Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky

Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World
Mark Kurlansky
(Vintage Canada, Toronto: 1998)

READ: April 2008

Who knew that a history of the Atlantic codfishery could be so entertaining? Focusing largely - though not entirely - on the once-fabled Grand Banks off Newfoundland, Kurlansky starts with the Basques, a small group of peoples living near the Spanish border with France. Somewhat oddly, they were renowned seafarers, and as early as the 15th century, they were selling dried cod, fairly different in taste and texture from the North Sea cod that was already well-known to ports across Europe. The Basques never divulged the secret of where their cod came from, but now it seems the jig is up, so to speak: it was from the Grand Banks. They didn't want to tell anyone, because they didn't want others to share in the spoils. And so Columbus "discovered" America; and John Cabot, able to report back with news of the terrific splendor the Banks had to offer, where you could dip a bucket in the water and bring it back up brimming full of fish.

Kurlansky takes us through the heady days of exploration of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, showing how cod became a commodity not only in its own right, but also as a necessary resource in the business of waging war against the other colonial powers. (He who had the most cod could feed the most soldiers.) Through the 19th century, the codfish's allure continued, and well into the 20th. In fact, the Grand Banks are the main reason France continues to hold on to the tiny island colonies of St-Pierre and Miquelon in the Gulf of St. Lawrence: it allows them to retain some fishing rights. Finally, Kurlansky takes us to the last few decades, with the decline of the cod fisheries, both here on the Grand Banks and elsewhere (for example, off the coast of Cape Cod - ever wonder why it is called that? - and in the North Sea). He does a good job of showing the tight links between culture, politics, and cod. Iceland in particular proves to be an interesting case study in the ways to handle (or not handle, as the case may be) a domestic fishery.

Throughout the book, while clearly well-researched and exceptionally informative, the tone is kept light. Kurlansky personalizes the story by telling anecdotes, including photographs, and re-printing various recipes for cod, both very old and very new. My only complaint with this book, in fact, is that it is a little dated. It was written in 1997, only five years after the Canadian moratorium was announced. In the book, Kurlansky states that in 1994, the Canadian government estimated the moratorium would last till at least the end of the century. Some experts opined it would be about 15 years before the stocks would be viable again. Well, both those dates have passed. I'm not sure what the state of the cod fishery in Canada is nowadays (though, granted, it shouldn't be too hard to find out), but I almost wish that Kurlansky would do an update to the book, putting some of those figures into a more current context.

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