Prose Chowder

Membership in a book club caused me to read something I would not ordinarily have picked up. Often this leads to wasted time, but occasionally serendipity is at work. “Cod” by Mark Kurlansky was unexpectedly entertaining. It covers the history of the fish from unbelievable abundance to near extinction.

It could be merely one more grim reminder of how humans are despoiling the planet they inhabit, but the chief attraction of the book for me was the amazing history along the way. You really couldn’t make this stuff up.

As early as 1000 A.D. (or CE as the secularly correct are saying), the Basques in southwestern Europe somehow discovered the immense stock of cod between Scandinavia and New England. They brought back the fish, learned to salt it, and to this day salt cod (or bacalao in Spanish) is highly prized in Iberian cooking.

The prodigies of sailing necessary to begin such a trade at so early a date are amazing enough, but so is the fact that the close-mouthed Basques kept the source of the catch a trade secret for hundreds of years until northern Europeans began to fish the Grand Banks.

Then the competition for the catch led to cod wars between British and hanseatic cities. One reasons for the lust for the fish, besides the fact that it is tasty and easy to catch, was that it is a low fat food unusually high in protein content at about 18%. When dried and salted the protein content is about 80%. It was cheap, abundant fuel that allowed populations to expand in Europe.

A comic sidelight comes from New England. We all recall that the dour puritans came ill-prepared to found their city on as hill. They had religious zeal aplenty but lacked practical skills to deal with a harsh new environment. Thanksgiving famously commemorates the kindness of strangers, when the native-Americans helped the newcomers to survive.

However the natives must have regarded these strangers as dim-witted since they were starving amid plenty. The nearby Georges Bank was so rich with cod that the Puritans could have perpetually feasted if they’d simply bestirred themselves and learned how to fish.

In fact, Kurlansky tells us, in a hilarious couple of pages, they didn’t even have to learn how to fish. Clams and mussels were handy for the taking and huge lobsters were so plentiful that they could be grabbed from shore without getting your breaches wet. Only in a time of near famine did a Puritan elder record the fact that his people were so hungry that they descended to eating the spiny, disgusting lobsters.

Obviously the New Englanders eventually wised up. The sea was to make them rich, and the grandees of the region came to be known as the codfish aristocracy. A four-foot long carven cod has hung as a state emblem in the Massachusetts House chamber for 200 years and it is the third to have done so. It is the Massachusetts government equivalent, perhaps, to the mace in the British parliament.

A darker chapter concerns the importance of cod in the triangular trade with the Caribbean. It was the staple that fed the slaves and made that wicked system possible, so the codfish aristocrats did not have clean hands. “Behind every great fortune lies a great crime,” as Balzac reminds us.

How stranger-than-fiction are the ways of humans and the treats to be found in homely histories. I learned one more amusing item from this book. We are all familiar with an Anglicization of a French word borrowed by New England from the French-Canadians who also fished the cod. A chaudière was a large iron pot in which the locals prepared a dish from ingredients that their waters provided – chowder.

Ironically, in a book whose punchline is the near-extinction of cod, Kurlansky has included a couple dozen codfish recipes. Clearly foodies can’t help themselves and Kurlansky has won a James Beard award for food writing as well as authoring books on oysters, the Basques, Caribbean and Jewish history, how Birdseye invented frozen food, and the bestselling “Salt.”

He also edited a little book that I ran out to possess after “Cod.” It is “The Food of a Younger Land,” which comes equipped with this heavyweight subtitle: “A Portrait of American Food: Before the National Highway System, Before Chain Restaurants, and Before Frozen Food, when the Nation’s Food was Seasonal, Regional, and Traditional: from the Lost WPA Files.”

The WPA put people to work building public works, many of which still stand. But it also understood that the depression was producing literally starving artists and sponsored a Federal Arts Project that helped everyone from Jacob Lawrence to Jackson Pollock to keep body and soul together by practicing their art. There was a music project, a theater project that produced plays in English, Yiddish, and Spanish and included a pioneering African-American theater component. Fascinating information on all these can be found at the Library of Congress website.

And there was a Writers Project. The list of writers who participated is long and included Cheever, Bellow, Steinbeck, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and plenty who never made a name. Among the productions was the famous series of 48 guides to the states which today provide a glimpse of how the country looked in the 1930s. Kurlansky’s volume owes its existence to a similar project to be called “America Eats.” Writers across the country were asked to provide a sort of oral history of cuisine. The fruits of their labor were gathered, but when World War II broke out they were never compiled and published. The manuscripts came to roost in the Library of Congress.

This is the trove that Kurlansky has culled to produce “The Food of a Younger Land.” It is made up of snippets from all the country’s regions. Most of the contributors are unknown today, though Eudora Welty has a piece on Mississippi food and Nelson Algren pipes up from Chicago. The food itself is not as interesting as the people cooking it, black servants at oyster roasts in the South, Native Americans in the Northwest, an Anglo Los Angeles writer struggling to explain to the uninitiated what a taco is.

Like the iconic record of the Great Depression left behind by photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, who were also subsidized by the WPA program, these little reports on food folkways from a hard time are like opening a time capsule or sifting through an archaeological dig to discover how our parents or grandparents lived 80 years ago. Fascinating.

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