Oh My Cod

Salt cod drying on fish flakes, Gloucester, MA, October 1938 Negative # 1984.187.90405F

In late October 1938, Morris Rosenfeld was in Gloucester, Massachusetts to visually document what would be the last International Fishermen’s Cup race. The first such race was proposed in 1920 as a “race for real sailors” – a friendly match between the fishing schooners of Lundenberg, Nova Scotia, and Gloucester. Although the fishing schooner was already being phased out in favor of the power-driven trawler, the races remained popular. What was also being phased out in Gloucester, with the introduction of frozen fish, was salt cod.

The 1,000-year fishing spree for cod began with the Vikings. The Norsemen learned to preserve cod by hanging the fish in the cold winter air of Iceland and Norway until it lost most of its weight and became “fish jerky.” This allowed them to travel to the distant barren shores of their expeditions. The surplus of their dried cod was traded in northern Europe. It was the Basques, however, whose trade in cured cod reached far beyond cod’s northern habitat.

The Basques had salt. Cod that was salted before drying was far more durable and allowed the Basques to trade beyond northern Europe. The medieval Catholic Church had imposed “lean days” wherein flesh was forbidden but “cold” foods were allowed. Codfish, coming from the water, was considered “cold” food. The “lean days” – the salt cod days – amounted to almost half the days of the year and made the Basques rich.

Fast-forward several centuries and the wealth gained from cod is acknowledged in various forms in New England: coins issued from 1776-1778; emblem of the newspaper Salem Gazette; decorations in the mansions of the “codfish aristocracy”; and of course, the Sacred Cod – a 4′-by-11″ wood carving of a codfish hanging in the Massachusetts State House (the last of three incarnations was installed in 1784).

Pictured here is the salted variety drying on fish flakes (perhaps belonging to the Gorton-Pew Company) in Gloucester in late October 1938. Mystic Seaport’s Oral History Collection has the oral history of John Borge who worked for Gorton-Pew for 50 years (1907-1957) as a Flake Yard Salt Dryer. Not only does he explain how to set up a fish flake yard, he also details the fish processing.

The average schooner carried 100,000 to 150,000 pounds of fish caught by trawling. The fish is placed on the wharf, stomach already removed, weighed, then pitched into a salt water-filled dory. The fish are then beheaded, split, and soaked again in another salt water-filled dory. The fish are put in pickle (combination of salt and fish brine) for 18 to 21 days. The extraction of water by the salt is assisted by kenching – where the brine drains by the weight of the layers of fish. The fish are re-piled so the top fish becomes the bottom fish and subject to full pressure. Once spread out on the flakes, the fish will dry in a day with a warm sun and a good breeze. Borge notes that fish exported overseas is dried longer and if they are not to be used quickly, a preservative is added.

–Carol Mowrey