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Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World
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You probably enjoy eating codfish, but reading about them? Mark Kurlansky has written a fabulous book--well worth your time--about a fish that probably has mattered more in human history than any other. The cod helped inspire the discovery and exploration of North America. It had a profound impact upon the economic development of New England and eastern Canada from the earliest times. Today, however, overfishing is a constant threat. Kurlansky sprinkles his well-written and occasionally humorous history with interesting asides on the possible origin of the word codpiece and dozens of fish recipes. Sometimes a book on an offbeat or neglected subject really makes the grade. This is one of them.

A delightful romp through history with all its economic forces laid bare, Cod is the biography of a single species of fish, but it may as well be a world history with this humble fish as its recurring main character. Cod, it turns out, is the reason Europeans set sail across the Atlantic, and it is the only reason they could. What did the Vikings eat in icy Greenland and on the five expeditions to America recorded in the Icelandic sagas? Cod--frozen and dried in the frosty air, then broken into pieces and eaten like hardtack. What was the staple of the medieval diet? Cod again, sold salted by the Basques, an enigmatic people with a mysterious, unlimited supply of cod. As we make our way through the centuries of cod history, we also find a delicious legacy of recipes, and the tragic story of environmental failure, of depleted fishing stocks where once their numbers were te fate of the universe. Here--for scientist and layperson alike, for philosopher, science-fiction reader, biologist, and computer expert--is a startlingly complete and rational synthesis of disciplines, and a new, optimistic message about existence.

Customer Reviews:

  • One of the best
    I like to read (or listen to) non-fiction- but not tedious, weighed down non-fiction. I have recommended (and at times purchased) this book to numerous friends. The book is enlightening, engaging and exceptional. A book to be relished (pun intended). Regretably, I cannot say this for the author's next effort. I think Cod is one of the most fascinating, enjoyable books I have encountered. One great book....more info
  • Good book. About cod.
    Hmmm... not sure I can explain why I wanted to read this book. I mean, its about cod. A fish. And a rather unimpressive-looking one at that. I don't even know where or when I heard about this book, but I did sometime, at someplace, and whatever it was I heard really made me want to read it. I do know that the American right to the cod fisheries of the Grand Banks was an important part of the Treaty of Paris, which ended the American Revolution. So maybe that's why I picked it up. To be honest, I just don't know.

    Verdict: Its a very good book. About cod. Honestly, it wasn't the best book I've ever read, but for Kurlansky to have held my attention for 220+ pages on the subject of a fish is a fairly remarkable feat.

    The cod fish seems to have had a fin in all sorts of historical events. According to Kurlansky, one of the deciding factors in the Pilgrims having chosen Massachusetts as their landing spot is because they envisioned that there would be good fishing off of an arm-shaped land formation called "Cape Cod." I would have sworn that I read somewhere that the Pilgrims first intended to land in Virginia and were blown off-course to Plymouth Bay by pure accident... but I could be mistaken. And besides, the term "Virginia" in the early 17th century could have applied to just about the entire Eastern Seaboard of North America. So either way, Kurlansky could still be right.

    Another startling example of the cod-that-changed-the-world philosophy is in Iceland, which relied so heavily on the fish that it had three wars with England - actually called the "Cod Wars" - over the matter. And that was just in the last century, between 1956 and 1977. Sure, no one was killed, but a lot of mean words were thrown about and fishnets cut. God bless gentlemanly warfare.

    So, in all, I give it four stars. If I gave a damn about fish I'd probably have given it five. It was a good read - filled with dozens of delish cod recipes by the way - and if nothing else, it shed some light on the serious problem of overfishing to this landlubber in particular....more info

  • A real keeper!!
    I just finished reading a borrowed autographed copy of Kurlansky's Cod and decided that this is a book that I must have in my shelf to read it over again. I like fish and I like history. This book has the perfect match to gain my favor. I purchased my own copy.

    Over the years I have followed the dismal man-made near demise of this wonderful fish. Reading more about how this came about it's a very interesting account. Unfortunately, it cannot be required reading for politicians (those who can read) and for fishery industrialists (those that can manage some free time from counting the money gained by devastating the natural resources).

    The book tells many interesting episodes in cod's history: the secret cod fishing grounds of the Basques, the cod wars of the Icelanders and the British, the White Fishing Fleet of the Portuguese, the exhaustion of the cod stocks by the Newfoundlanders, and many other historic facts in between. Also, human stories of heroism and perseverance, such as the lonely fisherman, Alfred Johnson, who crossed the Atlantic in a sixteen-foot boat from Gloucester to Abercastle, Wales, in 58 days. Or the story of Howard Blackburn, a Nova Scotia dory man who, after becoming lost at sea in a snow storm, rowed 100 miles to Newfoundland with his solid-frozen fingers shaped around the oars of his boat so he could save his life and bring his fishing mate's frozen corpse back to land.

    I enjoyed reading this book. It's interesting and also very timely, not only around the date of its publication (1997), but mostly now, when an estimated 75 percent of the major marine fish species are considered fully exploited, overexploited or significantly depleted (FAO - 2002). The book delivers a historic perspective of the inexhaustible capabilities for mismanagement of fisheries administrators, industrialists and coastal fishermen around the world that view natural resources as a form of capital to be mined concerned only by the cost of extraction, without re-investing for future generations or having regard for the animals that should be respected not only for the enjoyment of others, but also because they fully deserve it as biological entities.

    There are so many good things about this book that one may be inclined to overlook a couple of errors. I opted to comment on them:

    a) In page 223 Kurlansky says; "A shark is not a fish." Actually, a shark is a fish. It's a different kind of fish, with a cartilaginous skeleton (a Chondrichthyes), but as much a fish as a cod with a bony skeleton (an Osteichthyes).

    b) Page 122: It is true that T.H. Huxley said in a paper presented at The Great International Fishery Exhibition in London in 1884 "The cod fishery, the herring fishery, the pilchard fishery, the mackerel fishery, and probably all the great sea fisheries, are inexhaustible; that is to say that nothing we do seriously affects the number of fish. And any attempt to regulate these fisheries seems consequently... to be useless". However, these words should be taken in the context of the times. In the 19 century the world's population was about one billion, the technological capabilities of the British fishing fleet were limited, environmental pollution and damage to the oceans was still low, and the ocean's productivity was deemed limitless. In fact, Huxley is reported as later on discussing depletion of some fish populations and chaired several commissions set up to investigate over-fishing.

    Over-all a good read!!

    ...more info
  • A book to make you think, and it's so interesting.
    This well written book has it all. Lots of information, drama, history and amazement that one fish has allowed man to achieve so much in such a short space of time. Well worth buying and keeping so you can read it again and again. Highly recommend. ...more info
  • So help me Cod...
    Kurlansky does a wonderful job of showing how a seemingly insignificant fish is intertwined with our history, our culture, and our future. I recommend this extremely endearing book to anyone, but especially to those who have an interest in history, ecology, or fishing. Kurlansky has created a classic of non-fiction as profound as Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring", but much more entertaining....more info
  • An enjoyable book - For history buffs a must read
    A sincerely interesting book about the role this fish has played over the course of history. A wonderful tie in to American history (Pilgrims landing in Plymouth, and John Adams!) A lite easy read, perfect for the summer....more info
  • Excellent Fish Story!
    A book about a fish? Who knew?

    I had no idea how BIG a role the simple cod played in literally reshaping the globe. I don't ever remember hearing this point in grammar school history class.

    Kurlansky has quite the knack for telling a history. I have previously read "Basque History of the World". Excellent and very interesting as well.

    Now I need to pick up the new "Salt" book by the same author....more info

  • cod: a well written history
    Cod is an engaging history of the fish that changed the world. As an eye opening adventure, cod takes the reader from low impact commercial fishing of ancient Europe to the destructive power of modern fisheries. Mark Kurlansky shows his creativity and skill as he brings to focus the plight of cod. The author further illustrates the ability of super consumers to deplete a previously perceived inexhaustible cod population. In this biography is shown the effect cod fishing has had on individual lives, nations and the world. The book keeps the reader thirsting for more. The main weakness of this book would be the abrupt ending to the enchanting tale. Cod is for historians and scientists alike. Fishermen and those that enjoy sea food will appreciate this book. Cod is a book that should be read and reread by everyone as a reminder of mankind's dependence upon and responsibility to conserve earth's diminishing supply of natural resources....more info
  • Cod
    Two thousand years distilled into 233 pages, plus a bunch of recipes, on the history of a fish. Okay, when I put it like that, it doesn't sound so fascinating, but take my word for it, you won't be able to put this book down. The Vikings only made it to Greenland and America because of the Atlantic cod, the West African slave trade was in part made possible by Atlantic cod, Iceland only survived as a nation because of Atlantic cod, and Pacific cod was one of the reasons the United States bought Alaska from Russia. Very much a cautionary tale, basically a primer in how to completely deplete a resource. ...more info
  • Perfect For Detail Junkies
    Cod is not for every reader, reflecting as it does the author's deep interest in history, and how individual foods relate to history. What the book gives to thoughtful readers is true context along with its detail. Kurlansky drives home a real point: you cannot separate the fish from the men who risk and lose their lives to extract it from the sea, nor can the food be divorced from the dollars it represents. In culinary terms, I was inspired to start cooking with dried cod; it's the kind of thing you don't notice in your supermarket until something--this book in my case--sticks it into your consciousness with no going back. As a real "foodie" and an incurable history buff, I am thankful that writers like Kurlansky go to the trouble of applying their talents to subjects like this.

    Food writer Elliot Essman's other reviews and food articles are available at info

  • What a surprise!
    Loved this book, what a journey. Fun and full of history and "I didn't know thats"...excellent read....more info
  • An incredible history, but not always a gripping read
    As a chef and history buff, this book seemed like it would be right up my alley. And I will admit that many portions of the book were utterly fascinating, specifically those regarding the complete history of cod fishing and the very nature of the cod itself.

    However, this book is not just a history of cod. It has an agenda, admittedly a good one, to protect the cod of the northern Atlantic. I'm all for that, but I didn't read this book to be convinced of that. The entire last chapter is essentially an emotional sob story of former cod fisherman, unable to do the work of their forefathers. Kudos to Kurlansky for that, but it felt like it belonged in a newspaper op-ed page, not a historical work.

    Aside from that, there are also a couple chapters that were a bit tough to get through, which may not be Kurlansky's fault, but perhaps of the subject itself. It's a small book and only took a couple days to get through, but unless this is a topic that immediately strikes your fancy, you might not finish it. But for any chef or history buff, I would still recommend this book, as it offers some pretty critical insight into a fish that really did change the world....more info
  • A fist full of Cod
    Cod was about the first big export of british colonists in America. The first one that made a lot of permanent settlers wealthy. That is one way Cod is the fish that changed the world. Kurlansky even posits some theories that Basque fishermen had been fishing off New England well before Columbus hit the new world: like many great fishermen they kept their stash a secret so no one else could take it.

    Like many early resources of British Colonial America, cod were eventually tapped out. It helped that new technology was developed for catching them, hauling them, and selling them. This book is great for its photos from days that might still be considered glorious....more info
  • Connections ...
    Remember that old PBS series where connections were made between seemingly unrelated topics? This reminds me of the show ... great read of even better historical research....more info
  • A quirky but tremendously entertaining history
    Whenever I need to recommend an offbeat and enjoyable book to someone, this is the one I mention. The history of the New World interpreted thematically by retracing the search for and exploitation of the cod fishing grounds of North America turns out to be surprisingly gripping....more info
  • Definitely worth having on your bookshelf
    Cod is an excellent book. Entertaining, informative, easy to read and hard to put down.

    While the topic may seem a little odd on first glance, within a few pages Mark Kurlansky has you drawn in, eager to find out how the story unfolds. It doesn't matter if you're interested in history, fishing, conservation or just enjoy reading; Cod is engaging and the sort of book you can read and enjoy over and over again.

    Cod contains many interesting facts, good humour and also manages to be thought provoking. Well worth the money....more info
  • Cod, who would have thunk it?
    This book was utterly full of suprises. Man, how one little fish has altered and played a role in so much political and economic attitudes towards the sea and its treasures. The book also stands as a cautionary tale of what can happen when a natural resource such as cod are recklessly exploited to the point of having the inability to recover their numbers. As a marine biology teacher I was faascinated with this book and plan on having my classes read it to see how the ocean world affects life on land....more info
  • "Swims with its mouth open and swallows whatever will fit"
    That description of the cod by Mark Kurlansky is not exactly a ringing endorsement; still it's better than what is said of us. Man is "an open-mouthed species even greedier than cod." COD goes on to prove this point by telling the history of this fish. The author looks at the best days of the cod fishing industry - between the 16th and 18th centuries when 60% of all fish eaten in Europe was cod - to the current situation where fishing ports such as Gloucester, Mass., are nothing near what they used to be. Indeed by the time of the Revolution, "in the minds of its most hard line revolutionaries, the New England radicals", the cod-fishing industry, according to Mr Kurlansky, had made the Revolution as much about making money as it was about political freedom. He goes on to say that "one of the greatest obstacles to restoring cod stocks off of Newfoundland is an almost pathological collective denial of what has happened."

    The history goes back even further, to the f!irst century AD when the Vikings set sail from Norway through Iceland, to Greenland, Canada, and perhaps New England. It's not a coincidence that this is the exact range of cod, nor is it surprising that after the Vikings, the Basques became well known as cod fishers. We see the beginnings of Mr Kurlansky's admiration for these intrepid sailors from the Iberian peninsula; an interest that led him to write THE BASQUE HISTORY OF THE WORLD.

    It's only fitting that such a quirky fish would produce historical anomalies such as the fact that in one of the places named for it - Cape Cod - nowadays you will be hard pressed to find any sign of its past. Also reconcile how cod, which, unlike man has never traveled to the Caribbean, has nevertheless become the main part of Jamaica's delicious national dish - ackee and saltfish. Speaking of food; Mr Kurlansky, in making his book as odd as cod, and as interesting as its history, throws in some recipes that you can try for yourself....more info
  • Interesting and informative , but ...
    This book is another interesting and informative, but narrow subject history book of the type this author prefers to write. In some sections it poses as a cookbook. I was irritated by the amount of text actually devoted to Codfish recipes, when what I purchased was a historical type book . The author has a very good writing style. The book covers the early history of some cultures that took advantage of this bottom dwelling fish prized for its unique white meat. The Codfish affected these early cultures as it still does today, where regional and national economies are suffering from the impact of worldwide diminishing Codfish stocks in spite of some sporadic conservation measures.
    This reader recommends ignoring the all too frequent codfish recipes interspersed with the good historical information. This book makes for a fine compact interesting history of man's relationship with the Codfish. Ignore the historical section and I suppose it would be a passable Codfish cookbook....more info
  • It's the little things that surprise you
    If I hadn't read Mark Kurlansky's Cod, I wouldn't have known the vital role cod played in the settlement of North America. If not for cod, America might have never declared its independence. Cod was an important element in the facilitation of the slave trade. All news to me until I read Cod. (Well, until I read A Cod's Tale, which led me to read the full version.)

    Cod reminds us that human beings are a connected part of our ecosystem. Too often, I think we perceive some sort of separation between us and so-called "nature." We are either concerned with or disregard our impact on the rest of the system, but we overlook how that system impacts on us. Mr. Kurlansky shows the human side of the equation. and how a lack of concern for the totality of our environment will eventually come back and bite us in the rear. We see how the reduction of the cod population has impacted on the world's fishing industry, and, more importantly, on the individuals who make up that industry.

    Cod is an extremely well-done history book, detailed and easy to read. More importantly, it is clearly relevant to contemporary readers, demonstrating how the cycle of cause-and-effect continues to this day....more info

  • Cod
    This book is better than great. The older I get, it never ceases to amaze me how little I know and how much I have to learn.
    W.D. Hornaday
    Galveston, Texas...more info
  • Cod - the passenger pigeon of the sea?
    More than most people would need or want to know about the fish that launched a thousand ships, Cod is the logical conclusion to Mark Kurlansky's saga of the Basques and Salt. The trilogy should be read in total to appreciate not only the industry and people who fished, but the depth of research and devotion of the author....more info
  • Cod
    This book provided interesting insights into cod and the fishing industry. The different historical eras and geography of the North Atlantic were well connected throughout the book to provide a cohesive and story.

    There were satisfying amounts of economics and history in the book, but I would have liked some additional discussion of biology. There was not much included on the future potential for a cod stock rebound....more info
  • I hate fish, but I loved this book
    This book was excellent. Kurlansky has taken a modest topic and followed it into all aspects of its existence and history. It is not too often that you read a book that changes the way you think about something you hate. The storytelling in this book was absolutely first rate, as it wove its tale of a fish that allowed colonization of distant places, and as a resource that people continue to battle over today. I could have done without all of the recipes, but they do add a sense of urgency to the necessity of saving our oceans for the fish, and not overusing our resources.

    Thank you Mr. Kurlansky, and I look forward to your future efforts....more info

  • Science, History, Cuisine, All In One
    "Cod" approaches the saga of this most significant fish from several perspectives. It tells its scientific classification and habits.

    It is the section on the history of the Cod fisheries that I find to be most fascinating. The Cod is shown as the lure which drew the first Europeans to North America. Rapidly becoming a staple in the diets of many, Cod became a pillar of he economies of several regions as well as a major commodity in the fabled Triangle Trade. Access to Cod became a causa bellae, which it remains to our day, and a factor in treaty negotiations.

    As the history enters more modern times, the narrative focuses more on the depletion of the Cod stocks. The effects of the failure of the Cod stock on fishing communities in the North Eastern United States and Maritime Canada, as well as on British Cuisine, and on the take of other species, make for interesting reading. Cod is identified as the major natural resource of Iceland. The shifting of national policies along with the extent of offshore fishing rights is closely studied. The book concludes with a collection of regional Cod recipes.

    Often we think of human history as an exclusively human story. "Cod" reminds us of the interdependence between man and the sea's creatures....more info
  • Let's Kill All the Cod
    "Cod the Fish etc." is a breezy informative read especially for those interested in some of the driving forces to early trade patterns between the continent, new world and West Indies. The former two desired sugar, mollasses and rum and the latter used the cod to feed to the slaves who,in turn, were fed to the sugar cane fields.

    More anecdotal than statistical,"Cod the Fish that Changed the World" could have expanded on the slave trade and the economy of early New England (or New Virginia)but is,nonetheless, a pleasure to read. Actually went out and ate some;I had forgot the taste.

    Oh yes. We ate most of the Cod, and many fishing dependent areas have gone wanting and the industry has far too much capacity....more info

  • Great book!
    This book was passed around and enjoyed by many in my family. This is the only book that we've passed around this much. It's a quick read, fascinating, and it will stay with you for years. I read it when it first came out and have just bought it as a gift for someone else. I highly recommend it....more info
  • My what big fish you have.
    Cool book. Very readable. Cod takes a look at exploration of the New World from a different and refreshing perspective- fish as prime motivation for exploration/settlement/ecomomic well being.
    A quick read that history buffs will enjoy. I never really understood the process of fish preservation by drying and/or salting. Now I do and it is very interesting (believe it or not)....more info
  • This book on Cod is harder to find than...well a Cod.
    Word of warning, finding this book at the book store was not an easy task. While the book does contain a few recipes for Cod, more for contextural and historical interest, the book store placed the book in the cook book section.

    The book is a quick and informative read. I read it at the gym while sweating on the stair climber. If you haven't read Kurlansky, you will find his writing to be easy, enjoyable and informative. I was first introduced to him in his CD compendium called "Choice Cuts" a collection of food oriented writing from ancient times to present. Then I read "Salt" another very interesting combination of history and food, putting the subject material in histrical and political context that fills in a lot of the gaps your history teacher could not. Salt is an excellent companion piece to "Cod" as the need for pure sources of Salt was fueled by the need to salt Cod for the ravenous appetite of the Christian population of Europe, proscribed from eating anything but fish for a whopping number of days of the calendar year. Fish was not just for Fridays, but the whole pantheon of Christian holy days that were observed during that period.

    I give Kurlansky five Cod for his effort.

    Don't miss his saga of the high tide of the venerable Oyster in the New York Estuary in his book "The Big Oyster". Who knew that NYC was one time celebrated worldwide for the size and quality of their oysters? Today your more likely to pull up a half rotted Mafioso than an edible oyster....more info
  • In Cod We Trust!
    The marvel of Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World is that anyone could write a book this interesting about a subject so lackluster- a fish so boring that it does not even struggle when it is caught, instead allowing the fisherman to haul it up without a fight. Somehow Mark Kurlansky was able to make the codfish interesting enough that I continually drive my co-workers insane, insisting that they should read this book. Wars have been fought over it, revolutions have been spurred by it, national diets have been founded on it, economies and livelihoods have depended on it. The lowly cod really is the fish that changed the world. This book is a sober reminder of the impact of man on the environment, but it also a enjoyable and readable book filled with curious cod tidbits and a historical cross-section of odd cod recipes. In the same vein as The Perfect Storm or Longitude, this book is more entertaining than either of those maritime titles, although unlikely to be made into a movie starring George Clooney. If seeing the title Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World made you crack a smile, then you should read this book and tell your friends about it, so that they too can wonder if you're just making it up....more info
  • The fish that captured the world!
    Kurlansky makes odd topics interesting and he does not fail with Cod. This book shows how important this fish was in the expansion of Europe and the development of the United States. It also addresses the serious issue of over fishing this population. If you have an interest in eclectic history this is a must read....more info
  • Fish on Friday
    In 1976 as a poor student rapidly running out of money I had my first taste of "fish and chips" at Billingsgate Market for the princely sum of one pound. It came in a rolled up cone of newspaper, and you could read the newsprint on the fries. I shook some malt vinegar on the crispy mess from a bottle of dubious cleanliness, and strained my jaw to bite into the large chunk of cod fish filet that made up the two planks of "fish" resting atop the pound of greasy potatoes.

    Never has anything tasted so good in my life before or since.

    I've also never had a piece of cod that large ever again.

    Mark Kurlansky's "Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World" tells why.

    This is a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable work on economic history which has important points for our proper conception of the past while simultaneously detailing our present and expanding on implications for our future. Kurlansky details the European growth of knowledge of new World fisheries and the importance of the codfish in the ability of Europeans to explore the world. Indeed, Kurlansky's primary point is that without salted codfish European colonialism could not have happened, for it was this fish that enabled vessels to explore the unknown and feared world beyond the ken of the medieval mind.

    There is a reason so many enjoy and recommend this work. You will not be disappointed....more info