Friday, July 22, 2016

The Fish that Changed the World

Review: Cod by Mark Kurlansky

Cod in Viking Greenland and Imperial Rome and Basque Nova Scotia. Fishing for cod and gutting cod and salting cod and cooking cod. Eggs and hatchlings and adult cod. Cod and slavery; cod and the Spanish Armada; cod and the decline of the Grand Banks fisheries. 

Once again, as with Salt, Mark Kurlansky has written a tightly-focused history of a single commodity, revealing the whole world through this fish-eye lens. He begins with the mysterious medieval source of the codfish, from fishing vessels of an equally mysterious people, the Basque. 

Cod was sometimes caught closer to the Continent, but never in such vast numbers as the Basque supplied.
Catholicism gave the Basques their great opportunity. The medieval church imposed fast days in which sexual intercourse and the eating of flesh were forbidden, but eating "cold foods" was permitted... In total, meat was forbidden for almost half the days of the year, and those lean days became salt cod days...The Basques were getting richer every Friday. But where was all this cod coming from? The Basques, who had never even said where they came from, kept their secret.

To follow the Basque to their secret source of cod became a goal of money-seeking adventurers. In 1475, following the successful attempt by the Hanseatic League to cut Bristol off from Icelandic cod, Thomas Croft went into partnership with John Jay to find the island in the Atlantic called Hy-Brasil, believed to be the source of Basque cod. They found enough (although they never revealed where) to leave them uninterested when the Hanseatics tried to negotiate to reopen the Iceland trade with Bristol in 1490. Interestingly, their cod
...arrived in Bristol dried, and drying cannot be done on a ship deck.... a letter has recently been discovered...sent to Christopher Columbus, a decade after the Croft affair in Bristol... [The letter] alleged that [Columbus] knew perfectly well they had been to America already... Fishermen were keeping their secrets, while explorers were telling the world.

Not to miss this point, Kurlansky cites two other explorers who "claimed" shores in the New World for various governments. John Cabot (nee Giovanni Caboto, of Genoa), claimed "New Found Land" for Henry VII, and reported as part of its wealth rocky coastlines suitable for drying the cod that teamed in its waters. When Jacques Cartier "discovered" the mouth of the St. Lawrence and claimed the Gaspé Peninsula for France, he found 1000 Basque fishing vessels already there.
But the Basques, wanting to keep a good secret, had never claimed it for anyone.

In the second part of the book, Limits, Kurlansky explores how the population of this fish, once so teeming that its supply was thought to be inexhaustible, could have collapsed so drastically. In 1873, Alexandre Dumas could write: "It has been calculated that if no accident prevented the hatching of the eggs and each egg reached maturity, it would take only three years to fill the sea so that you could walk across the Atlantic dryshod on the backs of cod." Cod were known to be amazing prolific. A female codfish of "middling size" (which in the mid-1800s would be over two feet long) might contain 8 or 9 million eggs. How could such a numerous, prolific animal fail to sustain its numbers?

Interspersed throughout the text are recipes for cod, from Roman and Old English times to present-day. An entire section, The Cook's Tale, contains "Six Centuries of Cod Recipes". Kurlansky finishes well, with an extensive bibliography and index.

This is a fascinating look at a world history driven by cod. I recommend it for a cold winter evening by the fire, with a glass of port and a dish of Jamaican Stomp-and-Go close to hand.

Mix 1 pound flour with water until it is thin
Add 1/2 pound soaked, broiled and crumbled salt cod.
Beat in 2 eggs.
Add a little baking powder, sautéed onions, scallion, thyme.
Mix together
Drop spoonsful in hot oil.
—Alphonso MacLean, Terra Nova Hotel, Kingston