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Edward Bottone: Great Cod AlmightyEdward Bottone
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Great Cod Almighty

Great Cod Almighty!

by Edward Bottone

The first time I encountered Cod it was the size and stiffness of a cricket bat. Baccalà, my Sicilian grandmother called it, a trifle disdainfully. You see, Cod was peasant food, had been since the eleventh century, and my grandmother was decidedly not a contadina. I was intrigued by it nonetheless, one smelly paddle among many, in a big wooden box encrusted with salt — grey, green, brown and hard. But I couldn’t imagine it as food. Many years would pass before I’d discover just how good tasting was this remarkable fish. As a freshly minted graduate student stricken by Francophilia, I had my first run-in with a large ceramic crock of brandade de Morue (see recipes) and a long crusty baguette. Slice after slice of bread slathered with the creamy, garlicky paste of salt cod and several glasses of crisp Chablis put me in a euphoric state. I ate until I was nearly sick, a practice I would pursue, from time to time, all of my adult life.

I would not again see the love of Cod so systematically pursued until I began living in Bermuda. Sitting down to a Bermuda codfish breakfast on a Sunday morning is a delicious commonplace the outsider might find hard to comprehend. With head down, feasting on the codbananaavocadoboiledpotatoeggsauce extravaganza, one probably doesn’t give much thought to the fact that men once went to war over the right to fish for cod. One wouldn’t be thinking about the fact that cod was the first fish to be traded globally before anyone was completely convinced that there even was a globe; or that cod had anything to do with the French and American Revolutions. Such lofty considerations notwithstanding, the story of Cod is, in many ways, the story of New World civilization. No other single food has been so important to the history and well being of western culture than the Cod.

“The Sea there is swarming with fish ..,” reported Raimondo di Soncino chronicler of Giovanni Caboto’s (a.k.a. John Cabot) exploits. So plentiful were the fish he said they could be scooped up with baskets. The year was 1497 and the carefully guarded century-old secret of Basque fisherman was out of the net — there were immense stores of fish off the Newfoundland banks. Soon Portuguese, English, Spanish, Dutch, Bretons and Normans would all fish the north seas and go to battle for territorial rights. The quest for cod, as with the desire for spices, brought explorers to the New World.

By the middle of the sixteenth century, fully 60% of all fish eaten in Europe was salt cod, remaining so for the next two hundred years. During this time, not surprisingly, a boom in shipbuilding took place to supply the demand for more fishing vessels. Salt, the prime ingredient in preserving the abundance of codfish, also became an increasingly more important commodity. Because Britain’s salt was in short supply, “green” salt cod was invented. This pliant, not hard-as-a-board fish was marketed as being in a “more natural” state. The ploy worked and it survives today as the favored condition of salt cod in the Mediterranean, Caribbean, Bermuda and elsewhere.
Taxes, it is historically proven, follow popular items and the despised, aggressively avoided salt tax in France is said to have been one of the causes of the French Revolution.

A further boost was given to the fishing industry when in, 1548, Edward VI mandated eating fish on Fridays and during Lent. Catholic France, where fish days were many and well kept, already had 150 boats fishing the Newfoundland banks. But it was the English who would expand the fishery south. In 1602, Bartholomew Gosnold, in search of sassafras (thought to cure syphilis), sailed down the coast from Nova Scotia hoping to find the secret passage to Asia. When he came upon the hook of land the explorer Verazzano had named Pallavisino, Gosnold called it Cape Cod, because he was constantly “pestered” by the fish. The famous landing at Plymouth Rock was still eighteen years off. Once the first “Pilgrims” overcame their absolute ineptness at all survival techniques (hunting, farming and especially fishing), cod supplied their immediate needs and soon grew into an industry. By 1624 there were over fifty British ships working the waters off Cape Cod and New England. The cod fishery was nothing less than the beginning of an American economy.

In Cod We Trust could have been the motto of many a prospering fisherman in fledgling New England. In 1640 the Massachusetts Bay Colony sent 300,000 codfish to market. Fifty thousand quintals of dried codfish left Boston harbour in 1700 bound for Lisbon and Oporto where they were traded for port wine. Cod, the “Beef” of the sea, was declared the cornerstone of New England’s wealth and a codfish “aristocracy” grew up in New England from the fortunes made from the fish.

Cod played a part in both the insidious institution of slavery and in bringing on the American Revolution. Britain failed in her attempts to enforce The Trade and Navigations Act Designed to restrict America’s trade solely with Britain. But just as England could not consume all of New England’s cod, nor could it supply enough molasses to New England’s huge rum industry. The currencies of the infamous triangular slave trade were sugar and molasses in Caribbean, Boston rum and salt fish in New England and slaves on the west African coast. All of the trading partners got what they wanted.

In 1733, when the British belatedly attempted to regulate molasses (and therefore rum), and commerce in general, with a tax, it lead to the legendary Boston tea Party and to revolt. At no time, however, had New England’s fisherman stopped trading with whomever they wished. The American Revolution was as much about rum and money as it was dumped tea and freedom, especially the freedom to fish for cod. Just how important was the fish? In 1783, the Treaty of Paris, which officially ended the American Revolution, guaranteed Newfoundland fishing rights for American fishermen. Without this concession from the Crown, the entire diplomatic effort would have been jeopardized.

In 1784, as a memorial to the significance of the cod fishery in Massachusetts a four foot eleven-inch carved fish (the actual size of many caught in those days) was hung in the State House of Representatives. They called it “Sacred Cod,” and they meant it.

To the French Cod is morue (cabillaud for fresh), baccala to the Italians, bacalao to the Spanish, bacalhau to the Portuguese; Scandinavians know it as lutefisk, and to the Norwegians (where the cod supply is till abundant, it is torsk. Although the origin of the word is unknown, in Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, published in 1755 Cod is defined as “any case of husk in which seeds are lodged.”

It is an amusing irony that cod, recommended to a predominantly Catholic Europe on days of sexual abstinence, took on so many bawdy references. In the sixteenth century, men’ s fashion saw the emergence, pardon the expression, of the cod piece, a purse like affair worn in front of, or over, the real thing giving the appearance of outsized genitals. Two hundred years later, because of this blatant deception, the term cod came to mean a joke or prank in England. The French, as always, had a word for it. In the nineteenth century, the street term for a prostitute was morue. — cod Their pimps were represented by another piscine member — the lowly oily mackerel. In the English speaking West Indies, salt fish, has long be synonymous with a women’s nether parts, finding its way into more than a few calypso songs.

There are ten families of codfish with more than 200 species. Haddock, hake, whiting and pollock are relatives to Atlantic cod, and scrod is little more than a little cod. Nearly all dwell in the colder water of the northern hemisphere. The fish, as we know it, is said to have developed over 120 million years ago.

Cod is nearly fat free, when fresh is a high 18% protein. It gets even better when dried, the concentrated protein rises to 80%. There is little waste to the fish. The head is more flavorful than the body, throat and cheeks being the most desirable. The air bladder, called a sound, is used to produce isinglass, an industrial clarifying agent. Cod roe is eaten fresh or smoked. Apparently the stomach, tripe, and liver are all enjoyed in various cultures, and everyone knows the benefits of vitamin charged cod liver oil.

In his, Grand Dictionaire de Cuisine, published in 1873, Alexander Dumas says that cod “is as fertile as it is voracious.” A female cod of three feet or more can produce three million eggs, larger fish as much as nine million. Undisturbed, these fish can live up to thirty years. “If each cod grew to its full size,” Dumas wrote, “it would take three years for the sea to be full of cod, so that one could walk dry-shod across the Atlantic on their backs.”

Cod are particularly disease and parasite resistant, strong, fecund, long lived and made to survive in great numbers. Only a small percentage of the eggs, however, survive rough seas and predators. Cod will eat almost anything to survive and adapt themselves to whatever is on the menu; mollusks, herring, sardines, squid, even frogs used as bait. The nineteenth century biologist Thomas Huxely declared,“ I believe the cod fishery … inexhaustible.” It was supposed to be a species that could never be fished out.

“Boston,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in 1865, “is the home of the bean and the cod.” Walking the wharves, he remarked on the stacks of salt fish, “looking like corded wood, maple and yellow birch with the bark left on.” Everywhere there was drying fish, “where one man’s fish ended another’s began.” And the fish were big. In 1895, a Massachusetts fisherman landed a cod over six feet long, weighing in at two hundred and eleven and a half pounds. That’s a lot of fish cakes, Andy.

A century later it was all over. The inexhaustible supply was nearly exhausted. In the 1960’s the “factory” ship, that efficiently caught, cleaned and froze fish was introduced. In an hour one of these behemoths could catch as much cod as a sixteenth century boat would in a season. In 1968 over 810,000 tons of cod was harvested off Labrador and the Grand Banks.

In March of 1994 fishing boats in Boston Harbor were out in force to protest the US Federal restriction on fishing in an effort to save the famous Georges Bank. Cod prices had risen steadily, making the peasant’s food a precious commodity. After years of concern Amendment 5, to the largely ineffectual Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976, was enacted dramatically restricting the fishery. The effect was immediate. The New England fishing industry collapsed, with the US government offering $60 million in Federal aid.

There may have been contention on the seas and the fish may have been sacred or profane, but as a food the cod has been long favored at many tables. Whether it be cod fish cakes or saltfish and ackee, a roasted fresh cod loin, a chowder or stew, served in a mustard sauce as the first star chef, Taillevent, recommended in 1375, or coupled with chourizo and fresh tomatoes, or zippy Jamaican Stamp and Go fritters — cod seems to inspire cooks.

As early 1654, the French financier Louis de Béchamel created the basic white sauce that bears his name in an attempt to make cod fish more palatable. The entrepreneur had sunk his fortune into the Newfoundland fisheries but was not enamored of the taste of the fish. Assuming that there were others like him, the creamy sauce was intended to be self serving in more ways than one. It was a recipe that endured.
Over two centuries later in 1865, included in Mrs. Beeton’s, Everyday Cookery and Housekeeping Book, is a recipe for leftover salt or fresh cod, bound with bechamel sauce and topped with bread crumbs called “cod a la Béchemel.”

Many are the ways with cod and they differ from culture to culture. Cod takes to butter and cream as well as olive oil, lemon, herbs or tomato, or a happy combination of them all. You may boil, broil, roast, deep fry, sauté, bake, stew or steam cod — it‘s not just for breakfast anymore.