My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I remember my mom, despite the repeal of meatless Mondays by the Church after Vatican II, continuing to create a codfish stew every Friday night. Little did I realize what an epoch making dinner we were having at the time! Codfish is a fish that you probably rarely (if ever) think about, yet its history mirrors world history. Kurlansky’s book traces the history of Salt Cod (with particular attention to the Atlantic variety, which becomes a cause of conflict as fishing rights constrict over time). There is much to the history of this humble fish that I just never really thought about. How were the Vikings able to cross hundreds of miles of salt water without starving to death? Simple, they had brought tons of a cheap, easy to catch source of protein with them, the salt cod. How did the Basques stay semi-independent for so long? They had access to a fishing industry that granted them a virtual monopoly over the salt cod trade, back when nobody knew exactly what it was. Basque fishermen may have been working on codfish catches on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland before Columbus even conceived of his trip.. they just never said anything about it to anyone.
The first part of the book is about the relationship of the Codfish and codfish fishing to the great trends of Western History– exploration, conquest, and development of the New World, contention between groups that wanted to control the cod fisheries, and the conflicts, minor and major, started by the humble codfish. The second part of the book traces the steep decline in codfish catches as the world realizes that the codfish might have become fished to extinction, or nearly so.
I know what you’re thinking.. a book about fish. How could that be exciting? And yet, it is! I love the way Kurlansky can take ordinary, almost humdrum subjects (particularly about food) and truly open his reader’s eyes about how revolutionary that subject is. The structure and style of the book works. I particularly enjoyed the structure of adding a recipe for codfish at the start of every chapter, along with some historical anecdote relevant to the phase of history Kurlasnky was in at that point in the book. I’ll never desire cod “cheeks” but man, I was seriously jonesing for Mom’s Cod Chowder again by mid book. Sadly, that’s all a memory now.
Kurlansky reminds me that good history doesn’t have to be about wars, and battles and politics.. it can be about the most ordinary thing imaginable. Like tablesalt, or the fish you sprinkle it on.