Coarse Food

Cod Days of Summer #3 Out of the Box and into a Bath.

"Soaking the fish in scalded milk is a trick I learned in Portugal. The milk helps the fish retain its moisture and tenderness. Not all Portuguese cooks soak the cod this way, however. I do it both ways: I do not use milk when I make Codfish Cakes, but I find it improves baked salt cod dishes to which little or no extra moisture is added."

But first it looks like this:
One Pound of Salt Cod in the box.
Totally encrusted, hard and inedible...

Keep in a cool dry place preferably 40 F.

"To Prepare for Cooking, Freshen the fish as follows---Wash
Fish for 15 minutes in running water. Place Fish in pan and
cover with water. Heat Slowly (Do Not Boil) and pour off
water. Repeat this last process until fish is no longer too
salty to taste. "

Does this mean I'm supposed to take bites
of this before I cook it?

Cod goes into a freshwater bath at 1:30pm, and into the
fridge. Next water change: 3:00pm

After another water change and a nice long scalded milk bath, the fish is ready for use. Salt cod is a staple that in the recent past was a frequent part of suppertime around the world. As Betty Crocker says, "Cod, mackerel etc. require removing excess salt. Soak overnight in cold water. (Or soak for two hr....then simmer in fresh water fro 30 min.) Cook as desired." Perhaps in 1950, Betty figured that out of all American cusine, salt cod needed no follow up recipes. Maybe Betty had had it up to here with salt cod and wanted people to move on. And that's fine. She does a pretty good job of explaining french onion dip.

Cod Days of Summer #2 or "Betty Crocker 1950 vs. The Women's Club of Westport, 1947."

When I moved, I took with me a reprint of Betty Crocker's Picture Cookbook, circa 1950. I really liked the color photos of food, which is like color on steroids. The Jell-O is really GREEN and the pineapple garnish with the cherry in the middle is perhaps the most jarring contrast of yellow and red that exists in print.

In the dim recesses of my memory, I am familiar with this food, but it is not from any table where I ate. The familiarity comes from the hundreds of vintage magazines that populated the basements and attics of my mom and grandmother. If you are of a certain age, leaf through Betty Crocker's Picture Cookbook from 1950, and become reacquainted with those perfectly arranged dishes---armies of detailed cookie men on cooling racks, appetizers so festive one could almost forget that the commies had the bomb, roasts shiny and bright. Yes I remembered this kind of food. We never had it. We ate hearty, very tasty, but coarse food, and by the later 1970's, produce from our garden, and fresh baked bread all the time. Thanks mom...

So when I bought my second brick of salt cod, I turned to Betty to see what she had to say. Now I'm aware that Betty Crocker is a fictional kitchen maven, originated by early 20th century corporate marketing men to push Bisquick on the American Housewife, but I had not been so sadly disillusioned then. I was surprised that Betty had virtually nothing to say. "Cod, mackerel etc. require removing excess salt. Soak overnight in cold water. (Or soak for two hr....then simmer in fresh water fro 30 min.) Cook as desired." That is enough to get started, but clearly, if Betty knew about cooking salt cod, she wasn't telling. The next page has only one reference to cod and that is "Codfish Balls: Favorite Sunday Breakfast of New Englanders." The rest of the recipes don't call for any particular fish. Just fish. And no good pictures.

I wasn't really limiting myself to vintage cookbooks, but this is what I had on hand, so I turned to the Women's Club of Westport's The New Connecticut Cookbook, 1947. This was a volume of recipes, hunted down and collected, with the name of the source and sometimes her location. For example, page 138 gives us a recipe by Mrs. M.T. Hazelton of South Norwalk for Pheasant in White Wine. Mrs. DuBois P. Lennon of West Haven contributed Codfish Soufflé, while Emma F. Patton of Greenwich gives us her Lemon Cake.

But Mateel Howe Farnham's Oyster and Salt Cod Pie is what caught my attention. (This recipe appears in the upper right sidebar for those who are interested.) Mateel had for her pie ample and cheap cod, from an industry that had yet to enter the period of decline resulting in the 1992 Canadian ban on cod fishing. I bet Mateel couldn't imagine the unlimited plenty of her day coming down to a few smallish cod, being chased by giant factory ships. But nevermind Mateel, Rest in Peace.

The recipes from these Connecticut women are lively and show a delight in the nearness of the ocean. Betty Crocker's idea of serving fish is to make it bland and innocuous, even funny (Cod Fish Balls), and try to disguise the fact there's fish in there. The Nutmeg State ladies have nothing to hide, and even give their fish recipes heroic names like Fish For The Gods, contributed by Lousene Rousseau Fry, which calls for sole, wine, whipped cream, spinich, mushrooms, and so on. Mrs. O's Fish Dish makes no bones about what's for dinner.

I settle on Phebe V. Tate's Creamed Codfish, because it sounds the most coarse and is just a small variation on my previous efforts. I ate it on toast and thought about the creamed chipped beef on toast my mom used to make for me, which was affectionately known by it's WWII era nickname, S.O.S.

It was hot outside when I made Creamed Codfish, and I turned on the air conditioning. I thought to make it authentic, I should leave it off and cook this utilitarian New England meal in a hot kitchen, made steamy by potatoes and milk-simmered cod. Dinner was served simply with pepper that, if the air wasn't on, would be too hot to use. But I wasn't working for that effect. I just wanted to eat this stuff on toast and then figure out what The New Connecticut Cookbook had that looked good for my next attempt. There was a lot to choose from. Thanks ladies....

Cod days of Summer

In 6th grade when I was eleven, I did a country report on Iceland, and at the time it was customary to write to the embassy of your particular country and ask for information. The vividly colored pamphlets that were sent contained, among others, pictures of ruddy cheeked blonde girls, in elaborately patterned traditional sweaters---which definitely caught my attention. But so too did illustrations of the fishing industry, especially a scene of the aforementioned blonde girls preparing gigantic sides of cod to be salted for export. That fish caught my eye. And well it should. I was in love with fish and chips.

I lived in suburban Detroit and the place to go for fish and chips was a place called Susie Q on Woodward Avenue in Royal Oak. The batter was like a hard carapace, protecting the white, flaky treasure within. It was delicious cod, and then later "scrod" and the flakes could be separated with a single tine of a fork, yet the fish was firm, with a taste that hinted at the sea, so different from our Great Lakes. I discovered all this about fish at age 10, and gave up the “Big Q Burger” for good. The introduction of malt vinegar and the information that malt vinegar was the traditional thing to splash on the scalding hot fish& chips just sweetened the deal.

This interest in cod coincided with another unusual interest of mine: basic staples, i.e., what people ate to get by long ago. In reading the traditional boy’s adventures of the ages, I encountered meals consisting of hardtack, biscuit and beans, gruel, jerky, and scavenged items provided to the protagonist by nature. I wondered about this fare. Something about beans and salt pork on a tin plate, smothered in molassas with a bisciut was attractive to me and though I don't know why, I did know that salt pork was something I needed to get my hands on.

I suppose my maternal grandfather, Thomas Glaysher, was a factor here as well. He was a gentle and copious eater of kippered snacks--the oily and smoky fish from a can. Oysters too. These I gobbled up at his knee, something that was considered odd for a Midwestern boy when most boys of that time and place avoided fish unless it was in little sticks, warmed in the toaster oven, and only then with a healthy slop of tarter sauce---the other ketchup. I hated fish sticks. They tasted like what they were, rank fish slurry & bilgewater.

In the late 1980’s, a market in Royal Oak began to stock salt cod in traditional wooden boxes that spoke to my fascination with simple fare, popular in ages past. And this cod was the real deal. It was an old-school filet of cod, shrunken and stiff. It was a brick of fish. A product of Nova Scotia, Canada---it represented the last of an Atlantic fishery, a biomass of almost unimaginable plenty which had supported the first ongoing industry in colonial North America and 400 years of plentiful catches, making cod a symbol of wealth itself. In a few years the fishery would be closed entirely. But I didn’t know all that then. I just knew I wanted big thick flakes of cod, simmered in milk as I had been told it was done back in the day. And I wanted the wooden boxes too. I love good packaging.

But before I could explore my saltfish purchase with the help of my mother’s library of vintage cookbooks, the empty box turned up on the kitchen table. A covered dish in the fridge revealed that it had been simmered in a white sauce with potatoes and onion. Later, the smell of something cooking reminded me to ask my mom about my salt cod. I went into the kitchen where the last few flakes quivered on her fork before she struck at it. Maybe it was a regular bite, but it seemed that there was more than simple hunger in it, and then the potatoes went down the hatch as well. “I’ll buy more of this if you like it,” she said, chewing. “I don’t know if I do,” I said. “I’ve only smelled it and seen you eat it." “Well then I’ll definitely get more” she said, mashing the last potato in the white sauce and chasing it around the plate to gather up crumbs.

Somehow, it was a good 20 years later, now separated from my gourmet wife and stumbling dazed through my local grocery store, that I came across a box of salt cod. It was seven dollars and came from China rather than Canada. Nevertheless, I bought it. Then the next morning, as the cod went into a bath to soak, I called my mom. She didn’t remember interrupting my culinary experimentation circa 1988, but did recommend soaking the cod for a long time, 24 hours at least with many water changes, and simmering it in milk and diced green onions, salt and pepper. “That’s all,” she said. “Simple peasant food. The best.” So a few hours later she sent an e-mail containing a recipe that was essentially what she had told me. A few steps, and dinner would be on the table.
The cooking--- that was easy. Here it is, with quantities omitted, the traditional way:
Take a few potatos, cube and boil, then mash. Slice a bunch of green onions, and place in a pan of milk with the cod. Simmer until tender. Gently turn it. Mix up potatoes & cod in a pan, cover with grated cheese and breadcrumbs on top. Bake in a hot oven until breadcrumbs look browned. Cool a little and serve with something else on the side.
It was uncomplicated and delicious. The fish was sweetish, and firmer than I expected. A satisfying chewiness that mixed well with the not-too-well mashed spuds. I shared it with my downstairs neighbor, Erica, who gladdened my heart by demanding seconds. Though her manners were impeccable, I saw her take a little primeval-type bite, the kind I'd seen before with cod, where hunger mixes with something else, something that makes us strike at our forks even after hunger has ceased.