65 of 65 people found the following review helpful
on June 28, 2001
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.
123 of 134 people found the following review helpful
on June 22, 2001
If you're one of the many people who's been caught up in the wave of highly focused historical books that have innundated our book stores, then this book is for you. Kurlansky presents the history of one of the most mundane items possible (excepting the humble potato and there's a book on that too) with an engaging and informative style. The book presents as a mix of history, current events, and recipes.
It misfired at times. There is not discussion (or recommendation) regarding management of resources or planning for the future of our fisheries. And some absolute statements (such as the superiour development of Basque cod cuisine) deserve to be challenged. And Kurlansky doesn't consider the fishing history of Native Americans; although, it may be for lack of documentation (I don't know; I'm not a historian; that's why I read these things).
In spite of this, it's an outstanding book. It meets the two key requirements for me in this regard; one, I recommend it to other people who report back on how much they liked it; and two, I'll read it again.
Buy it. Read it. You'll probably enjoy it.
77 of 84 people found the following review helpful
on August 27, 2002
There's a cartoon in Matt Groening, the nine types of professors. One is the single-minded type, as in "The country that controls magnesium controls the world!" His main drawback is that he could be right. Cod sort of reminds me of that. You may not have known how important or popular this particular fish was to most of our ancestors in Western civilization, but, according Kurlansky, Cod was practically like bread. It was easy to fish, there was a ton of it, and once Europeans learned the various ways of drying it (with cold and/or salt) all people could think about was trading this staple. Yes, Kurlansky's book is single-minded, and at times you might forget this is a fish tale. When the Vikings found America, what where they looking for? And how did they manage to sustain themselves through the long ocean voyage? The answers are of course, cod. Kurlansky also has a few outlandish things to say about another favorite topic of his, the Basque, who it appears had been regularly fishing for Cod in Newfoundland long before Columbus found America. They were really good at keeping a secret, you see. Fortunately, there's a serious, or, at least more socially acceptable side, to Kurlansky's fish story. The fishing trade really is threatened. You can no longer practically walk on Atlantic cod. Even Icelanders who found their entire economy changing from one of sustenance to a first world service economy, during the two world wars, have a difficult time protecting their dwindling stock. If Aldous Huxley's grandfather, Thomas, asserted in the 19th century that cod would never become extinct, it was only because he could not imagine the rapid technological changes which would turn fishing into harvesting, and the classic practice of drying fish into freezing it, on board the fishing boats themselves. Good bye bacalao, hello fishsticks. It's a sad tale as ways of life dwindle and change, and even the very essentials of human existence that have lasted for thousands of years go unheard of by the post-industrial society. But are we really evolving into something better? Kurlansky peppers his narrative with quotes from notables throughout the ages and interesting, if often archaic, recipes.
33 of 35 people found the following review helpful
on November 13, 2002
Mark Kurlansky has written a breezy (yet ultimately gloomy) little book, full of tidbits of knowledge about the cod. It's a fascinating subject, especially if you have ever lived in the parts of the world where cod has reigned supreme. And yes, the author not only tells us about the fish itself, but how nations have struggled over the centuries to protect their collective livelihoods, occasionally warring against each other as national pride and survival were at stake.
Several months ago I read Mr. Kurlansky's book, "Salt: A World History". This newer book is far better than "Cod" as it delves deeper into a comestible that REALLY changed the course of history. A problem that I have with both books is the author's writing style. It's very disjointed. He jumps from one geographic area of cod harvest to another and from one time period to another as well. There is no real weaving of a story line here....it's as if he wrote each chapter on a whim.
However, I especially like the inclusion of recipes in this book. It gives a "human" side to the cod and allowing readers to view recipes from Europe and North America is a great way to end the book. If you have any desire to read "Cod", I would suggest reading it first before going on to "Salt".
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on July 13, 2000
In many ways, the story of `Cod' is the story of America. In this beautifully written little essay, Mark Kurlansky explains how the early settlement and wealth of America revolved around this fish. But this book is no dry academic fare; rather, it is full with curiousities and odd bits of history and yes recipes. Kurlansky, a fellow freemason of the sea, does a magic trick. He makes the book highly accessible, informative, and useful (recipes). Given that we have fished it to commercial extinction, it is a vital read for anyone concerned with our relation to Nature.
I highly recommend it if you are taking holidays anywhere in New England, the Martimes, Portugal, Spain, the southwest coast of England or my place - Newfoundland.
I gave it to my father, who is a commercial fisherman, and he really liked it: "Felt like reading about yourself." Enough said.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on December 20, 1999
There are a handful of books on food and history that should be on all bookshelves and this is one of them. This slim volume by a first rate journalist is hard to classify: part history, part ecological and political cautionary tale, part cook book [a James Beard award winner!]. Several individual chapters alone are worth the price of this book: the description how cod have been caught and processed; the characterization of the cod's historical role in world trade; the authors' take on how the economic origins of the American Revolution (from the cod point-of-view of course).
All in all, this exceptionally readable book is highly recommended.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on February 11, 2002
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.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on August 2, 2006
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.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on March 18, 2007
I purchased "Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World" by Mark Kurlansky almost immediately after finishing Kurlansky's nonfiction book, "Salt: A History." Kurlansky has an easy-to-read, easy-to-follow writing style that allows you to skim world history in the course of a few hundred pages without getting lost or asking "Who was that person again?"
"Cod" is about the history of the cod fish. It begins with the plight of modern-day fisherman in Newfoundland who are dealing with the fact that there aren't any fish left to catch, then moves back through time to the days of Viking and Basques explorers and how they discovered new lands through their pursuit of (and use of) cod. From there, it talks about the various uses of cod in early Europe (including recipes), colonial America, and Iceland (and all the wars in between). Somewhere along the way, the history of frozen food is brought up in fascinating detail. At the very end, we are reminded that Cod (as well as many other fish) are being overfished and such an important resource may very well go extinct in the years to come.
Altogether, the book is a delight. I don't eat fish, but from the delicious descriptions, it made me want to try cod anyway (it is very difficult to find nowadays). The book also made me realize that everyday items like fish sticks have history and significance, and it is such a "wow" moment when you learn about the years of exploration, discovery, war, and cultural/technological innovation that it took to get you a Fish Filet at McDonalds. It is almost humbling.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on June 25, 1998
A terrific book! I had no idea that cod have played such a large role in the economic and social history of the western world. Tracing their story creates a spectacular cross-section of European and North American history. It's one of those books (rather like James Burke's Connections) that helps the reader figure out why things are the way they are, and understand the links between seemingly disparate elements of society and history. I often give my books away after reading them, but there's no way I'm parting with this one.
By a lucky accident, I read Cod right after reading Kipling's Captains Courageous, which is set on a cod trawler working the Grand Banks in the 1890s. The two books reinforce each other -- one the historical summary, the other the detailed exploration of the daily life of those involved. A great combination.