- by Carol Standish
Cod - A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World (Walker and Company; 294pp; $21.00) is an odd little book (literally only 5 x 7 inches). After its shape, which does make it stand out on the bookstore shelf, the first clue to its oddness is the antique map which decorates its endpapers. The words, "Oceanus Britannicus" at the very bottom (southern) edge of the map finally orient the viewer to the unfamiliar grouping of land masses which constitute the great codfishing countries of the ancient world: Great Britain, Scandinavia, Finland, the arctic coast of Russia, Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland—an unusual, even eccentric world view.
Author, Mark Kurlansky's sketches of world history from the cod fishing point of view challenge conventional thinking. He presents information the reader sort of knew and facts that have never seen the light of day in a totally unique context, enticing the reader on to see what world crisis the humble cod fish will precipitate next. For instance, 60 per cent of the all the fish eaten in Europe was cod, for two hundred and fifty years. This huge market created a "codfish aristocracy" of New England fishermen…extravagantly wealthy colonists who saw no reason for the English crown to restrict their "right to make money," voila, the American Revolution.
Codfish had a similar effect on Iceland, bringing the entire population from the Middle Ages to the middle class in the 1970s when the state established and actively defended a fifty mile fishing limit along its coast. In one year "eighty-four trawlers - sixty-nine British and fifteen German - lost their nets" to an Icelandic Coast Guard vessel towing a "trawl wire cutter."
For hundreds of years, the only more skilled survivor than the codfish, was the cod fisherman. The first people to fish for cod away from home waters were the Basques who preserved the fish they caught by drying and salting, thus providing food for long sea voyages. In 1534 when explorer Jacques Cartier "discovered" the St. Lawrence River, he reported the presence of 1000 Basque fishing vessels, "but the Basques, wanting to keep a good secret, had never claimed it for anybody."
While the whole book is a lament for the cod fish and the fishing industry, Kurlansky doesn't sermonize. He simply lays out the facts chronologically. In 1497 a report on John Cabot's return to England from the New World stated, "The Sea there was swarming with fish which can be taken…in baskets let down with a stone…" From the 1600s through the 1800s, reports of catching "codfish as big as a man" are numerous. "In May of 1895 a 6 foot cod weighing 211 pounds was hauled in on a line off the Massachusetts coast." Today the once teeming cod fish is commercially extinct on both sides of the North Atlantic. The author expresses warm sympathy for the plight of the fishermen of all countries, regretting what he calls "an almost pathological collective denial of what has happened."
Kurlansky has made excellent use of the collections of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. Cod is amply spiced with maps, etchings and old photos of fishing activity. Quotes concerning cod fish from such literary luminaries as Cervantes, Melville, W.B. Yeats, Thoreau, Daniel Webster, and others, add a lively counterpoint to the narrative. Also scattered throughout the text are dozens and dozens of codfish recipes from the 1300s to the present, from most of the countries of the world. All these embellishments combined with the unconventional point of view make Cod a decidedly odd "biography" and a very enjoyable read.