Magazine article The Spectator

Let the Chips Fall Where They May

Magazine article The Spectator

Let the Chips Fall Where They May

Article excerpt

COD: A BIOGRAPHY OF THE FISH THAT CHANGED THE WORLD

by Mark Kurlansky

Cape, 12.99, pp. 294

So many post-modern novels have been written with this sort of title over the last few years that it might be worth saying that this is a perfectly serious history of cod, and not, as it were, a cod-history; Mark Kurlansky is not, as the Irish say, codding about. The idioms rise easily to the mouth, and one of the interesting and strange things about cod is how readily, like the names of other English fish, it strikes us as slightly absurd. Haddock, halibut, eel, cod; they all sound like the punchline to a Victoria Wood sketch.

I don't know why; it might have something to do with the obscure origins of the names of fish, which, in English, rarely come from anything meaningful and hardly relate to each other at all. German names of fish tend to illustrate the biological relationship between Butt (flounder), say, and Heilbutt (halibut). English seems just to have plucked some random sounds out of the air to name cod, haddock or brill, on each of which the etymological analysis of the OED declares itself baffled, before passing on to the clearer waters of halibut (a holy flatfish, oddly enough, fit, perhaps, to be eaten on fast days). They sound funny because they are familiar objects with meaningless names. Thomas Love Peacock's Dr Opimian, in Gryll Grange, thought that the only good fish were monosyllables or disyllables - `only two trisyllables worth naming, anchovy and mackerel, unless anyone should be disposed to stand up for halibut, which for my part I have excommunicated' - but he doesn't tell us why most of them are intrinsically amusing.

All this slightly unhelpful rambling is meant to show something of the range and implications of Mark Kurlansky's subject, and the way in which a concentrated historical look at a single, unconsidered part of our lives is apt to inspire all sorts of idle bathtime musing in the reader. It's quite nice timing for a history of cod, since just now it seems to be as much of a staple on chic restaurant menus, served up on a bed of frites with a tomato coulis, as it ever was for Icelandic or Newfoundland peasants. Cod is decidedly fashionable at the moment; ironically homely in suggestion but, due to over-fishing, quickly turning into something of a luxury food.

It is fair to say that current speculations that cod could ever become a rare food would have amazed previous generations. On the discovery of America, it was so plentiful that on parts of the coast it was necessary only to let down baskets into the sea, teeming with cod. The resource stimulated a European demand which was already huge, due to taste as much as to the religious requirement of a minimum of one fish-eating day a week. Pretty soon, European fleets were fighting over the grounds; pretty soon too Americans had finally learnt to fish - the Pilgrim Fathers hadn't the faintest idea - and had become rich without even trying.

Cod in the 17th century for America was what oil or the railways would later become, a single resource, enough to make a man rich and to make a community prosperous. Eighteenth-century American art, with an eye more on the symbolic than the aesthetically appealing, is always including a gawping cod; the Massachusetts legislature's imitation of the Woolsack was a wooden cod, hung from the ceiling, to remind its members of the source of their wealth. …

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