My Favorite Food Books, Day 18: Mark Kurlansky's Cod
Author's Note: I recently built myself a new bookshelf in the kitchen, and in the process of reorganizing my ever-expanding book collection, I ended up blowing the dust off of more than a few majorly dog-eared pages. Old friends that carried me through college, my early days of faking it in fancy restaurants, my time as a test cook and writer, and some newer volumes as well. So, every weekday through the end of October, I'll be writing a short post featuring a food book that I really like. All of these books had a major influence either on my career or on my day-to-day cooking. They aren't necessarily the best or most essential cookbooks out there, but they are all worthy reads.
Mark Kurlansky's Cod is part history, part biography (fishy biography, that is), part ecological allegory, part cookbook, and all great storytelling. It opens with a waning fishing village in Newfoundland in 1992, at what Kurlansky refers to as "the wrong end of a 1,000 fishing spree." Over the next 200 pages or so, he tells the fascinating story of how a fish shaped the course of history.
It was the promise of rich cod-fishing waters that spurred Europeans to sail across the Atlantic and "discover" the new world (and of course, it was salted, dried cod that allowed them to make this trip in the first place). What did they find when they arrived? Not just fish weighing hundreds of pounds (absolutely monstrous by today's standards), but that the Vikings, led by the murderous Erik the Red had actually been there first—in the 10th Century—their voyage fueled by cod, dried in the air until wood-like and imperishable. Cod was so plentiful that the pilgrims named a cape after it (though they were far better plunderers than they were fishermen). Cod fed both the Caribbean slave trade and the Union Army.
It was cod that allowed the growth of Iceland's modern economy during World War II and was the flash point for the Cod Wars between Iceand and the U.K., the first in 1958 and an early indication that the days of cod as an economic force might be dwindling. Iceland came out ahead in each of these wars, devastating the U.K. fishery. The agreements reached formed the basis for the 200-nautical-mile economic exclusivity zone—that is, a given country owns the ocean waters up to 200 miles away from its coast—that is now the United Nations standard. These days Iceland's fisheries rely far more on haddock than cod. They are not alone in trying to find
In the end it's story about the pitfalls of human ingenuity and our overproficiency as predators. Economic growth brought about by technology allowing access to a massive resource only to end with rivalries over who gets to scrape the bottom of what was once thought to be a bottomless barrel is a pretty on-the-nose allegory for any number of problems we're currently facing in the world.
Cod is a short, easy, fascinating read. If you like it, I'd also recommend Salt: A World History (similar to cod, with salt as the protagonist) and The Big Oyster (the history of New York City through the lens of the economy of oysters)
You can buy Cod here.