Cod as a food fish dates back to the Viking times, 800 AD, but had a resurgence during the Middle Ages when Basque people from Northcentral Spain and Southwestern France started eating it. The Basque people spent long stretches on the ocean searching for whales, which was a common food source for Europeans at the time. This occurred before Columbus “discovered” America. The cod schools that were rampant in the Northeast part of the New World is why the new settlements occurred near prolific cod fishing holes. The Vikings learned to dry the fish, which extended its shelf life, so it could be taken on long ocean journeys. The Basque people went even further and with an abundance of available salt around them learned that salting the cod extended its life and made it better for longer journeys. This factor also gave them the ability to trade salted cod with people in the places they explored for food stuff that was indigenous to their area.
Catholicism gave a big financial boost to the Basque with the increase in sales of cod. The medieval church imposed fast days, in which people weren’t allowed to eat flesh but eating “cold” foods was permitted. Since fish came from the water it was deemed as “cold,” while meat was not considered cold. Since Friday was the day of Christ’s crucifixion, during all Fridays and the 40 days of Lent, as well as various other days on the calendar, meat was forbidden, which added up to almost half the days in the year. Salt cod became almost a religious icon for Christian people. The most bizarre fact that I learned while researching this topic is where the name cod came from. As mentioned earlier, Catholics restrain from eating meat on certain days but they also were directed to abstain from sex. The word cod translates in many languages to words connected with sex, such as in the West Indies, in which the word for salt fish is slang for a “woman’s genitalia,” and in Middle English cod can translate to the word for “scrotum.”
The two most common species of cod are the Atlantic cod and the Pacific cod. The Atlantic lives in the cold waters and deeper oceans throughout the North Atlantic, while the Pacific cod is found in the western and eastern regions of the Northern Pacific. Cod is a cold-water fish with good amounts of vitamins A, D and E and is high in omega-3 fatty acids which are good for the body. Atlantic cod or haddock is one of the most common ingredients in fish and chips, and when it is prepared in strips it is often called scrod. Besides the value of the vitamins and omega-3 acids, cod has a very low-fat percentage, .3%, and fresh cod is made up of more than 18% protein, which is high even for fish. When the meat is dried and the moisture is evaporated out, its protein level increases to almost 80%.
Atlantic cod are the largest and live longer than all 200 species within the 10 families of the species. They can grow to a maximum length of over 6 feet while they are more common at the 3-foot marker. They also can weigh over 200 pounds and live up to 25 years. This compares to the Pacific cod, which is about half the size and 1/5 of the weight while only living to 18 years.
Cod liver oil, a byproduct of cod fishing, is used for lowering cholesterol, triglycerides and blood pressure. It is also known to relieve heart disease, depression, auto immune disease, glaucoma, ear infections and osteoarthritis. Some of these ailments are more likely to show improvement than others. There are some negative effects associated with cod liver oil, such as an increase in blood sugar, which is not good for people with diabetes. Caution should also be taken by women that are either pregnant or breast-feeding, because if they take too much cod liver oil it will add to the amounts of vitamins A and D which are not recommended in large quantities. Cod liver oil can also have negative results if it interacts with certain high blood pressure medicines, as well as blood clotting medicines.
Although cod is overfished, and has been overfished many times in history, when fishing bans have been enacted the numbers of cod increase dramatically. One environmental advantage to cod is that it is almost 100% edible or usable. This includes the head, the cheeks and the internal organs. The skin can be used in place of leather or it can be roasted and eaten. Any part of the fish that is left after processing is ground and used as fertilizer.