With Mouth Wide Open - A Fish Tale - Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World - Mark Kurlansky

Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World - Mark Kurlansky (1999)

Part I. A Fish Tale

Chapter 2. With Mouth Wide Open


—Alexandre Dumas, Le Grande Dictionnaire de cuisine, 1873

The hero, Gadus morhua, is not a nice guy.

It is built to survive. Fecund, impervious to disease and cold, feeding on most any food source, traveling to shallow waters and close to shore, it was the perfect commercial fish, and the Basques had found its richest grounds. Cod should have lasted forever, and for a very long time it was assumed that it would. As late as 1885, the Canadian Ministry of Agriculture said, “Unless the order of nature is overthrown, for centuries to come our fisheries will continue to be fertile.”

The cod is omnivorous, which is to say it will eat anything. It swims with its mouth open and swallows whatever will fit—including young cod. Knowing this, sports fishermen in New England and Maritime Canada jig for cod, a baitless means of fishing, where a lure by its appearance and motion imitates a favorite prey of the target fish. A cod jigger is a piece of lead, sometimes fashioned to resemble a herring, but often shaped like a young cod.

Yet cod might be just as attracted to an unadorned piece of lead. English fishermen say they find Styrofoam cups thrown overboard from Channel-crossing ferries in the bellies of cod.

The cod’s greed makes it easy to catch, but the fish is not much fun for sportsmen. A cod, once caught, does not fight for freedom. It simply has to be hauled up, and it is often large and heavy. New England anglers would far rather catch a bluefish than a cod. Bluefish are active hunters and furious fighters, and once hooked, a struggle ensues to reel in the line. But the bluefish angler brings home a fish with dark and oily flesh, characteristic of a midwater fighter who uses muscles for strong swimming. The cod, on the other hand, is prized for the whiteness of its flesh, the whitest of the white-fleshed fish, belonging to the order Gadiformes. The flesh is so purely white that the large flakes almost glow on the plate. Whiteness is the nature of the sluggish muscle tissue of fish that are suspended in the near-weightless environment at the bottom of the ocean. The cod will try to swim in front of an oncoming trawler net, but after about ten minutes it falls to the back of the net, exhausted. White muscles are not for strength but for quick action—the speed with which a cod, slowly cruising, will suddenly pounce on its prey.

Cod meat has virtually no fat (.3 percent) and is more than 18 percent protein, which is unusually high even for fish. And when cod is dried, the more than 80 percent of its flesh that is water having evaporated, it becomes concentrated protein—almost 80 percent protein.

There is almost no waste to a cod. The head is more flavorful than the body, especially the throat, called a tongue, and the small disks of flesh on either side, called cheeks. The air bladder, or sound, a long tube against the backbone that can fill or release gas to adjust swimming depth, is rendered to make isinglass, which is used industrially as a clarifying agent and in some glues. But sounds are also fried by codfishing peoples, or cooked in chowders or stews. The roe is eaten, fresh or smoked. Newfoundland fishermen also prize the female gonads, a two-pronged organ they call the britches, because its shape resembles a pair of pants. Britches are fried like sounds. Icelanders used to eat the milt, the sperm, in whey. The Japanese still eat cod milt. Stomachs, tripe, and livers are all eaten, and the liver oil is highly valued for its vitamins.

Icelanders stuff cod stomachs with cod liver and boil them until tender and eat them like sausages. This dish is also made in the Scottish Highlands, where its dubious popularity is not helped by the local names: Liver-Muggie or Crappin-Muggie. Cod tripe is eaten in the Mediterranean.

The skin is either eaten or cured as leather. Icelanders used to roast it and serve it with butter to children. What is left from the cod, the remaining organs and bones, makes an excellent fertilizer, although until the twentieth century, Icelanders softened the bones in sour milk and ate them too.

The word cod is of unknown origin. For something that began as food for good Catholics on the days they were to abstain from sex, it is not clear why, in several languages, the words for salt cod have come to have sexual connotations. In the English-speaking West Indies, saltfish is the common name for salt cod. In slang, saltfish means “a woman’s genitals,” and while Caribbeans do love their salt cod, it is this other meaning that is responsible for the frequent appearance of the word saltfish in Caribbean songs such as the Mighty Sparrow’s “Saltfish.”

In Middle English, cod meant “a bag or sack,” or by inference, “a scrotum,” which is why the outrageous purse that sixteenth-century men wore at their crotch to give the appearance of enormous and decorative genitals was called a codpiece. Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary defines cod as “any case or husk in which seeds are lodged.” Does this have anything to do with the fish? Most scholars doubt it but offer no other explanation for the origin of the word. Henry David Thoreau conjectured that the fish was named after the husk of seeds because the female held so many millions of eggs.

There are other connections between codfish and pouches. In Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula, where the French have fished cod since before Shakespeare’s birth, and where people still use every part of the fish, cod skin is cured into a kind of leather from which pouches are made. The same is done in Iceland. The fish might also be named for the pouch at the back of a net where the cod are trapped. On a modern trawler, this part of the net is still called the cod end.

In Great Britain since the nineteenth century, cod has meant “a joke or prank.” This may be because a codpiece was presumably far larger than the parts it advertised. However, the Danish word for cod, torsk, also has the colloquial meaning “fool.”

The French word for cod, morue, gave the Atlantic cod the second part of its Latin name. But curiously, sometime in the nineteenth century, while cod was becoming a prank in England, morue in France came to mean “a prostitute.” Historic dictionaries of the French language do not offer an explanation for this, other than that it probably started with the vendors in Paris’s Les Halles market who were given to such anthropomorphisms, especially with fish. Pimps were mackerel, which is an oily and predatory fish. By the nineteenth century, nothing so clearly represented unbridled commercialism as the salt cod. A morue is something degraded by commerce. “Yes, yes, I will desalinate you, you grande morue! a character declares in Émile Zola’s 1877 novel, Assommoir. And when Louis Ferdinand Céline wrote that the stars are “tout morue,” it was not that they were made of salt cod but that the universe was cheapened and perverse.

In modern French, a fresh cod is called a cabillaud, which comes from the Dutch kabeljauw. The French adopted a foreign word for the fresh fish, which did not greatly interest them, but reserved a French word, morue, for salt cod, which they loved. Morue is an older word than the word cabillaud. In Quebec, where the French language has barely changed since the eighteenth century, the word cabillaud is unknown. Quebecers speak of fresh or salted morue.

To the Spanish, Italians, and Portuguese, fresh cod does not even exist, and there is really no word for it. It has to be called a “fresh salt cod.” Salt cod is baccalà in Italian and bacalhau in Portuguese, both of which may come from the Spanish word bacalao. Typical of Iberia, both the Basques and Catalans claim the word comes from their own languages, and the rest of Spain disagrees. Catalans have a myth that cod was the proud king of fish and was always speaking boastfully, which was an offense to God. “Va callar! (Will you be quiet!), God told the cod in Catalan. Whatever the word’s origin, in Spain, lo que corta el bacalao, the person who cuts the salt cod, is a colloquialism for the person in charge.

Codfish include ten families with more than 200 species. Almost all live in cold salt water in the Northern Hemisphere. Cod were thought to have developed into their current forms about 120 million years ago in the Tethys Sea, a tropical sea that once ran around the earth east-west and connected all other oceans. Eventually the Tethys merged with a northern sea, and the cod became a fish of the North Atlantic. Later, when a land bridge between Asia and North America broke, cod found their way into the northern Pacific. In gadiform fish, evolution is seen in the fins. The cusk has almost a continuous single fin around the body with a barely distinct tail. The ling has a distinct tail and a small second dorsal fin. On a hake, the forward dorsal fin becomes even more distinct. On a whiting, there are three dorsal fins, and the anal (belly) side has developed two distinct fins. On the most developed gadiforms—cod, haddock, and pollock—these three dorsal and two anal fins are large and very separate.

Despite the warm-water origins, only one tropical cod remains: the tiny bregmaceros, of no commercial value and almost unknown habits. There is also one South Atlantic species and even one freshwater cod, the burbot, whose white flesh, though not quite the quality of an Atlantic cod, is enjoyed by lake fishermen in Alaska, the Great Lakes, New England, and Scandinavia. Norwegians think the burbot has a particularly delectable liver. There are other gadiforms that are pleasant to eat but of no commercial value. Sportsmen like to jig the coastline of Long Island and New England for the small tomcod, which also has a Pacific counterpart.

But to the commercial fisherman, there have always been five kinds of gadiform: the Atlantic cod, the haddock, the pollock, the whiting, and the hake. Increasingly, a sixth gadiform must be added to the list, the Pacific cod, Gadus macrocephalus, a smaller version of the Atlantic cod whose flesh is judged of only slightly lesser quality.


Engraving by William Lizars from Jardine’s Naturalist’s Library, 1833.

The Atlantic cod, however, is the largest, with the whitest meat. In the water, its five fins unfurl, giving an elegant form that is streamlined by a curving white stripe up the sides. It is also recognizable by a square rather than forked tail and a curious little appendage on the chin, which biologists think is used for feeling the ocean floor.

The smaller haddock has a similar form but is charcoal-colored on the back where the cod is spotted browns and ambers; it also has a black spot on both sides above the pectoral fin. The stripe on a haddock is black instead of white. In New England, there is a traditional explanation for this difference. There, cod is sometimes referred to as “the sacred cod.” In truth, this is because it has earned New Englanders so many sacred dollars. But according to New England folklore, it was the fish that Christ multiplied to feed the masses. In the legend, Satan tried to do the same thing, but since his hands were burning hot, the fish wriggled away. The burn mark of Satan’s thumb and forefinger left black stripes; hence the haddock.

This story illustrates the difference, not only in stripes but in status, between cod and haddock. British and Icelandic fishermen only reluctantly catch haddock after their cod quotas are filled, because cod always brings a better price. Yet Icelanders prefer eating haddock and rarely eat cod except dried. Asked why this is so, Reykjavik chef Úlfar Eysteinsson said, “We don’t eat money.”

The stars are tout morue, and cod is money; haddock is simply food. The Nova Scotians, true to their name-sakes, prefer haddock, even for fish-and-chips, which would be considered a travesty in Newfoundland and virtually a fraud in the south of England. In the north of England, as in Scotland, haddock is preferred.

In places far from the range of Atlantic cod, hake is a substitute. The rare gadiform that is found in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, hake is a popular fish, fresh and cured, off of Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, and especially South Africa. Basques, who prize salt cod above all other fish, would rather eat a fresh hake than a fresh cod, which few have ever even seen. Because hake is found in waters closer to Spain, including the Mediterranean, cod has come to mean “cured,” while hake means “fresh.” Some Basque chefs say they prefer hake tongues to cod tongues, but what they are really saying is they prefer fresh tongues to cured ones.

Cod is the fish of choice for curing, though all of the other gadiforms are cured too, often now as a less costly substitute for cod. Salt ling is a Scottish tradition, and speldings, wind-dried whiting wetted with seawater as they dried to give a special taste, became a local specialty north of Aberdeen in the eighteenth century. At the same time, south of Aberdeen, haddocks were being dried on shore and smoked over peat and seaweed fires by the wives of the fishermen of Findon—which is the origin of the still-celebrated finnan haddie. This has achieved such status that an occasional bogus smoked cod is passed off in the United States as finnan haddie, while a salted haddock might be passed off as salt cod.

But in spite of the occasional local preference, on the world market, cod is the prize. This was true in past centuries when it was in demand as an inexpensive, long-lasting source of nutrition, and it is true today as an increasingly expensive delicacy. Even with the Grand Banks closed, worldwide more than six million tons of gadiform fish are caught in a year, and more than half are Gadus morhua, the Atlantic cod. For fishermen, who are extremely tradition bound, there is status in fishing cod. Proud cod fishermen are indignant, or at least saddened, by the suggestion that they should switch to what they see as lesser species.

In addition to its culinary qualities, the cod is eminently catchable. It prefers shallow water, only rarely venturing to 1,800 feet, and it is commonly found in 120 feet (twenty fathoms) or less. Cod migrate for spawning, moving into still-shallower water close to coastlines, seeking warmer spawning grounds and making it even easier to catch them.

They break off into subgroups, which adapt to specific areas, varying in size and color, from yellow to brown to green to gray, depending on local conditions. In the dark waters off of Iceland, they are brown with yellow specks, but it takes only two days in the brightly lit tank of an aquarium in the Westman Islands, off of Iceland, for a cod to turn so pale it looks almost albino. The so-called northern stock, the cod off of Newfoundland and Labrador, are smaller for their age than the cod off of Massachusetts, where the water is warmer. Though always a cold-water fish, preferring water temperatures between thirty-four and fifty degrees, cod grows faster in the warmer waters of its range. Historically, but not in recent years because of overfishing, the cod stock off of Massachusetts was the largest and meatiest in the world.

Cod manufacture a protein that functions like antifreeze and enables the fish to survive freezing temperatures. If hauled up by a fisherman from freezing water, which rarely happens since they are then underneath ice, the protein will stop functioning and the fish will instantly crystallize.

Cod feed on the sea life that clusters where warm and cold currents brush each other—where the Gulf Stream passes by the Labrador current off North America, and again where it meets arctic currents off the British Isles, Scandinavia, and Russia. The Pacific cod is found off of Alaska, where the warm Japanese current touches the arctic current. In fact, the cod follow this edge of warm and cold currents so consistently that some scientists believe the shifting of weather patterns can be monitored by noting where fishermen find cod. When cold northern waters become too cold, the cod populations move south, and in warmer years they move north.

From Newfoundland to southern New England, there is a series of shallow areas called banks, the southernmost being Georges Bank off of Massachusetts, which is larger than the state. Several large banks off of Newfoundland and Labrador are together called the Grand Banks. The largest of the Grand Banks, known as the Grand Bank, is larger than Newfoundland. These are huge shoals on the edge of the North American continental shelf. The area is rich in phytoplankton, a growth produced from the nitrates stirred up by the conflicting currents. Zooplankton, tiny sea creatures, gorge themselves on the phytoplankton. Tiny shrimplike free-floating creatures called krill eat the zooplankton. Herring and other midwater species rise to eat the krill near the surface, and seabirds dive for both the krill and the fish. Humpback whales also feed on krill. And it is this rich environment on the banks that produces cod by the millions. In the North Sea, the cod grounds are also found on banks, but the North American banks, where the waters of the Gulf of Mexico meet the arctic Greenland waters, had a greater density of cod than anything ever seen in Europe. This was the Basques’ secret.

Still more good news for the fishermen, a female cod forty inches (102 centimeters) long can produce three million eggs in a spawning. A fish ten inches longer can produce nine million eggs. A cod may live to be twenty or even thirty years old, but it is the size more than the age that determines its fecundity. Dumas’s image of all the eggs hatching so that someone could walk across the ocean on the backs of cod is typical nineteenth-century enthusiasm about the abundance of the species. But it could never happen. In the order of nature, a cod produces such a quantity of eggs precisely because so few will reach maturity. The free-floating eggs are mostly destroyed as they are tossed around the ocean’s surface, or they are eaten by other species. After a couple of weeks, the few surviving eggs hatch and hungrily feed, first on phytoplankton and soon zooplankton and then krill. That is, if they can get to those foods before the other fish, birds, and whales. The few cod larvae that are not eaten or starved in the first three weeks will grow to about an inch and a half. The little transparent fish, called juveniles, then leave the upper ocean and begin their life on the bottom, where they look for gravel and other rough surfaces in which to hide from their many predators, including hungry adult cod. A huge crop of eggs is necessary for a healthy class, as biologists call them, of juveniles. If each female cod in a lifetime of millions of eggs produces two juveniles that live to be sexually mature adults, the population is stable. The first year is the hardest to survive. After that, the cod has few predators and many prey. Because a cod will eat most anything, it adapts its diet to local conditions, eating mollusks in the Gulf of Maine, and herring, capelin, and squid in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The Atlantic cod is particularly resistant to parasites and diseases, far more so than haddock and whiting.

If ever there was a fish made to endure, it is the Atlantic cod—the common fish. But it has among its predators man, an openmouthed species greedier than cod.



Hannah Glasse’s recipes show how much has been lost from the craft of British cooking, especially the art of roasting. A century after Glasse, French food writer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote, “You may be born to cook, but you must learn to roast.”


Wash it very clean, and Score it with a Knife, strew a little Salt on it, and lay it in a Stew-pan before the Fire, with something behind it, that the Fire may Roast it. All the Water that comes from it the first half Hour, throw away; then throw on it a little Nutmeg, Cloves, and Mace beat fine, and Salt; flour it, and baste it with Butter. When that has lain Some time, turn it, and season, and baste the other side the same; turn it often, then baste it with butter and Crumbs of Bread. If it is a large Head, it will take four or five Hours baking; have ready some melted Butter with an Anchovy, some of the Liver of the Fish boiled and bruised fine, mix it well with the Butter, and two yolks of Eggs beat fine, and mixed with the Butter, then strain them through a Sieve, and put them into the sauce pan again, with a few Shrimps, or pickled Cockles, two Spoonfuls of Red Wine, and the Juice of a Lemon. Pour it into the Pan the head was roasted in, and stir it all together, pour it into the Saucepan, keep it stirring, and let it boil; pour into a Bason. Garnish the Head with fried Fish, Lemon, and scraped Horse-reddish. If you have a large Tin Oven it will do better.

—Hannah Glasse,
The Art of Cookery: Made PLAIN and EASY
which far exceeds any Thing of the Kind ever
yet Published BY A LADY, London, 1747

Glasse also offered equally elaborate recipes for both boiled and baked cod head.

Also see pages 241-44.