The Food Lab's Reading List, Day 18: Mark Kurlansky's Cod

Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

Author's Note: I recently built myself a new bookshelf in the kitchen, and in the process of reorganizing my ever-expanding book collection, I ended up blowing the dust off of more than a few majorly dog-eared pages. Old friends that carried me through college, my early days of faking it in fancy restaurants, my time as a test cook and writer, and some newer volumes as well. So, every weekday through the end of October, I'll be writing a short post featuring a food book that I really like. All of these books had a major influence either on my career or on my day-to-day cooking. They aren't necessarily the best or most essential cookbooks out there, but they are all worthy reads.

Mark Kurlansky's Cod is part history, part biography (fishy biography, that is), part ecological allegory, part cookbook, and all-around great storytelling. It opens with the tale of a waning fishing village in Newfoundland in 1992, at what Kurlansky refers to as "the wrong end of a 1,000 fishing spree." Over the next 200 pages or so, he tells the fascinating story of how a single fish shaped the course of history.

You'll learn that it was the promise of rich cod-fishing waters that spurred Europeans to sail across the Atlantic and "discover" the New World (and, of course, it was salted, dried cod that allowed them to make this trip in the first place). What did they find when they arrived? Not just fish weighing hundreds of pounds (absolutely monstrous by today's standards), but that the Vikings, led by the murderous Erik the Red, had already been there back in the 10th century, on a voyage similarly fueled by dried cod. Cod was once so plentiful that the pilgrims named a cape after it (though they were far better plunderers than they were fishermen). And, Kurlansky explains, cod went on to feed both the Caribbean slave trade and the Union Army.

It was also cod that fueled first the growth of Iceland's modern economy during World War II, and later the Cod Wars between Iceland and the UK that began in 1958 and presaged the decline of the ocean's cod supply. Iceland came out ahead in each of these wars, devastating the UK fishery. The agreements reached formed the basis for the 200-nautical-mile economic exclusivity zone—granting countries ownership of ocean waters up to 200 miles off their coast—that is now the United Nations standard. These days, thanks to overfishing, Iceland's fisheries rely far more on haddock than cod.

In the end, Cod is a story about the pitfalls of human ingenuity and our over-proficiency as predators. Technology-fueled economic growth that results in conflict over who gets to scrape the bottom of what was once thought to be a bottomless barrel is a pretty on-the-nose allegory for any number of problems we're currently facing in the world.

Cod is a short, easy, fascinating read. If you like it, I'd also recommend Salt: A World History (similar to cod, with salt as the protagonist) and The Big Oyster (the history of New York City through the lens of the economy of oysters).

You can buy Cod here.