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

Nine stars

Continuing on my histories of odd things (and non-fiction binge), I returned to another Mark Kurlansky piece that may leave some readers swimming in the other direction. Kurlansky presents the cod and its importance in world history, which was surely as entertaining and educational as it was unique. Many may think cod as nothing more than a fish that finds its way onto the plate, best served with potatoes and green peas (or whatever vegetable one has on hand), but there is a great deal more to this creature of the water. Politics and industry play such key (and intertwined) roles in its discovery and ongoing exploration (exploitation?) that the reader will surely come away with a more thorough understanding of the complexity of the fish. Kurlansky offers up a few interesting insights to pique the reader’s interest, if nothing more. Rest assured, a non-fish eater though I am, I was astounded with all that came from this piece, and the impact cod has had on the world for over two thousand years.

Cod have not only been fished extensively (and exclusively) for thousands of years, but they are some of the most sought after fish for their versatile nature. Well before refrigeration became an option, fishermen discovered the ability to salt them, which not only added a flavour, but also a distinct ruggedness. Allowing the fish to last that much longer, it could be transported, sold, and stored for longer periods, thereby making it highly profitable on the world market. Throughout his piece, Kurlansky shows just how desired salted cod became, in all corners of the world. But it is not only the salted fillets that prove to be a delicious treat, but most every part of the fish. From their livers (tasting and whose oil is highly medicinal) to their heads (a delicious chowder, without eyes) and even their skin (perfect for making bags and satchels), cod is one of the most versatile fish on the market. Kurlansky discusses at one point that there is even a use for the bones, particularly amongst the ever-thinking Icelandic population. Cod as food is likely the easiest way the reader will consider this fish, but there is so much more to the discussion.

Cod was not only a form of food on which to sup, for some it was a way of life. Kurlansky explores the life of a fisherman and how entire communities would rely on the bountiful cod catches that came from off the coast. Kurlansky returns throughout the piece to discuss the importance of cod fishing to Newfoundland (Canada), New England (America), and much of the country of Iceland. Entire livelihoods were based on enough cod coming off the boats to be sold on the open market. There are many parts of the world where cod is not plentiful, but it is sought after as a staple in the diet. Kurlansky explores how overfishing by other countries has helped to deplete the stock of cod, thereby adversely affecting the lives of huge portions of the populace. This has, at least in the Canadian example, forced multi-generational fishing families to turn to financial assistance for subsistence, their pride decimated. Politics abound when it comes to fishing and those who pull cod from the water are affected like no other. Kurlansky does provide a captivating and chilling narrative about the politics of cod fishing.

One would be remiss to simply accept that cod are a food, for anything that can be sold will surely have a price tag and a profit. Kurlansky explores how centuries ago, explorers would find their way in the open waters to take advantage of this new discovery, hoping to sell it and provide a large profit margin. The Basques were able to capitalise on this for centuries, particularly because the were situated in a plentiful area. The British Commonwealth ran likely a well-oiled machine, forcing colonial fishermen to send back their catches to be sold to others, without the full profits making back to the original source. In time, other countries were able to build large boats to join the ‘game’, entering the fray and taking what they could handle. However, cod are not as fertile as one might think, nor able to replenish as quickly as they are captured. This led to a shortage of fish and a moratorium on fishing. An international agreement to extend sovereign waters led to many a clash between countries, only added proverbial blood to the water and turned ugly when the cod population shrunk. Countries went to (fish) war over cod and sanctions ensued, particularly a battle between Iceland and the UK in the 1970s. No one was safe and entire communities, as discussed above, suffered the most. This is likely some of the most disturbing parts of the narrative, as it pulls in the seal hunt and the economic livelihood of thousands of families and is only another example of how large corporations destroyed the little man for their own greed.

I am the first to admit that I do not like fish, though I was drawn to this piece and could not find a way to step back. Kurlansky has such a way with his storytelling that the reader finds themselves in the middle of the story before realising how much time has passed. Full of anecdotes and personal asides, Kurlansky personalises the topic more than many historians can do for actual human subjects. Who would have thought that cod could be such a complex food, while also being such a binding agent for small communities? Kurlansky does offer a great deal of information that the reader must digest, but it is all poignant and ties together throughout the narrative. I found myself relating events in early chapters on cod fishing to later discussions of wars between the governments of the UK and Iceland, fitting the two topics together seamlessly. With the added bonus of numerous recipes pulled from over many centuries, Kurlansky ties the discussion together and permits the reader to explore the culinary side of the topic, a less confrontational aspect of cod fishing. While there is no doubt that cod will long be a divisive topic when it comes to mass fishing quotas between countries, it is also the lifeblood for many people, which is easily forgotten, especially by a man on the landlocked Canadian Prairies. Kurlansky breathes life into the discussion and keeps the reader thinking, which can lead to talking and eventually acting on what they have come to learn.

Kudos, Mr. Kurlansky, for another stunning food-related biography. I am completely hooked and have a few more of your books to explore in the not too distant future. While I may not be rushing out to have cod-head chowder, you did get me thinking about an industry about which I know so little.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: