Day 168: Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World

Cover for CodCod is the best known of Mark Kurlansky’s interesting micro-histories. If you are not familiar with the term, a micro-history is a short book that details the history of a specific and focused subject. Cod explores the importance of cod and the history of cod fishing beginning in the early days when the Vikings and Basques dominated the industry.

It was interesting to learn that Vikings and Basques going after cod were probably the first Europeans to “discover” America. They had been fishing off the coast for years before Columbus traveled to the Americas, keeping their fishing grounds secret.

Later, the eastern seaboard provinces of Canada and the New England states dominated the industry because of their location. The abundance and importance of cod provided many years of prosperity for these areas, but the later dearth of cod has had the opposite effect. Iceland, whose economy was almost solely dependent upon cod until recent years, has been severely impacted.

Of course, there is an ecological aspect to the history of cod. During the height of the fishing industry, the fish were so plentiful that it was said a person could walk across their backs. In the present, the fisheries are in danger of dying and many families with long histories in the industry are being forced to find other work. Kurlansky shows how the fishermen’s warnings about cod disappearing were routinely ignored by scientists and governments for years.

There is some overlap with Kurlansky’s book Salt, as he explains the importance that being able to salt the cod had to the success of the fishing industry. Before salting was begun, the cod had to be dried and a lot of it spoiled onboard. The chapters about battles over international waters are also fascinating.

As always with Kurlansky, the book is interesting and well written. It employs his usual format of mixing in recipes for preparing cod with the historical information.