Hey Read This… I Codn’t Think Of A Clever Title

Posted on February 13, 2012


By Mark Kurlansky

For hundreds of years, the Basque people brought in the biggest and tastiest cod. With good reason, they kept their fishing location a secret from the rest of the world. They had a virtual monopoly on the upper end of the cod industry. Until a strapping young man by the name of John Cabot landed in Newfoundland, and found hundreds of Basque boats drying cod on the beach. Yes, the European discovery of America happened way earlier than those hacks in elementary school taught you. And it was all because of an ugly but delicious fish. ‘Cod’ documents the rise and fall of the cod industry.

It’s no secret that our world’s fishing stocks are in peril. In fact, this book was written in 1998 and so misses one of the most important chapters in the history of cod (the WWF calling them an endangered species and the subsequent shutdown of nearly every fishery in the Northern Hemisphere).

However, that’s not the point of the book. Yes, the end result is the virtual destruction of the cod fishing stocks which, as far back as 1982, were said, by scientists, to be virtual unlimited.

You can watch Europe go from running a bunch of small boats that couldn’t tell longitude to supporting a vast armada of superfreighters that left the bottom of the sea a barren wasteland.

The most eye opening part of this book, though, is how critical cod has been to the economies of many countries and institutions. At one point, the salted cod from New England was the main food source for just about every slave in the West Indies. The country of Iceland was still a medieval country until practically the turn of the century, when they upgraded their technology and started trading with other countries. Just like tobacco was the defacto currency in the Chesapeake region, the cod was as good as gold in New England and Newfoundland.

A major bonus? This whole book is dotted with cod recipes. In fact, the last 30 pages or so is a section called ’6 centuries of cod recipes.’ Yum. Although, by the end of this book you’re going to question whether it’s at all responsible to be eating cod.

Yes, we’re about to run out of cod. But it’s been an interesting journey. And that journey was taken by men in wool jackets and rubber boots who started work by hand baiting individual hooks and ended it behind GPS systems and nets as big as airliners. Countries will fight (literally) over fishing rights. Entire armies will be fed on the dried fish.

As an American, it was pretty enlightening to hear how integral cod is to the founding of our country. It’s always a treat to read about our interactions with a certain animal, however parasitic it may be. Unfortunately, we may come to live in a time where cod fishing is a thing of the past, but you will still be able to taste the salt air with ‘Cod.’


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