Review of 'Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World' | History | Smithsonian
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Review of 'Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World'

Review of 'Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World'

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Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World
Mark Kurlansky
Walker, $21

"Not a whale, nothing," says a cod fisherman in Petty Harbor, Newfoundland, squinting forlornly out into the Atlantic, toward Ireland. And who is to blame for the dearth of cod?

By the end of Mark Kurlansky's Cod, we know nobody is to blame, except the entire human race, and only because we are such phenomenally proficient predators. Also, the cod are gone because Englishmen crave fish and chips, and Basques want a codfish dish called bacalao a la Vizcaina and kids need cod-liver oil and New Englanders have always had a hankering for cod chowder, which Daniel Webster once orated upon in the U.S. Senate.

By the end of Cod, we know why Kurlansky subtitles his book A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World. In an afterword he gives us 600 years of cod recipes, such as Norwegian dried cod soaked in lye. He provides asides, too, on arcane and intriguing subjects, such as Iceland's dispute over eating cod heads. In 1914, a prominent banker subjected cod-head ingestion to economic analysis (based on a mathematical formula that factored in eating time) and proclaimed the practice nutritionally inefficient. The director of that country's national library countered with a treatise on cod-head-eating's social values, such as the ancient Icelandic belief that it increases intelligence.

But Kurlansky also ponders why the Atlantic cod, which can grow as big as a heavyweight boxer and once thrived by the millions in the North Sea and off Iceland, and on the Grand Banks and the Georges Bank, is now commercially extinct almost everywhere. This book is a cod-angled look at European and North American history. And, as Kurlansky says of the bereft Petty Harbor fishermen, "they are at the wrong end of a 1,000-year fishing spree."

Emile Zola, in 1873, wrote of "salt cod, spreading itself before the drab, hefty shop keepers, making them dream of departure, of travel." History's first known cod-powered traveler, as Kurlansky tells it, was Eirik the Red, thrown out of Norway, with his father, for murder. Eirik and his dad traveled to Iceland, "where they killed more people and were again expelled," too empathically challenged even for Vikings. The bloodthirsty band pushed on to Greenland. And in about 985 Eirik's son, Leif, pushed on to North America. They survived, says Kurlansky, because the Vikings had learned to "preserve codfish by hanging it in the frosty winter air until it lost four-fifths of its weight and became a durable woodlike plank." What they didn't break off and eat themselves, the Vikings traded in northern Europe.

But medieval Basques were the top cod traders. They were whalers, able to travel vast distances whaling because they had learned to salt-cure cod, a better technique than the Vikings' air-drying. They also had a secret source: by the year 1000, the Basques were supplying a vast international market in cod, based on their fishing fleet's surreptitious voyages across the Atlantic to North America's fishing banks, a cod cornucopia about which they kept mum. By 1532, British fishermen were fighting the Hanseatic League in the first of history's many cod wars. By 1550, sixty percent of all fish eaten in Europe was cod.

Kurlansky surveys history from a cod point of view. The Pilgrims, it turns out, planned to thrive by catching cod in Cape Cod Bay, although they knew so little about fishing that they neglected to bring along much tackle. They did not know how to farm, either. Fortunately, they became proficient at pillaging their Indian neighbors' food caches. Capt. John Smith got famous in Virginia, but he would get rich catching cod off New England. Cod fed Caribbean plantation slaves. Cod also fed the Union Army.

Darwin's champion, T. H. Huxley, served on three British fishing commissions, arguing that herring (and by extension, cod) could never be fished out--nature, in the Victorian view, being indestructible. Cod do find lots to eat, swimming with their huge mouths open, ingesting whatever goes in. In 1994 a Dutch fisherman caught a cod with a set of dentures in its belly.

But the species is stable only if each female, in her lifetime, produces at least two offspring that survive. And humans grew ever more efficient at catching cod. With steam engines, Clarence Birdseye's invention of frozen foods, diesels, invincible trawler nets, fish-finding sonar gear, giant factory ships--cod never had a chance. Now former cod fishermen, victims of their own proficiency, forlornly hope for the fish's return.

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