Dried Codfish

Probably the oldest, and certainly the most successful, biologically stable product is dried codfish (3). The earliest record is attributed to the Vikings who traveled from Norway to Iceland to Greenland to Canada, which coinciden-tally is the range of the Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua). In the tenth century, Thorwald and his son Erik the Red were expelled from Norway for murder and traveled to Iceland where they were again expelled for murder and in the year 965 traveled to Greenland. The Vikings were able to travel such long distances because they dried cod by splitting the fish and exposing the carcasses to the dry freezing air. The low temperatures prevented the frozen fish from decaying and the dry air was effective in removing moisture. The dried product resembled a wooden plank, but it did not decay. This was the same process developed by the natives in the high mountains of South America to produce "chofa" from potatoes. The Vikings had a thriving trade in dried cod with the Romans many centuries earlier, but it really flourished in the trade with Europe in the Middle Ages. Erik the Red colonized Greenland and his son Leif Eriksson sailed on to what he called Stoneland but was probably the coast of Labrador. The Norsemen made five expeditions to Canada between 985 and 1011 and all were possible because they had rations of dried cod.

In the Middle Ages in Europe, dried cod was an important food commodity, and the supply was coming from Scandinavia and Iceland. The dried cod being sold in Europe was a superior product to that being used in the Norse exploratory journeys because the Europeans had salt, and dried salt cod lasted longer and simply tasted better. The Basques in northern Spain entered the European market with large quantities of dried salt cod and for centuries no one knew where it was coming from. Actually, the Basques had discovered the limitless cod stocks of the eastern shore of America. Europe, in the Middle Ages, was a big market for whale meat, and the Basques were providing a large portion of it. In their whaling expeditions, they discovered the cod fishing grounds. When John Cabot landed in Newfoundland in 1497, he claimed the land for England. Jacques Cartier arrived in 1534 and reported seeing 1000 Basque ships fishing for cod. But the Basques, in the interests of secrecy, never claimed the land, and it remained for Jacques Cartier to claim the land for Canada. The Pilgrims landed in 1621 and the wealth of the New England cod fishery began to unfold.

The eighteenth century saw a race to exploit the New England cod fishery, and the European countries of Spain, Portugal, France, England, and Scandinavia rushed to supply the huge European demand for dried cod. The Americans soon learned that this was a lucrative world trade and developed the fishing industry. The French colonies on Haiti, Martinique, and Guadalupe, and the Dutch Republic of Suriname (then Dutch Guiana) became good customers because salt cod provided a nutritious and cheap source of food for slaves. Ships sailed for Africa loaded with salt cod and used half the cargo to purchase slaves and then set sail for the Carribbean where they exchanged the slaves and the rest of the cargo for molasses. The molasses was used to produce rum, which had become a naval necessity. A tot of rum was issued each day to each sailor, and we are led to believe that it was appreciated. Rum became a generic term for alcoholic beverages. The trade in dried cod became intertwined with the slave and molasses trade, and the Boston "Cod Aristocracy" was born. Today a model of a codfish hangs from the ceiling of the state house in Boston.

Codfish was an ideal candidate for biologically stable products for several reasons. First, it was very low in fat, which reduces the tendency to become rancid when stored, as opposed to salmon, which the early New Englanders also had in abundance. Salmon has a high oil content and cannot be preserved by drying with the same efficiency as codfish. Second, codfish was available in limitless quantities and could be easily caught. Third, abundant rocky shorelines were available to allow for drying in the open air. The Vikings reported that the dried cod without salt could be eaten directly by chipping off pieces, but this must have been very difficult. They probably soaked the dry slabs in water to soften the product. Dried salt cod cannot be eaten directly but must be soaked to lower the salt content. A number of changes of water were necessary to lower the salt content, and some ingenious methods were developed. The French reported that the journey by boat from Bordeaux to Aveyron took about two days, which was approximately the soaking time required for salt cod, so they towed it in a mesh bag behind the boat. Pollution of the Lot River discouraged this practice. In the meantime, flush toilets were developed and the old "water closet" had a tank of water elevated above the toilet. Storing cod in the tank provided an efficient way to remove the salt.

It is ironic that the "limitless" harvest of cod that was responsible for so much international trade turned out to be anything but limitless. Ships became bigger and more powerful for dragging trawls and more efficient in finding fish with electronic gear, and the capacity to process fish at sea was developed. The development of large factory ships made it possible for any country to exploit the cod fishing grounds, and soon ships from Europe, Russia, Korea, China, and many others were appearing in the Atlantic off the New England coast. The fisheries could not sustain the fishing effort, and cod became commercially extinct. In 1994 Canada closed the fisheries off Newfoundland, and in 1999 the United States closed a large portion of the cod fishing grounds. Fishery biologists say that the fisheries will need a number of old spawners to replenish the cod population. This means fish up to 15 years of age, so the fisheries will be closed for a long time.

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