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.

Day Fourteen: Salt: A World History

Cover for SaltNo, this review has nothing to do with the Angelina Jolie.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with micro-histories, they are histories about very limited topics. Micro-histories are usually fairly short because of their focus but can be fascinating and go into great detail on a very specialized subject. The best of these that I have read is Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife, who writes on math and science topics. However, I read that so long ago that I would not be able to write a good review of it.

Today’s review is of Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky, who has specialized in writing micro-histories. The book traces what is known about the collection, processing, and uses of salt from the earliest times and the role it plays in history. He quotes commentators from ancient China, Rome, and Egypt on the qualities of salt. He explains how certain cities became prominent in early times because of salt mines or salt fields on bodies of water and how empires (for example, that of Venice) were built around salt, either making it or trading it. He also discusses its close connection with cod and other things important to world history.

The book is a micro-history full of micro-histories. Kurlansky tells about the mines in Poland that have chandeliers carved from salt and explains that the downfall of the French monarchy was a result of the hated salt tax, which placed a heavier burden on the peasants than it did the aristocracy. He explains that one of the reasons for the success of Napolean’s army was the discovery by Nicolas Appert of how to preserve meat by canning (using salt), allowing the army to have a more reliable source of food than simply pillaging the villages. He explains the reasons for Mahatma Ghandi’s illegal march to the sea to gather salt and why it galvanized resistance to British rule in India. He includes recipes.

Basically, if a subject has anything to do with salt, he writes about it. Salt is an interesting book, although it contains many digressions and seems unfocused at times. To pursue a point, he sometimes goes backward and forward in history, which can be confusing. The recipes were interesting at first, as they come from all times in history and from many different countries, but after awhile I felt that they interrupted the flow, especially as some were more than a page long.

I’m told that Kurlansky’s book Cod is even better, and I have that on my shelf waiting to be read, but he said so much about cod in Salt that I’m wondering what more there is to say!

Despite my caveats, if you want to read an engrossing book that will tell you many interesting things you probably didn’t know, read Salt.