Cod: History of the Fish that changed the World8 min read
A fundamental and underrated chapter of the Human History is that which deals with the evolution of its diet and the importance that this evolution has had on historical events. This theme is incredibly vast and the history of human nutrition, teaches us that, in Nature, everything has a cost, that sooner or later you pay. A subject to which many prefer to remain deaf, evidently because they think to leave the bill to be paid to someone else.
The first important innovation in the human diet was when hominids, which began to hold the standing upright, integrated the almost exclusively plant diet of their ancestors (which together with the sprouts also ate the insects that were on it , similar to how the anthropomorphic monkeys still do today, with a caloric contribution of animal proteins equal to about 3-4% of the total), also eating the remains of the herbivorous savannah animals left behind by the carnivorous animals that had preyed them.
From there, the next step was the invention of hunting and, for a long time, primitive men were nomadic hunter-gatherers. They then became settled when they discovered the seasonal rhythms of Nature and invented agriculture and then breeding. According to generally widespread opinion among anthropologists, agriculture is almost certainly an invention made by women, because at that time men were engaged in hunting and did not have the opportunity to observe the life cycles of plant species and to experience their cultivation.
This fundamental passage in the genesis of civilization, however, has had a consequence of the devastating effects, which have a considerable weight today. Agriculture constantly needs water and therefore the human communities have always settled in the vicinity of wetlands. These, ideal for the development of maximum biodiversity, almost always host many species of insects. Among these insects, many can be harmful to humans, since their bites transmit all kinds of parasites. In particular, some mosquitoes (of which the principal is the Anopheles) soon specialized in infecting Man with a protozoan, the Plasmodium, which performs a part of its life cycle in human red blood cells, disintegrating them and then causing serious anemia (in addition to heavy disorders of the liver, forced to dispose of the remains of dead red blood cells, which also include toxic substances). It is malaria, the infectious disease that has killed more people in the course of history, several billion, and that even today is responsible for the death of over half a million people every year. Malaria has also had a significant influence on changing the direction of history itself, for example with the death of Alexander the Great, who was probably killed by this infection at the age of 33, just when he was at the height of his power and was preparing for a march of conquest of the East that was already announced triumphant.
But not all the consequences of changes in nutrition have been so drastic. A very little known example is the consumption of cod or similar. These fish, which are found more or less everywhere but have been fished mainly in the Atlantic, for centuries, have represented the main nourishment, as well as the almost exclusive source of protein, for all the working classes of our civilization. His story was told by the American food expert Mark Kurlansky in a book (“Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World“) translated into different languages.
The Atlantic cod, from the beginning, had the advantage of being very nutritious and abundant, also because in its environment it is a top carnivore (which also practices cannibalism): Man is his only predator. The first to fish it with commitment were the Vikings, already from the tenth century, starting from their Icelandic bases. The Vikings also invented the first technique of preserving fresh fish: cut the cod into slices, exposing this to the cold wind until it dried and reached the consistency of the biscuits. Although in this process also lost 4/5 of its mass, what remained was very nutritious, a real calorie bomb.
Storing the cod is relatively easy, because having little fat its meat is not subject to that phenomenon called rancidity (transformation of fats into stinking acids) that easily deteriorates the others. Just find the way to inhibit the decomposition from bacterial contamination and its meat is preserved for a period longer than almost all other foods. In the Middle Ages, almost everywhere in the world, there was no possibility to use ice as a preservative (to be noted, however, how the current systems of freezing food were invented precisely to preserve the cod and tested on it) but someone, somewhere in western coastal Europe, came up with the brilliant idea of using salt. Salt, in addition to dehydrating cells, is a powerful antibacterial, and in the coastal areas is very easily found. A common opinion is that the first to use it as a preservative of the cod were the Basques, who in fact held for some centuries the monopoly of fishing for Atlantic cod. Medieval legends, which tell of talking cod, are keen to point out that the fish spoke euskera, the Basque language. When, in 1497, Giovanni Caboto explored and mapped the coast of the current United States to Newfoundland for the first time, claiming it on behalf of Henry VII of England, he came across a myriad of Basque fishermen’s boats, which frequented those areas from who knows how much but they had never claimed them on anyone’s behalf so as not to let the rest of the world know the secret areas from which they derived their miraculously abundant peaches.
The salted cod brought to Europe from the Basques is so widespread that, depending on the different places, it takes on many denominations. In Italy, for example, it is called “baccalà”, In Spain “bacalao” (which in turn derives from “Va callar!”, Or “Even less!” In Catalan: according to a legend, the answer that would give the Padreterno to the cod, which he considered himself the king of the fish and boasted about it pompously).
Not only: salted cod was for a long time the cheapest and least perishable food available to all workers, who could not afford the purchase of meat or fresh fish. All European demographics, for centuries, up to Russia (where baccalà still arrived perfectly preserved after months of travel and was consumed after being “found” after a couple of days bathing in water to dissolve and eliminate salt), it was kept right by the consumption of salted cod. The monopoly of the Basques ended when the major European powers (first Spain and Portugal, then the United Kingdom and France) set their sights on the affair. In the many wars for the domination of the Atlantic, the need to control the areas (called “banks”) in which the cod fishing more easily has had a fundamental weight. Cod fishing was at the origin of a very rich business. In English-speaking countries, many small coastal communities made their fortune with cod processing, which they then sold all over the world.
Almost all these places are now recognizable by the prefix “-wich” which concludes their name and means precisely “place where the cod is worked”. But the city that most owes its growth to cod fishing is Boston, not by chance the first major city in New England. In fact, if the Pilgrims of the Mayflower arrived in America in 1621 flaunting the utmost disinterest in fishing, obsessed with the idea of practicing agriculture (which they did very badly, so that they would all have starved if they had not been helped by the local indigenous communities, mentioned today on Thanksgiving Day, their descendants quickly realized that the greatest resource they could rely on was the sea, so they began to invest in powerful fleets of fishing vessels, which mostly from Terranova, placed in a perfect position to quickly reach the best “banks”.
Over time, many types of fishing boats would have been invented, but the most famous is a sort of two-masted schooner with a very aerodynamic profile, as agile and fast as not very stable in rough seas, a side capable of miraculous peaches in record time and on the other hand responsible for countless shipwrecks. Over time, the market of salted cod passed through several transformations, the best known of which, during the seventeenth century, in which the products were unsuccessful (because conservation had been wrong or had occurred in very unfavorable conditions), once intended for fertilization or animal feed, were intended for the supply of African slaves who worked in plantations of the Caribbean islands (among other things, the slave market and that of salted cod often overlapped, using the same routes and the same ships in a perverse form of globalization). This very low quality codfish was called commercially just “West India”. The feeding of the poor slaves became so dependent on this product that, in the period between 1780 and 1787 in which there was a crisis such as to reduce the quantity on the market, the mortality due to the consequences of malnutrition and malnutrition among the slaves increased greatly.
No one has ever counted exactly how many fishermen died during cod fishing, but it is known from American statistics that their risk of death at work is about 20 times higher than the average of other workers, even if over time their conditions have been Safer. Some important novels have been written about their lives, such as “Captains courageous” by Kipling, and reportages of high journalistic value, such as “The perfect storm” by Sebastian Junger. Both these works have had some beautiful film, the first starring Spencer Tracy, the second starring George Clooney.
In cod fishing, techniques such as trawl have also been tested for the first time. But this already belongs to the time of industrial fishing and, for some time, traditional fishermen have been denouncing the damage of certain indiscriminate fishing techniques on the marine ecosystem. But, as always, when it comes to ecology and the environment, nobody is listening to them…
Kurlansky, being also a keen on cooking, also fills his book with recipes for cooking cod: sometimes so distant in time as to appear fanciful (like the medieval ones to get tasty dishes from the head of the fish), sometimes very simple and a bit ingenue like the cod that cooked the fighters of the Spanish Civil War, handed down through suggestive popular recipes.