Cod by Mark Kurlansky


The subtitle is A Biography of a Fish that Changed the World, staking out a big claim for a bit of food, but the author makes a good case. By giving them a preservable food source, the cod enabled the Vikings to leave home for distant shores. Its abundance off the Newfoundland and Massachusetts shores was a rich resource that changed behavior. And there are countless other instances of the importance of this food source. The story ends with the observation of the tragic near extinction of some species of cod.

Writing in 1996, Kurlansky recounts the dismay of the many fisherman and those in associated work who had to find other ways to survive. It’s hard to hear about people who see their life work and that of their ancestors coming to an end. That seems inevitable with the new efficient means to catch fish that also changed the ecology by also catching some of the cod’s food sources. And of course the appetite of humans for this yummy fish remains boundless.

Though I don’t feel especially knowledgable now about the full role of the cod in world history, there are a few bits I hope to remember. I like having new knowledge of the Hanseatic League. Before reading this book, I would have recognized the name, and connected it to Germany in some earlier era, but that’s about it. It was a confederation of cities for economic and defensive purposes that dominated the region of the Baltic Sea beginning in 1100 and beginning to diminish in 1450. The name is from Hanse or Hansa, old German for guilds. It stretched from as far west as London to Novgorod in the  east. The Wikipedia article has some interesting maps and illustrations, but my favorite image by far was this one from the Mecklenburg Duchy:

Other tidbits I want to remember:

In a section about the desperate times of World War II when fishing was so restricted, the British had needed food, but also cod liver oil. As early as 1780 the British ingested cod liver oil as a remedy for rheumatism and later it was used to treat tuberculosis and malnutrition. During the war it was given free to pregnant women, children under five, and adults over 40. While such a program is long gone in Britain, the author blithely says many Americans still take it. Not in my experience.

The author says that wherever there are Norwegian communities, there are cod clubs; there are four in the Minneapolis area. The groups meet once a month for a lunch of boiled cod with melted butter, potatoes, and aquavit. It turns out that such a group was written about in a 2009 article in a Decorah newspaper.

This book has a surprising number of recipes for cooking cod through the ages.

Mark Kurlansky, Cod:  A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, Penguin, 1998 (first published in 1997), 294 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available in the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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