How much is there to know about cod? Quite a lot, it turns out. Cod by Mark Kurlansky is, as the author subtitles the book himself, a biography of the fish that changed the world. It is a story of a single fish species that played a much bigger part in the world history that many would probably imagine.
The great thing about biographies and monographs is that they place a single person (or motif) in the context, making the understanding of the history holistic rather than linear, as we are used to from school. School history lessons rarely ponder on what did the great explorers eat, and often fail to present the world’s events in a manner that would emphasise the everyday workings of global-scale operations. Questions of ‘why’ and ‘how’ appear all too rarely to spark an interest and portray the people long-gone in a way that makes them human.
Mark Kurlansky does this job brilliantly, placing the codfish where it belonged for a long time in history: in the headlines. Have you ever wondered how did people survive in the harsh Arctic climate in the centuries past? Or how were the explorers able to travel long distances in search of the new lands, how did they sustain themselves on long expeditions into the unknown? Codfish, it turns out, played a part in the discovery and settlement of the New World, the raise and sustaining of the slave trade between the colonies, the American Revolution and the War of 1812. Cod was the talk of the town for quite a few centuries of human history.
‘How did the Vikings survive in greenless Greenland and earthless Scotland? How did they have enough provisions to push on to Woodland and Vineland, where they dared not go inland to gather food, and yet they still had enough food to get back? What did these Norsemen eat on the five expeditions to America between 985 and 1011 that have been recorded in Icelandic sagas? There were able to travel to all these distant, barren shores because they 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 hoodlike plank.”Mark Kurlansky, Cod. A biography of the fish that changed the world.
A simple solution for a complicated problem, that was. And this invention happened to make possible many more expeditions, as well as influence world history in many political and economic ways that cod trade involved.
“When Basque whalers applied to cod the salting techniques they were using on whale, they discovered a particularly good marriage because the cod is virtually without fat, and so if salted and dried well, would rarely spoil. It would outlast whale, which is red meat, and it would outlast herring, a fatty fish that became a popular salted item in the Middle Ages”Mark Kurlansky, Cod. A biography of the fish that changed the world.
Basques have elevated the saltfish to an item versatile enough to feed everyone and, as Kurlansky puts it ‘(…) the most highly developed salt cod cuisine in the world is that of the Spanish Basque provinces’. The food that used to be eaten almost exclusively by the poor found its way into the tables of everyone. The wood-like, dried fish that sustained sailors on lengthy sea travels entered the diets of people on land, settled in long-term and continues to enjoy popularity when served in the form of bolas de bacalao in Spain, ackee and saltfish in the Caribbean or chowder in Newfoundland. Salted cod is delicious.
The history of saltfish uses in cooking is well documented in recipes, the collection of which Kurlansky adds to his book: 600 years of cooking cod, reading of which will undoubtedly make your mouth water. But there is an underlying issue to the cod consumption, to which Kurlansky dedicates a whole chapter: the depletion of codfish stock which led to the fish being commercially extinct. The depleted stock issue is interwoven with a collective denial – fuelled by the faith of indestructibility of nature – of the mere existence of the problem. The human relationship with nature is well portrayed in the story of codfish’s relationship with humanity.
“Man wants to see nature and evolution as separate from human activities. There is the natural world, and there is man. But man also belongs to the natural world.”Mark Kurlansky, Cod. A biography of the fish that changed the world.
The fish stocks that were legendary for their numbers for years of human history, are now gone and feared never to be able to recover. The technology that allowed high-efficient fishing proved to be too efficient, which resulted in overfishing. The insatiable appetites for saltfish only complicate the problem, creating an ever-rising demand for cod. In Kurlansky’s view, the cod is emblematic of the crisis in the human-nature relationship: belief of nature’s ability to restore itself no matter the circumstances, and denial of the role of a human factor in many crises in ecosystems.
What Kurlansky does greatly is bringing the holistic lens back to the table: the world is not black and white, and humans are a part of nature as much as other beings – and hence, they should act accordingly. The book leaves the reader with a deeper understating of the world’s affairs of the past millenium, as well as the feeling of uneasiness for the future that lies ahead. “How much above zero still produces zero is not known’, Kurlansky adds, and it’s impossible not to worry about the years to come.
Head over to Goodreads for more quotes from the book.