Monday, June 8, 2009

Sacred Cod

About a dozen years ago Mark Kurlansky made his first big splash in the literary world with Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World. Since then he's gone on to write a few histories on unusual topics, all of them very popular. Not too long ago I read Salt, a history of the only rock that we eat. I was a little disappointed. It felt as if he had a bunch of odd facts left over from his research for Cod and The Basque History of the World that he didn't want to just throw over his shoulder. The individual bits were interesting, but it didn't add up to a good book.

Still, I was intrigued by Cod. I come from Massachusetts, a traditional cod fishing and eating community. In our State House, under the golden dome designed by Charles Bullfinch and originally covered in copper by Paul Revere, is the august chamber of the House of Representatives. Hanging from the ceiling, placed so that the Speaker shall always gaze upon it, is a wooden carving of a fish known as The Sacred Cod. Really. It is there as a continual reminder of the importance of the fishing industry to the future of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

The cod fishing industry itself has a fairly bleak future, a lousy present, and a terribly interesting past, as presented by Kurlansky. Cod turns out to be a very good book. Amazingly enough, the fish did change the world. As a source of cheap, tasty, and shelf stable food in the centuries before refrigeration, the cod was an important commodity. The search for good fishing grounds led to exploration, innovation, wealth, danger, and death. Dried or salted cod fed civilizations, fueled rebellion and the slave trade, and sparked wars.

Kurlansky keeps it light, with lots of odd bits of information about our fishy hero and several curious old recipes. Still, there is a certain melancholy in the book as the reader knows pretty much how it's going to end. A big part of the story is about the overfishing and eventual depletion of the stocks. Once so plentiful you could reputedly just pull them out of the water with a basket, cod is not a common or inexpensive fish at my fishmonger's shop. As an ecological fish tale it is an important reminder of how we got here and why things aren't going to get better anytime soon.

It's a first rate read, but it did give me a problem. I'm jonesing for fish now. I think I'll walk over to Wulf's tomorrow and get me some scrod.

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