A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World

MEDRANO ANTHONY - Dec 21, 2015 1129 AM - Cod Cover
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Mark Kurlansky, New York: Penguin Books, 1997, 294 pp.

Reviewed by Anthony Medrano

Molly Benjamin, the former trawler captain and regular columnist for The Cape Cod Times, writes that Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, promises “a new tool for scanning world history” (Benjamin 1997: 1). In this review, I too want to draw attention to Cod as an interdisciplinary method for framing the global past across scales, specimens, and shores. What follows is a treatment of Cod as a “new tool for scanning world history,” but also as a new approach to the study of animals, food cultures, and marine environmental history.    

Cod opens, as Kurlansky puts it, “at the wrong end of 1,000-year fishing spree” (14). It starts with a conversation among the fishing folks of Petty Harbor, a small town on the eastern shore in the present-day province of Newfoundland and Labrador. As a native New Englander who has worked in journalism, restaurants, dockyards, and aboard commercial fishing boats, Kurlansky is at home listening to the salty back-and-forth of these weathered locals. In so doing, he blends past with present, and contextualizes ordinary people within extraordinary times. For the people of Petty Harbor, there is a moratorium in place, prohibiting the fishermen from pursuing their catch because the once “inexhaustible” Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) is now commercially extinct (circa 1997), exhausted after centuries of global exploitation. However, the guys Kurlanksy’s trailing do set out to sea as part of the Sentinel Fishery, “a program meant to get scientists and fishermen working together” (4). In these early pages at the tail end of an epic run that began in the 1400s, we get a sense of the politics and perils of the cod fishery and how it has shaped the Atlantic world over the past five centuries.

In writing a “biography” of this iconic fish, and its rise and fall as a global commodity, Kurlansky engages a range of sources and interventions, which effectively coalesce around what might be considered a marine historical method. A central feature of this historical approach is an organizing focus on the ocean and its ecology. In this regard, Kurlansky places the nature and subject of the sea at the center of his narrative. And unlike most scholars working on maritime matters, which often limit their attention to the drama of sailors and seafarers, Kurlansky considers a pivotal yet unremarked social world of marine encounters, with fishermen reading nature, nature feeding fishermen, and societies and oceans shaping the health and wealth of each other.

Conceptualizing the global past through the ocean, its resources, and its human currents, as Cod does, offers a novel framework for tying together multiple threads of historical inquiry. While the sea has long been part of human societies, Kurlansky makes this world history known. He reveals how the ocean was configured by social interactions, political shifts, consumption patterns, Atlantic slavery, technological innovations, and ecological collapse. To this end, Cod speaks to the historiographical gap noted by J.R. McNeill in 2003, namely, “While there is…a burgeoning literature in the history of the Atlantic world, no one has tried to write the environmental side of that story” (McNeill 2003: 33). It is quite likely that McNeill overlooked Kurlansky’s story because of the status, or lack thereof, popular histories carry within scholarly circles. But Kurlansky’s Cod conveys a powerful environmental history of the Atlantic World through an iconic commodity, which links worlds and entangles ecologies.

The pages of Cod create a known world where this coldwater fish is at the center of human activities from at least the fourteenth century. By casting his methodological net wide, Kurlansky weaves a narrative about the changing place and multiple forms of cod within societies, from early modern staple to post-war fillets and from an abundant fish to an exhausted species. For example, the cod grounds off of Labrador and Newfoundland were crucial to forging and securing the Basque’s place within the rise of modern Europe. Through the long-distance boats they built, these indigenous Europeans hauled salted cod back from the western edge of the Atlantic, enabling them to provide the protein needed for urban development and commercial expansion.        

Moreover, in reading Cod as method, we see an emphasis on the ocean, which is not to say a fixed focus on the sea as a bounded place of experience, but rather a central consideration of how societies and the marine environment shape and affect each other, thereby extending both narrative and inquiry well below the sea’s surface and far beyond the shore’s interior. By focusing on the marine environment as a consequential context with social and ecological consequences, it becomes “a terrain of personal biography and community history,” which ebbs and flows over time and space (Tsing 2005: xi). In this regard, and through this framing of the marine environment, Cod lends itself as a pedagogical device for teaching a course on world history through seas and ocean basins.

Indeed, as a pedagogical device, Cod reveals connections, contacts, and conflicts that otherwise seem to slip out of frame in conventional treatments of the global past. Kurlansky brings these encounters to light through memorable, well-crafted stories, which move between the micro-levels of extraction and short-term catches and the macro-levels of exhaustion and long duree impacts. In Cod, Kurlansky teases out an environmental understanding of the Atlantic World’s rhythms and ruptures. He explains why “salt cod, slaves, and molasses became commercially linked” in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries (82). During this period, the slave labor in the West Indies presented New England traders an opportunity to make a profit from their “trash fish.” After unloading low-grade cod at French, British, and Spanish plantations, ships returned to New England ports with sugar, molasses, cotton, tobacco, and salt. As for high quality cod, it went across the Atlantic to meet the demand of Mediterranean markets such as Bilbao. Cured cod was similarly exchanged for slaves in the Canaries and brought to the Caribbean where loads of West Indian goods were picked up for colonial American markets. These commercial entanglements were pivotal to creating wealth in New England and sustaining human captivity in the West Indies.   

Finally, one of the most important methodological features of Cod is its attention to food cultures. Kurlansky locates cod as a protein source and shows how it was at the center of world historical events, global trades spanning diverse ecological zones, imperial rivalries and alliances, old world state-formation, new world life, and post-war consumerism. Thus, with an eye for how cod emerged in his interviews or appeared in his document sources, Kurlansky ends each chapter with at least two recipes, often historical, which speak to the diverse ways in which a range of people—from Basque seafarers to Chicago railway workers—made use of this versatile fish. However, while the recipes are interesting in themselves and Kurlansky’s inclusion of them is an innovative move in itself, they unveil much more than what simply goes into boiled roe, for example. Kurlansky’s focus on food cultures captures the far-reaching radials of the whole fish, how its uses changed over time and space, and, more importantly, how this fish reflected the changes around it. The recipes he selects are borne from family histories, cultural traditions, and/or economic circumstances, and together they ground world history, making it familiar, accessible, and everyday. In this regard, Cod not only serves as a new tool for scanning the global past, but it enables that past to be scanned by a new global audience.

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