowders and scraps for the compost heap. A lean fish and a dry fish, cod was easily salted or dried (and often both) and so was an easily transportable commodity and therefore an easily tradeable commodity. Readily preserved, it was a valuable source of protein in the centuries prior to reliable refrigerators, or even reliable canning. Easily caught and in great numbers, cod fed the masses. Until it became fished out.

While perhaps prettier than some, cod is hardly a delicacy, now or when it was first fished….and it has been fished in force. Despite being a comparatively hardy, rapidly reproducing fish, cod is now (or rather was at the time of Cod‘s publication) no longer a commercially viable fish. Fleets of fishermen have gone out after cod, in great numbers and with ever increasing efficiency, for centuries. Long prior to World War II, fishermen and scientists were coming to recognize they could not continue to take cod in such numbers–the increased catches were not a result of the cod population remaining steady, but rather that of the human techniques becoming more efficient.

Why Kurlansky? Well, not least because he manages to balance basis in fact with decent research with an approachable writing style. While Kipling might have produced a more roistering tale of a young nation in Captains Courageous, here I end up being sympathetic to a fish, and not a terribly attractive one at that (though hardly the worst-looking fish out there, at least from the human perspective). Providing a bit of individual human sympathy, for the Perry fishermen in Canada, doesn’t hurt, and providing interstitial recipes, modern and historical, fresh and dried, breaks up what might have been dry in it’s length, even at a fraction of the size of academic texts.

While I confess I’m still not convinced that cod was the primary reason driving European exploration of the New World, or rather the seas surrounding the New World, I’ll concede that cod was an important reason. (Surely, the centuries of trade and exploration were driven by many reasons?) Another problem, though not one Kurlansky could have fixed short of publishing an updated version, is simply that the book is now fifteen years old. While the majority of the book is still as valid as it ever was–Icelandic fishing practices of the seventeenth century aren’t likely to change, any more than the salting techniques of the nineteenth century Gloucester and Grand Banks fleets–I can’t help but wonder what’s happened in the intervening years. I doubt the cod has recovered to the point of being viable as a commercial fish, but finding out what, if any, laws have been enacted or withdrawn in the interim would be interesting.

What to read next? Well, Kurlansky has several other books out, but Bill Bryson might be an alternative.



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