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Simply my favourite book ever....
and that is said with careful forethought and consideration, nearly 15 years after first reading it.
I studied Post Grad studies in Human Ecology at the Australian National University and this book should have been mandatory reading as it encapsulates beautifully the entirety of the human ecological relationship over time.
The book focuses on the relationship between mankind and one species, a humble one at that. You might expect such an intriguing historical yarn about whales, or perhaps dogs, or horses, and their relationship with humans, but who would have expected it from the humble cod. Cod; A fish I probably still could not identify in a tank, a fish who's flavour seems ubiquitous and vague.
Perhaps my greatest memories as a child of this distant and odd species was a strange dish that my mother made occasionally, with a brightly coloured strangely orange smoked fish mixed with rice and peas, or occasionally with a white sauce. Growing up as first or second generation 'antipodeans' as we did, this was one of those backlashes to my Scottish/British/Irish heritage that even I recognised as sporadic and strange. Kippers, herrings on toast and spotted dick, seemingly antiquated oddities in an otherwise normal though perhaps adventurous 1970's Australian diet of meat and three veges. A diet guided more by the Family Circle and the Country Woman's Association Cookbooks than any meaningful remnant of the former national cuisines that some of my new-immigrant French, Italian or Yugoslavian friends mothers brought to the table.
Reading this book connected for me these strange childhood memories with my early adult experiences of adventuring out to explore the world of global cuisines as an ambitious young cook and eager gastronome. I recall procuring strange white slabs of salted fish that I'd found hanging in the chilled, odorous and slightly intimidating haunts of obscure european delicatessens. These strange smelly white monsters taken home to hang on the wall in the kitchen or the laundry while I hunted down recipes for what on earth to do with them.
I recall the uncomfortable expressions on the face of my children as they explained to visiting school friends why their eccentric dad might have dead smelly fish hanging from the wall. Even more I recall their shock and amazement as I practised a method of desalinating the fish that I was taught by a neighbouring Italian family, cleaning out the cistern in the toilet and placing the fish in it so that for 24 hours each time the toilet was flushed slat was purged from the dried fish housed within. I'm not sure what shocked them more, using the toilet as a cooking aid, or the smell of cured fish that permeated the toilet for days after.
In the end all of this was worth it as strange delicacies emerged from my kitchen to the delight of friends and family (I must admit the kids enjoyed these creations more when they did not notice the fish content than when they did). Dishes like Bolas de Bacalao or Bacalao con Papas brought amazement and delight to the taste buds of my equally exploritory friends, all breaking free from their meat and three veg heritage, into a world of gastronomical multiculturalism.
It was not until I read Cod that I finally connected these delightful early taste sensastions and similar experiences in the former Portuguese colony of Timor Leste, with my sense of environmental indignation at what the generation before me had done to the planet. The book connected the dots in such a surprising and readable manner, both a cookbook, a history book, a rollicking read, a tale of environmentalism and call to arms in the defense of the worlds oceans.
The book remains on my top ten list, along with Guns Germs and Steel and other human ecological tales, but this one remains there for its recipes, for its insight into history and most of all for not answering questions but rather simply presenting the dilemma that exists within all of us. The book leaves you to face your own