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July 25, 2008


A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World
Mark Kurlansky – ISBN – 9780140275018

As usual, this elegantly crafted little treatise--on a very important fish--is readable, entertaining, and chock-a-block full of information and interesting asides, all of which are Kurlansky hallmarks. It marries the politics and economics of the subject, and is one of his earliest offerings (1998); likely the book which “put him on the map.” He has become one of my favorite writers. I’m working my way thru all of his books--having already reviewed on this site Salt, The Big Oyster, 1968. You may soon hear about some of t’others.

As with the narratives on salt and oysters, he travels the world to explain the importance of life altering/sustaining products. Into this maritime history he weaves facts about feeding Caribbean slaves, and the Yankee trading of their salted fish for the Caribbean molasses, from which New Englanders brewed the preferred drink of the era: rum. He slips in an aside about how George Washington, in his earliest campaign for the House of Burgesses, supplied gallons of rum and rum punch to a mere handful of voters. Along with this factoid he emphasizes that the hectoring by the British Crown--by forbidding the trade in molasses--one might conclude that the Brits were intentionally “trying to rally Massachusetts around its radicals.” The revolution wasn’t over just the Tea Tax, of which we were taught in grammar school (at least those of us who were actually educated in our government schools.)

He discloses the little known fact that Basque fishermen were fishing their own secret sea (off-shore Canada) for over 400 years before Columbus “found” America, suggesting that Columbus may have known more about where he was going than is commonly supposed. He elaborates on the dangers of fishing, leaning heavily on the history of Gloucester, MA (not incidentally the subject of his recent book, The Last Fish Tale, as previously he wrote The Basque History of the World.

Discussions of the technology of fishing are comprehensive, as he explains that these “improvements” have resulted in the disaster which over-fishing has become in the 20th century. Despite “expert” determinations that nature’s bounty could not be overcome, we’ve succeeded. While we wish to see nature and evolution as separate from human activities, the natural world encompasses all.

Brits have determined that 70% of species in their waters are over-fished. American Cod are all but extinct (at least in commercial quantities) and “substitute” species are now being harvested with abandon. We are encouraging a host of not-so-great, but more adaptable, species as nature “doggedly searches for something which works; but as the cockroach demonstrates, what works best in nature does not always appeal to us.”

As well, we are approaching a time when there will be little “natural food” available for consumption. Much of the fish we now consume is farmed as, increasingly, are shellfish. Cow hunting became ranching, as ranching evolved into feed-lot production for cattle, as well as pork and fowl.

“There is a big difference” he observes, “between living in a society that hunts whales, and living in one that views them. Nature is being reduced to precious demonstrations for entertainment and education. . . . Are we headed for a world where nothing is left of nature but parks?” Having over hunted mammals, we preserve wild ones as best we can, as we farm our food. While it is harder to kill off fish than mammals, after a millennium of hunting the Atlantic cod, we’ve done it.

Beyond the environmental issues, the book is a wonderful read from the standpoint of history and adventure. As he always does, Kurlansky the gourmand provides us with numerous recipes, historic and modern, for this tasty fish . . . should you be able to find one to cook.

Posted by respeto at July 25, 2008 12:05 PM