It’s said that the Vikings, following the schools of fish upon which they relied for their survival, were the first Europeans to reach North America. It was cod they were chasing in the late 10th century, and for the next thousand years, those same cod off the coast of what would become Canada and the Northeastern US would be sought from nations all over the world. They’re not particularly distinct fish either in flavor or appearance (if anything, they’re ugly-looking bottom feeders), rather, it is the ease with which they can be caught, preserved and shipped throughout the world that makes them so desirable. Desirable to the point of endangerment. We sat down with Jon Alexis, owner of TJ’s Seafood Market, to learn a little more about cod, its history and its future.
Thanks for chatting with us, Jon. Before we get into the culinary attributes of cod, should we touch on its current state with regard to consumption?
Sure. To put it simply, cod is the best example of what happens when unsustainable fishing efforts go unchecked. It went from being the definitive fish for America and Canada to a fish that you just don’t see anymore because it was so over fished. A couple years ago they stopped fishing it in Northern Canada.
Well, then maybe two years ago, The New York Times had this big article saying that the cod population is back. Unfortunately, something like six months later they were just like, ‘Oh, whoops. Nevermind.’ Which just goes to show you how little clue we have of what’s down there. And the funny thing is, because cod was so common, it was also cheap. Cod’s not cheap anymore.
Why was it so common?
Cod, Haddock and Pollock are all related – they’re all in the same genus, and a lot of times you’ll see people in the northeast using all three to describe the same fish. There’s an expression in Boston, they say, “Serve your family cod, serve your guest haddock.” Haddock is more or less considered to be the upscale cod.
Cod, though, particularly lends itself to salting and preservation. Salt cod in particular, is just dried and salted cod, and back in the day it was the only fish a lot of people could eat. People didn’t have access to much fresh seafood. It was dehydrated and then they would either eat as hard tack or rehydrate it. If you want to cook with salt cod, you have to soak it in water. If you want to soak it a little in water it’ll be salty. You can also soak it so long that it becomes bland again. And then it has a bit of a chewy texture.
But that was only part of the reason. Cod eventually became enormously popular in mass consumption applications. Your fish sticks, cod liver oil – that demand for cod liver oil took a lot of the population. And it was just a safe fish. You knew if you put cod on the menu nobody was going to say ‘What’s that?’ Ultimately, its popularity led to its downfall.
It sounds a little like tilapia today.
Except for one big difference: cod does not lend itself to farm raising. They’re trying to farm raise cod and they’re failing at it. I’m not an aqua culture expert, but as I understand it, in the larvae stage it’s very, very fragile.
I always tell people to think about what lives on a farm – cows, pigs, sheep, goats – those animals didn’t just one day appear on a farm. People have tried to farm raise everything, and those are the ones that worked. I’m sure they tried to farm raise bears, and that didn’t turn out so great. It’s the same thing with fish – some fish lend themselves to aqua farming and some don’t. Cod does not lend itself to aqua farming. So yes, tilapia is filling the market share of cod but because it’s really good at aqua culture, it’s doing so without an unfortunate end game – without ultimately depleting tilapia. We’re not in any danger of eating our way out of the tilapia population.
So going back to the preparation: Americans loved cod. Why?
It’s funny, the rest of the world looks at American’s seafood consumption and observes that we like flavorless fish. We like bland fish, whereas the rest of the world loves full-flavored, oily fish. We tend to walk into a place and say, “I want something that doesn’t taste like fish.” To me, cod is one of the least flavorful fish in the sea. A lot of us who were raised on fish sticks, it’s that pollock-cod kind of flavor I will always associate with fish sticks for the rest of my life. And it’s still the most common fish used in fish n’chips in England, I believe.
The other reason that cod isn’t on my personal radar as much is that when you sit down in a five-star restaurant, you don’t see it on the menu like you used to. It’s just not as common.
Do you see the population ever coming back?
It wouldn’t surprise me. Science backs up that there is a solution to over fishing: if you stop fishing, the populations come back. And so maybe it will come back as a delicacy or we’ll see it come back to what it was. They do come back, though; they’re resilient little buggers.
And then we can all look forward to cod fish sticks again?
(Winces) I’m not so sure about that.