What I appreciate about Mark Kurlansky is that his titles tell you exactly what the book is about. Cod. Salt. Paper. The Big Oyster. There is no beating around the bush here. What I also appreciate about Mark Kurlansky (and yes, I will keep using his full name) is that he often takes completely mundane topics, topics that you think, “Why would I want to read a whole book about that?”, and reveals things about those topics that are more exciting and unexpected than you would ever think.
Case in point: Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World.
Things I learned about cod from Mark Kurlansky’s biography about cod:
- English explorer John Cabot was actually Italian and named Giovanni Caboto.
- There are lots of different preparations for cod dating back to Viking times. A lot of them sound terrible. But if you want to try them, Mark Kurlansky has provided recipes.
- Salt cod and dried cod are not the same thing. And you had to know which type of cod to sell in which European market. Otherwise, they would not buy your cod.
- More seriously, cod was a vital part of the Atlantic trade system and a vital food source for slaves in the Caribbean and American colonies. It was so vital that when the cod trade to the US was temporarily halted, thousands of slaves died from starvation.
- Overfishing has been a major concern for a long time. However, during both World War’s, fishing in the Grand Banks and the North Sea were halted due to most fishing vessels being conscripted for naval service. This led the cod population to rebound sufficiently enough each time to mask real effects of the commercial fishing tactics, and so now we are dealing with such a low cod population that it may not recover.
- And finally, there were not 1, not 2, but 3 Cod Wars between Iceland and the UK in the 20th century. And despite how acrimonious and even violent they actually were, I am still slightly tickled by the idea of trawlers and tug boats fighting guerrilla naval battles in the North Sea.
Wow. Cod. I had no idea you were so important.
When I read Cod, despite all of the amazing things I was learning (and there are a ton more than what I listed above), I felt it was a little slow, and I was a little restless reading it. I honestly don’t think I was really in the mood for a non-fiction book at the time, and I think I would have enjoyed the reading experience more had I been. However, the more I think about it and the longer I sit with it, the more I realized I liked the book. Kurlansky’s research is meticulous and exhaustive. He also is purposeful and thoughtful in putting a human face on the topic, interviewing fishermen dealing with the economic, social, and life strains of working in a dying industry. The recipes that end every chapter seems just quirky at first but also serve to underline the huge importance of cod in diets at all socio-economic levels and through a lot of human history. This is not your average “biography”—it is an exploration of the effect of one creature on so many disparate parts of human experience.
So just as this book was recommended to me, I recommend it to you. It’s a different and refreshing take on what could be a straightforward history of an industry, and I appreciate Kurlansky’s unique voice and creative approach. And please don’t be turned off by the topic. Cod really is the fish that changed the world.