book review: “cod: a biography of the fish that changed the world” by mark kurlansky

CodOn the surface, Cod is a history book: the history of a particular food source, the evolution of its harvest, and the tangential events that resulted from cod being such a large driving economic force.  But in a sense, the story of cod is really the larger story of humankind’s constant attempts to assert their dominion over nature.  As such, while reading about cod’s particular story was new to me, the narrative was as old and familiar as a child’s fairytale, albeit with a much more grim conclusion.

Mark Kurlansky starts his fish tale with a vignette of some modern-day fishermen in Petty Harbor, Newfoundland, to give a feel for the current situation (dire, to say the least).  He then goes in more or less chronological order from the 10th century, circling back to the fishermen of Petty Harbor  towards the end of the book.  In between, he discusses the Basques, the Vikings, the slave trade, the American Revolution and both world wars, and many other countries and cultural groups who had their hands in the cod nets.

The book was disappointingly dry for my taste- I had expected more, since it was so highly rated (even winning a James Beard award for best single-subject cookbook).  Even though the book is short, it took me a while to get through it.  I was most compelled by the last few chapters, which described the current state of the cod stocks and fishing economies.  However, it was difficult to read without feeling powerless and frustrated at the lack of foresight and the utter disregard on the part of governments, politicians, and the fishermen themselves.  It’s the same old story, whether it be old growth forests, natural gas, or any other consumption of a natural resource- politicians don’t want to make themselves unpopular by placing limits on access and thereby stifling local economies, and workers in these fields are reluctant to give up their livelihoods even when they can see the writing on the wall.

My favorite parts of the book by far were the interludes between chapters and the section at the end of the book describing salt cod recipes from years, decades, and even centuries past.  To me, it was fascinating to read about preparations from hundreds of years ago and to try to envision what such dishes would taste like.  I’m actually tempted to try to make one of the really old recipes to see how it turns out, but the differences in language are fairly pronounced.  Although I can understand the words themselves, the directives for preparing the food seem completely opaque.  Still, I get a kick out of reading them and trying to envision their result.

Although I had a little bit of a difficult time making it through this book, I’m glad I read it.  It was definitely depressing in the sense that it ended on a pessimistic note, with world fish stocks in crisis, but I suppose that’s the fault of human history rather than the fault of the author.  If you’re interested in knowing what species are currently the most overfished, here’s a list.  The Greenpeace website also has a lot of good information about marine life and the problem of overfishing.

NB: Originally this post was supposed to be a “Book Club” post, but apparently I was the only one who read the book.  However, if you’re interested in checking out the discussion questions I came up with, go here.

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4 responses to “book review: “cod: a biography of the fish that changed the world” by mark kurlansky

  1. Great blog! Enjoyed my visit, not only for the yummy goodies but the fact you are a fellow Michigan blogger 🙂

  2. I saw this come up and realized that I had had no idea of what book was being read for the club or for when! I think I missed something along the way.. What’s next?

  3. Well, I read it, but was slow to participate. The questions you came up with were good, but I think overall I was just left with a slight feeling of helplessness by it all. This isn’t the only abundant resource we (the world) have managed to almost completely decimate, and it sounds like the only real solution is to place an embargo on any use of cod for 50 years or so, and see if it can regenerate!

    I’ve seen several articles in various papers about cod since reading this, and it sounds like countries are coming up with even harsher regulations to try to protect the fish that are left.

    • Jenny- I have to admit, after reading the book, I didn’t try to find out where things stand today, 10 years after the book’s original publication. I think I was just to depressed by it all! I’m glad to hear that there are increasing regulations, but I fear it may be too little, too late.

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