For most tourists, a visit to the British Isles isn’t complete without a meal of fried fish and fried potatoes, likely eaten off faux newsprint and — if you do it the traditional way — drizzled with malt vinegar. But while fish and chips hasn’t changed much across the U.K. for generations, over the last century, one major thing has: which fish ends up in the fryer.
In the latest episode of Gastropod, co-hosts Nicola Twilley and Cynthia Graber explore the history of Britain’s national dish — an iconic but relatively recent pairing whose individual elements come from Sephardic Jews and Franco-Belgian spud sellers. They also tell the story of cod itself, the white-fleshed and burly ground feeder that was once the fish in fish & chips — as well as one of the triggers for the American Revolution. One of the experts Gastropod gathered to tell this tale is Barton Seaver, a chef, author, and cod fan who not only wrote the cookbook For Cod and Country, but also put the codfish on the front cover of his book American Seafood.
“Cod were so plentiful here as to be the dominant keystone species — really the predominant species — in the entire ocean ecosystem,” Seaver says, describing the North Atlantic before the onset of industrial fishing. Cod’s dominance shaped not just ocean ecosystems, but cuisine, trade, and history — until, in the 1990s, the North Atlantic cod population collapsed. But cod are making a slow recovery today, and Seaver tells Gastropod that he thinks it’s high time this fish moved out of the fryer and into the spotlight. “Cod happens to be this incredibly important fish, both economically and culturally, that is worth talking about and celebrating,” he says. Check out an excerpt from their conversation below.
Gastropod: For someone who hasn’t met a cod, what is it like? Introduce us to the cod.
Barton Seaver: Well, cod is sort of the benchmark of all fish. It is, as Mark Kurlansky and his great book [Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World] describes it, the benchmark from which all other fish deviate.
It’s caught a lot now in the northeastern Atlantic, which is where the vast majority of the catch is coming from, there and Iceland. Here in the western Atlantic — I’m in Maine, so that is my point of reference — once-great fisheries existed, and still sort of chug along at significantly diminished levels.
Fish are swimming around in the ocean, seafood is sitting on your plate, and, as seafood, cod is flaky, and has this wonderful convex, chewy curve to its texture. It has sort of a textbook flavor of what you think fish tastes like.
How did the Atlantic cod fishery get started, and what was it like in those early days?
The Portuguese and the Spanish were here long before any European settlers were here, exploiting the incredible bounty along these shores. Northern Europeans — the Vikings and Norse — were also over here fishing for quite some time.
The early European explorers sent over here, whether to find a new spice route or new land, described these waters as so teeming with fish as to be able to walk upon their backs. Which is a little bit over the top. You know, those were entrepreneurs, and they wanted to get more funding for more voyages. But the truth of the matter is actually kind of close to what their hyperbole was saying. Cod were so plentiful here as to be really the dominant keystone species — really the predominant species — in the entire ocean ecosystem at that time.
It was so prevalent in the waters that Cape St. James was renamed to be Cape Cod in 1602. And so that legacy endures.
What made cod such a valuable catch for the early fishing industry?
What made cod so particularly unique and important was the fact that it cured so well, because its fat is almost all stored in its liver. About 98 percent of its fat content is there. The flesh only has 2 to 3 percent fat content on average, and fat makes things go bad faster through rancidity.
So that low fat content, high moisture content, and high protein content meant you could salt it or just sun dry it, even wind dry it, and turn it into a tradable, lasting, durable commodity.
We’re talking 400 or 500 years before refrigeration here, and so that really mattered. That’s what really created an economy out of cod rather than just a sort of subsistence fishery that would catch very locally and sell very locally, if selling at all. It really turned it into this global commodity — really, our first global food commodity.
Culinarily, how did people cook with this salt cod? You can’t just break up a piece and eat it, or can you?
Well, you could just put a lot of salt cod in your mouth and sort of treat it as a jawbreaker. You might get some salt boils on the inside of your mouth.
But really what it calls for is rehydration. Depending on how much dehydration was done, that process can take three days, four days, five days, for those cells to gradually fill back up, to gather that moisture and sort of reanimate.
This step also lent some great culinary ideas. In one of the most compelling ones I’ve found, in early American cookery, you took your crockpot, you put it over the fire, and you put a bunch of water in there and a bunch of molasses and your salt cod, and you just let it simmer for a day. That makes this sweet, salty, smokey stew from the fire. Like, man, that sounds really good, right?
In Europe, well, there’s a joke that the Portuguese have a different way to eat salt cod for every day of the year. It was particularly important, I think, in those populations that were traditionally predominantly Catholic. The Catholic church, in years past, had 150 different fast days in its calendar when you were to abstain from meat, so salt cod filled that role to a very large extent. It just became such a deeply rooted part of the culture, the ecosystem in which their cookery evolved.
One of the things that I really love about Portuguese and Spanish cuisine, specifically when it comes to fish, is the use of acidity. Oftentimes there’s a glug of red wine, or fortified Madeira, or sherry or tomatoes used in there. That acidity just brightens it all and sort of minimizes the stale effect that you can get from salt cod. Oh, also they throw chorizo in with everything.
How did cod eventually come to shape American history?
At first over in the colonies, that Puritan mindset, that work ethic and the consistency of work really set it apart from fisheries. Because fisheries are boom and bust: they’re itinerant, they are seasonal, whereas farming work is far more consistent. But there was a great bounty there, and though the early settlers were religious, that very rapidly grew to a population that was not here for the religious freedoms necessarily, but for economic opportunity. Those people who looked at the ocean said, Oh my! Goldmine! Quite literally: If you look at the total value of cod bought in North America, it outstrips the value of all of the gold mined in South America over time.
Cod was really one of the very first stepping stones which the colonies took towards economic and political freedoms, because it began to build wealth. The fishery and that economy was so big, it forced the British to allow American colonists to bypass British merchants in order to sell directly into Mediterranean, Basque, and Spanish markets. All of a sudden the British were not really in control, and didn’t have their foot on the growth of that industry.
But, unfortunately, the cod trade also connected us into a really vicious cycle. The boats full of cod would go from here to the Mediterranean empty. They would then head to the coast of Africa to pick up slaves. They’d go down to the Caribbean to drop off slaves, pick up sugar cane to bring back to New England to make rum. So, there’s a really nasty, criminal, inhumane history — to put it as mildly as I can — that’s also associated with this economic growth.
Was anyone worried about overfishing back then?
No. I mean, you come to America, and if you look closely enough between the salmon swimming in the rivers, Oh look, there’s gold. If you step off the coast of Cape Cod with a net, you couldn’t help but catch a cod. There was just such bounty and such space in America, and the idea of manifest destiny came into this, there wasn’t really much concern about overfishing.
This idea that we are participating in an ecosystem, rather than just acting upon it, didn’t really happen until, I would say the late sixties, seventies, eighties, when we finally began to understand the ramifications and impacts of our economies.
The year 1968 is when the cod catch peaked, at about 800,000 metric tons, which is just an egregious amount of fish. And cod stocks began to decline after that. But it wasn’t until the 90s that we really understood that cod were gone, and that fishing effort really ceased entirely. And then populations gradually began to grow back.
Is cod a sustainable choice if we see it at our local fish counter?
I support cod fisheries now. They are technically overfished, meaning they are not at their historical levels, where they should be. But overfishing, meaning the active process of fishing too many, is not happening. These are fishermen that are following the letter of the law following what the best available science says that we should be, could be doing in the ocean.
Do I think they’re coming back? Yes, but never to the degree that they once were.
Partially because of climate change, and the radical shift in temperatures that we’re seeing in the Gulf of Maine, which is warming faster than any other body of water on the planet. Nature also abhors a vacuum. When the cod disappeared, prey species jumped because nothing was eating them, and so then the dogfish came in. You just had these shifts in the ecosystem that are very hard to undo.
But in Northern European fisheries, cod is now Marine Stewardship Council certified as sustainable. The fisheries there are abundant, high yielding, and sustained over the course of decades now, proving that we know how to do it.
What’s your favorite way to prepare cod? Would you go for fish and chips?
No! I think deep frying anything, except for a chicken wing, maybe, diminishes the overall charm and charisma of what could be captured through a more delicate culinary approach.
Cod to me is at its apex when poached. My favorite way to do it is to poach it very, very gently in a slightly acidic broth with lots of fresh herbs in there. Even some hard herbs like rosemary, thyme, coriander seeds, maybe even a couple of cloves thrown in there for that warming rich, inviting spice that we love. A glug of white wine to add that acidity. Some bay leaves. Poach it very low, slow, gentle in that. Then, once it’s about done, turn the heat off and let it cool down in that liquid overnight.
The next day, take the cod out, flake it beautifully, and just gently rewarm it in just a few tablespoons of that cooking broth that you’ve reduced down. You’ve added a pat of butter to it and some chopped fresh parsley. Mmmm. Yep.
The cod gets all of that mashed potato richness to it, that slight sort of newspaper or cardboard aroma that’s floral at the same time, hinting of violets and watermelon. That’s what we want. This is what cod is at its apogee, when it couldn’t be better. It couldn’t be more itself.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.