Books: Assault on a battered legend

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The Independent Culture
COD: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky, Cape pounds 12.99

THIS BOOK ought to be provided in the more upmarket fish-and-chip shops, for the entertainment of customers waiting for their sausage-in- batter. The sub-title is not something out of Monty Python but for real: this actually is "the fish that changed the world". Author Mark Kurlansky has swum through a thousand years of salty history and in his youth worked on commercial fishing boats. How did the Vikings survive their precarious voyages? Thanks to their in-boat supplies of freeze-dried cod. Why did the Americans buy Alaska off the Russians? Partly to have a crack at the Pacific cod. What was the fish in the loaves and fishes miracle? Cod, according to gullible New England fundamentalists.

Unlike, say, the salmon, the poor old Gadus Morhua has something of an image problem. A large boy in my class was known as "Codfish Johnson" and it wasn't a compliment. A codpiece derives its name from another sense of "cod", meaning a sack or scrotum. Cod as in "joke" or "spoof" derives either from the fact that a codpiece is always much larger than the dangly bits it conceals or from an archaic word for fool.

The Spanish refer approvingly to a "person who cuts the salted cod" when we would say a "big cheese" or leader, while the Great Gorgonzolas lording it over Massachussetts in the last century were known as "the codfish aristocracy" - and this was a compliment. The symbol of government in Boston was a wooden cod which was paraded about with rather more solemnity than the mighty mace in our own Parliament.

Left to itself, the cod is a big fish in a big pond. It swims along with its mouth open and eats anything that floats in, up to and including "juvenile" codlings and Styrofoam cups. It manufactures its own anti- freeze. It is low in fat and high in protein.

It was once so plentiful around the US coastline that it gave its name to Cape Cod when an explorer, en route to what he imagined was China, complained that, my dear, he was simply "pestered" by the damned things. Alexandre (son of Three Musketeers) Dumas, like one of today's celebrities, wrote a cookbook, in which he passed on the thought that if every baby egg grew up to adulthood, within three years it would be possible to walk across the Atlantic without getting your feet wet. (Smelly, yes.)

There are several reasons why that 3,000-mile walk has never been an option. One is that most eggs are gathered up in the baskets of natural predators; fortunately the cod population remains stable if only two of the millions of eggs laid by each cod-ess survives to the breeding age themselves. Unnatural predators, ie men in vast boats with socking great nets, are another matter. It is now a case of further, my cod, from thee.

"A Cook's Tale: Six Centuries of Cod Recipes" is the title of the final section of the book; yet Gadus Morhua has been on the menu for much longer. Pre-Roman Britons were tucking happily into cod'n'chips, though possibly without the chips. By the early 18th century, New England fishermen were landing too much cod for the dinnerplates of the entire British Empire to contain. By the start of the 20th century, the British government was admitting that maybe there weren't plenty more fish in the sea after all. Since the late Fifties there have been three "Cod Wars" with Iceland; an earlier one took place in 1532, against the Germans.

Today there are so few cod that they have to be guarded by quotas and restrictions. The Newfoundland fishermen at the beginning of Cod are paid not to deliver the fish to the markets but to measure, tag and throw them them back. Many of their colleagues have been turned into landlubbers (which in some ways may be no bad thing, as fishing has a death rate 20 times higher than manufacturing).

A fish-free ocean has serious implications - and not just for the fish. If we are condemned to consume cloned, five-legged sheep and genetically ruined hyper-tomatoes, fish could represent our last wild food, concludes Mark Kurlansky. Although this attractively packaged and priced book is unlikely to conquer the globe like Dava Sobel's best-selling Longitude, he has written a popularising study, which is certainly better than an un-popularising study. My main criticism is that although it is "published in the United Kingdom by Jonathan Cape", it has not been translated into English by Jonathan Cape. "Marvelous" with one "l" and "off of" stand out like, well, fish out of water - for cod's sake.