Apr/May 1999 Book Reviews


Mark Kurlansky
Random House, 1999 294pp
ISBN: 0 09 926870 1

reviewed by Ann Skea

"Cod-Head Chowder; Fried Cod Head; Tongues and Cheeks; Cod Sounds; Puerto Rico - Serenata de Bacalao; Saltfish with Cream..."
Six Centuries of Cod recipes

The humble cod: so well-known, so ordinary. As Kurlansky notes, "To most of the British working class, "fish" means cod. And it is the same in many other places around the world.

As we Londoners ate our fish-and-chips from its newspaper wrappings, which of us would have believed that cod had started wars, founded cities, and kept the whole population of some northern countries alive? Who would have thought, as we fed cheap codfish heads to our cats, that cods' cheeks, tongues and lips were delicacies in far off Iceland? And who now, seeing the rows of bottles of cod-liver-oil capsules in the local health-food shop, would believe that cod, once the most abundant, prolific and hardy of fish, is in danger of disappearing from our seas?

Mark Kurlansky's book is both delightful and worrying. Cod, like bread, has been so much a staple in the diet and economy of so many peoples, so easy-to-catch, so ubiquitous and profitable, that it lives in the anecdotes, folk-lore, history, language, art, recipes and, even, domestic architecture of many cultures. Kurlansky raids this vast treasure store for a magpie collection of rich and curious gems. But, whilst he celebrates these phantom cod lives, he also charts the decline of the living cod.

The cod, says Kurlansky, "is not a nice guy": fecund, voracious, omnivorous - "if ever a fish were made to endure, it is the Atlantic cod. But it has among its predators man, an open-mouthed species greedier than the cod".

Cod, once, were so numerous that they could be scooped from the sea in baskets. Cod, once, weighed thirty pounds or more and grew "as big as a man". Now, modern fishing methods have made fishing limits, quotas and fishing moratoria essential for the cod's survival. But still, cod have vanished altogether from some areas where they were once abundant, and the large, most fecund fish are becoming rare.

Does this matter? For fishermen, and for communities whose economy depends on cod, of course it does. But for the rest of us? Kurlansky believes firmly that it matters to us all. Traditionally cod-fishermen know the seas they fish, monitor the presence and absence of cod, and are prepared to protect their livelihood by adopting ecologically sound practices. If greed, politics, and the economic demands of big-business destroy their livelihood, who then, asks Kurlansky, will care about the oceans?

Cod has long been an integral part of human history. Cod once founded thriving cod-aristocracies, and the inhabitants of cities like Boston, Massachusetts, publicly and proudly displayed their allegiance to it. Norwegians, wherever they find their fellows, form cod-bonding societies for regular cod feasts. Entrepreneurs, from un-named Basque fishermen fishing their secret cod-fisheries hundreds of years ago, to the inventive Clarence Birdseye, experimenting with frozen greens in the Lapland winter in 1910, all ensured that cod changed our lives. And cod cuisine, as Kurlansky's magnificent collection of recipes shows, is imaginative, economical and immensely varied.

But as the cod disappears from our seas, cod communities are fast becoming just museums and picturesque tourist attractions. "Are we headed for a world where nothing is left of nature but [nature] parks?", asks Kurlansky. "Are the last gatherers of food from the wild to be phased out?". He is hopeful that science and sense will prevent this - that careful management will ensure the return of the cod. And this unusual, beautifully produced and fascinating little book is his own celebration of that humble but important fish, and a warning of our own fragile place in nature's closely-linked ecological web.


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