Bear with me, I’m about to try to get you to read a nonfiction book about a species of fish.
One of my best reading years as an adult occurred a few years back when I was tearing through a lot of non-fiction food books. So when one of the contributors to the site Serious Eats mentioned that “Cod” had a permanent place on his kitchen bookshelf, I made a mental note to pick it up the next time I went to the library. Well, I did and I now see why Cod earned a place in that guy’s library. It’s a detailed but absorbing walk through of how Atlantic cod shaped several eras of human history and how, in return, we have probably done irreparable damage to a species of fish that was designed to withstand practically anything.
Kurlansky begins in 1997 which is present day for him. Newfoundland, where the book opens, is in the middle of a ban on fishing cod due depleted stock. Touching on how the current generation of fishermen are dealing with the loss of their main catch, Kurlansky quickly jumps back 1,000 years to take the reader through how extraordinary and extraordinarily plentiful cod was throughout history. Not to go all fan girl about a fish but it’s a fish that can eat almost anything, survive and spawn at multiple temperatures and replenish itself at an outstanding rate. A rare but impressive combination of traits for a fish. Human’s discovery of cod and how it can be dried into saltfish or baccalo is what powered long distance exploration to America and other parts of the world. It enriched colonial and post-revolutionary America and played a pivotal part of helping the slave trade stay viable in the Caribbean and South as long as it did.
Now while all of this was interesting enough, what Kurlansky did best in this book was highlight how greed and capitalism (is using both words redundant?) pushed fishing countries into a technological arms race to see who could catch the most cod and therefore profit the most. This arms race led to three very polite wars between Britain and Iceland, President Truman making permanent changes to the concept of “international waters” and to decimation of New England Cod and the collapse of the Newfoundland fishing community.
Go read this book, fall in love with a fish and appreciate our current maritime environment before it changes even more.