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.