Ecology, Culinary History; Continent: Most of Them

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

  • Not exactly a holiday topic, unless your family enjoys a traditional fish entrée on Christmas Eve.
  • 294 pages (277 without the bibliography, but with a recommended scan of the recipe section)

I’d been meaning to read Kurlansky’s Cod for years. In fact, it had been on my reading list for so many years that its publication date makes it now older than I generally read: 1998, seventeen years from the time when I finally cracked open the first page. Because this book’s theme addresses an ecological concern, seventeen years is a pretty long time. I found myself wondering what has happened since that time.

The Fish Cultures

Kurlansky’s story transcends any particular nation’s history because cod are eaten by such diverse people – a notion I’d carried in my mind, but not fully realized until actually reading about the many cultures who have fished for these familiar whitefish. Kurlansky tells us about Scandanavian peoples, about Basques, about Britons and about Caribbean people.

More populations, too, have dined regularly upon cod. They appear upon Medieval menus in northern Europe: hungry cod are not picky and have been easy to catch for millennia. Later, cod fed New Englanders and Newfoundlanders alike as they settled regions of North America where agriculture alone couldn’t feed a village. Introduction of cod into the Caribbean diet comes from the trade of New England saltfish (dried and preserved cod) for Caribbean molasses. The Caribbean’s market for saltfish came from its need to cheap calories to fuel the labors of sugar plantation slaves.

Kurlansky tells us cod was a key source of protein for Icelanders for generations and remains their primary natural resource. In fact, he describes the three Cod Wars fought between Iceland and Great Britain – if you are from neither country, you could be forgiven for having never heard of the Cod Wars, which were largely bloodless political and commercial affairs. This chapter in cod history provides an interesting look at how allied countries tactfully (and not-so-tactfully) disagree.

The Environmental Theme, Circa 1998

The title characters of Cod were in rough shape in 1998. For decades, bottom trawlers scooped up not only these groundfish, but also their prey. A tragedy of the commons had unfolded by that time, emblematic of so many environmental issues: Canadians blamed Spanish and Portuguese for overfishing, and Spanish and Portuguese blamed Canadians. Icelanders blamed British, and no one was willing to impose fishing quotas in a meaningful way.

Much of this environmental tale reads like a “Repent!” sandwich board worn by a crazy-eyed sidewalk prophet. I don’t normally react well to having someone’s ideology dressed up like a history book, but a few things gave me patience with this book. First, Kurlansky adds his voice to the overfishing chorus with a solid bibliography behind him. Plenty of respected scientists have contributed their research to the study of fish populations and sustainable fishing practices. Also, his message is clear very early: he doesn’t sneak up on his reader to bludgeon them with a theme when he or she isn’t expecting it. Most importantly to me, Kurlansky seems to have some sympathy for the fishermen, a group of people whose short-term needs conflict directly with the conservationists’ long view. While fishing families resist change to their industry, blaming them for the overfishing problem is much too easy. Finally, Kurlansky makes the argument about the importance of this fish to many populations of people, so he’s able to make it resonate. He does it most effectively by introducing a recipe section at the end.

The recipe section includes cod recipes for saltfish and pretty much every part of the cod you can think of. You could try some of these recipes if you were so inclined: many of them have measurable amounts of ingredients you have heard of, even if they aren’t necessarily in your pantry. The value of scanning this section, however, is in the commentary which accompanies each one. For example, here is where Kurlansky describes the history behind fish chowder and how modern recipes with dairy ingredients have strayed from the original fishermen’s staple.

Catch of the Day, Circa 2015

Of course, the 1998 publication date for this story cries out for an epilogue. I found one in an October 2015 article which appeared in the The Guardian. According this British news outlet, beleaguered North Sea cod have had a modest rebound, although other cod species remain in more serious trouble. In 2006, stringent catch controls had been imposed on North Sea cod, and these regulations are credited for the slight improvement in numbers. There is some thought that now North Sea cod populations might be certified as sustainable by 2020.

That said, most cod species populations remain seriously diminished. Overall, the cod story is a cautionary tale about overfishing generally and remains applicable to the 2015 reader. According to the Marine Conservation Society (MCS), which advises consumers on seafood consumption, cod – even North Sea cod – should still be on the list of fish to avoid eating. For a list of fish the MCS recommends, check out another 2015 Guardian article.

Overall, I think this short book still has something to say to us, seventeen years on. Even if you don’t like being preached to, the story here may not completely get your hackles up because it is so carefully attached to the history this fish has with humanity.

Image: Created by HENRIQUEMENDES, Cod headlines the Christmas Eve meal at this and at many tables.


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