Bookshelf: Cod

Cod – Mark Kurlansky


Mark Kurlansky is the author of a number of books on an eclectic range of topics. Cod is the biography of a fish that – it turns out – has been pivotal in the history not only of the North Atlantic region, but of the slave trade in the Carribbean too.

Codfish are not attractive or personable fish, but their flesh tastes sublime. Moreover, they are very high in protein, and when dried and salted they can be preserved for very long periods. Dried salt cod enabled the Vikings to range far and wide in search of new territories; it has made and broken economies of various sizes across an astonishing geographical area.

As a history book, this short volume skips from continent to continent, linking economies and the rise and fall of empires to the life cycle of the codfish. The way it all ended is well known: for more on the stunning collapse of the North Atlantic cod fishery, you could either read The End of the Line, or watch the accompanying documentary.

I expected Kurlansky to focus on the mismanagement and greed that led to the disappearance of this astonishingly fecund fishery, but – and perhaps this is a good thing – he has far too much else to write about. He describes the current state of the Newfoundland fishing villages, but the loss of the fishery is not his primary focus. The book starts with a boat trip with some of the men working for the Sentinel Fishery in Newfoundland, which aims to monitor the health of the cod population and determine whether it is recovering (doesn’t look that way). The Grand Banks fishery story is enough to rouse me to rage,

Food lovers will enjoy this book for their own reasons. Kurlansky intersperses recipes for cooking cod – from Scandinavia to Spain – throughout the book, and concludes with a section containing cod recipes spanning 600 years and half the world. I was initially somewhat annoyed that such a large proportion of a history book was taken up with recipes, but upon further reflection I realised that the recipes themselves tell a story. They alone are sufficient to convince one of the central role that this unassuming fish has played in human history.

You can purchase the book here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here. If you want to read it on your Kindle, go here.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.