Cod and Under the Whaleback

by Wilma Dramaturg Walter Bilderback

Cod is responsible for all of this. The boats, the deckies, Hull itself in a way. And yet in many respects Hull came late to the game.

"Cod should have lasted forever, and for a very long time it was assumed that it would,” Mark  Kurlansky writes.  “As late as 1885, the Canadian Ministry of Agriculture said, 'Unless the order of nature is overthrown, for centuries to come our fisheries will continue to be fertile." A century later, cod fishing from the Great Banks to the St. Lawrence estuary was closed. For the British fishing industry, however, the end of cod was a matter of politics as well as scarcity, with Britain and Iceland engaging in three "Cod Wars" between 1958 and 1976.

Kurlansky started the pop-historical genre sometimes called "micro history" with his book Cod: The Story of the Fish That Changed the World. (He's since expanded the genre on his own with Salt - a topic closely-related to cod almost everywhere except Britain and North America - and The Big Oyster.) Cod shows how its namesake may have led to the European discovery of North America, and how this once ubiquitous northern fish (an 1856 book described it as "too well known to require any description") became a staple part of the European, African, North and South American diets, became what most people thought of as "fish," before technological advances led to the almost-complete collapse of its stocks.

In the middle ages, the Basques were the kings of cod. It's suspected they may have found their way across the Atlantic to the Grand Banks off Newfoundland, but if they did, they hid their traces. Cod was a perfect fish to travel long distances for in the days before refrigeration. Its flaky meat air can also be easily preserved with salt. In Catholic Europe, fish was in high demand as a source of protein on Fridays. Salted cod travels well, and became such a stable of Iberian  cuisine (e.g., bacalao) that Basque, Spanish, Portuguese and even French have no word for unsalted cod: a diner has to order "unsalted salt cod."

The Cod Rush

In 1497, John Cabot set off a "cod rush" when he stumbled upon the Grand Banks and reported their location back to Europe. According to Kurlansky, by the mid-16th century, "60 percent of all fish eaten in Europe was cod, and this percentage would remain stable for the next two centuries."

Cod helped create New England and the Canadian Maritime Provinces. Cape Cod received its name from the plenteous catches there, and it's not for nothing that a wooden "Sacred Cod" hung for centuries in the Massachusetts state legislature. Separate salting methods developed for different regions, and cod was an essential link in the triangular trade that fed African slaves into the European colonies and plantations of the New World.

And as the Canadians thought in 1885, it should have gone on forever. Cod are amazingly fertile. The mid-19th century American writers who felt the fish needed "any description" wrote that the Dutch naturalist "Leewenhoek counted 9,384,000 eggs in a cod-fish of a middling size." Cod-fish can live for several decades, and become more fertile as they age. Five foot cod were common well into the 20th century, and 19th century fishermen claimed you could almost walk across the ocean on their back in some places. And cod like the continental shelves, so they were close to shore in relatively shallow water.

I highly recommend reading Mark Kurlansky's book directly for more information. (Oh, and did I mention it also won a James Beard Award for the historical recipes printed between chapters?) In the next essay, our focus will shift to Hull (with some reference to its rival and sister city Grimsby), facing the North Sea in Yorkshire.

Photo: Atlantic Cod

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