By Tony Deyal
Earlier this week, I went fishing for cod. The last time I did that was about 35 years ago. We were in a boat on the Gulf of Paria and safely, we hoped, within the maritime border with Venezuela.
My diver friend, Henry, better known as ‘Sploof’ because when his teacher asked him, “What is the plural of roof?” he said, “Sploof”, was in the water with a speargun. I had joked that his weaponry was no match for a cod.
In fact, I had asked the guys on the boat, “What swims in the sea, carries a machine gun, and makes you an offer you can’t refuse?”
They had said “Venezuelan soldiers”, meaning the feared Guardia Nacional Bolavarina (also called, ironically, ‘the Armed Forces of Cooperation’), who would as easily cooperate with one another in taking your life, as well as your boat, net, and engine.
I laughed and replied, “Not them. The only fish that can make you an offer you can’t refuse is the Codfather.” It was even more ironic than the Guardia calling themselves “cooperative” that Sploof had an encounter with a cod and came second. This one was not armed but finned.
Sploof was on the surface, gun in hand, heading towards the boat, and came face to face with a large codfish. He shot at the cod, the fish thrashed about with its tail, and the blow to the back of Sploof’s head, what Trinis call a ‘tap’ but was more like a stopcock, required Phensic for an entire week. We joked about singing a hymn for Sploof, ‘Nearer My Cod To Thee’, but seeing a cod in the southern waters of the Atlantic, so close to the equator, was a first for me.
The fact is that for a long time now, since the 1850s, cod catches have been declining. In one of the major cod-fishing areas, the Gulf of Maine, the annual catch has dropped from 70,000 tonnes in 1861 to just a few thousand.
Additionally, codfish are getting smaller and have shrunk about 30 percent in the last 30 years because harvesting all the big fish has caused the average size to be drastically reduced. I consider this a tragedy.
We in the Caribbean have in common a love for salt fish and other foods associated with slavery and indentureship. Fresh meat was denied to the labourers, and they had to subsist on salt fish, salt ‘kine’ (pork), and canned foods like sardines. Over the years, we have continued our love affair with salt fish, even though it was initially part of our punishment and the penalty we paid for not being white.
This love of salt fish is universal and makes it ubiquitous in the Caribbean. Whether in Indian food, Bajan fishcakes or Trinidad accras, Spanish bacalao, or Jamaican ackee and saltfish, it is omnipresent in the region, used and appreciated by all.
We used to buy it by the ‘piece’, asking the shopkeeper for a ‘penny’s worth’ or a ‘pinch’, which flavoured all the “provisions” and rice.
The calypsonian Sparrow is an aficionado. He boasts, “Nothing in the world is sweeter than salt fish.” He also makes up in enthusiasm what he lacks in discrimination, pointing out, “When you want to eat, all salt fish sweet.” This is where I disagree with him. Nothing beats the genuine article, the Cod Almighty.
I have heard it said in Trinidad especially, “When God can’t come, He does send a man”, and I have seen that where cod is scarce, we press-gang other substitutes like pollock in the northern seas or shark and catfish here in the region. But having been born right after the Second World War, when almost everything edible was rationed, I grew up on salted cod and the other preserved common piscine option, smoked herring, or, as it is known in Jamaica, ‘Solomon gundy’.
This is why I cannot stand the substitutes for cod and herring, which cost much more in the region than the genuine cod and herring are sold abroad. The whole thing is what the British would describe as “a load of codswallop”.
This is how I ended up fishing for cod last week not in the sea but the dictionary. After ‘codswallop’, meaning ‘nonsense’, the first COD I caught – in fact, it caught me and my attention simultaneously – was COD meaning ‘Call Of Duty’, which started off as a ‘shooter’ game and has now reached the modern warfare stage.
For me and my generation, COD was not a game but the ‘Call Of Dasheen’, which is still my tuber of choice when there is chopped-up codfish swimming in oil, garlic, onion, and pepper. In legal terms, this combination not only weakens my will but is enhanced by a codicil. There is also COD meaning what the shopkeepers (and others) demand these days for a little piece of salt fish – cash on delivery.
The one that caught me hook, line and sinker by the appropriate anatomical appendage was ‘Codpiece’, which, according to one commentator, “drew attention to a part of the anatomy that couldn’t even be mentioned in polite society”.
‘Codpiece’ comes from an old English word ‘cod’ meaning ‘scrotum’, and is generally a pouch enclosing the genital area. In the 15th and 16th centuries, it was no big thing to wear one, and even today, people who are into rock, metal, and leather find these garments swell. In cricket, what is called a ‘box’ to protect the genitals of batsmen (in use long before helmets) is essentially a codpiece.
As an aside, and more a spoof than a Sploof, I end with this quote from historian Victoria Bartels: “For me, the interesting thing about 16th-century male fashion is the way in which it reveals what was important to men at this time – their preoccupation with masculinity, military prowess, and virility.”
I wonder what she would say about my passion for cod in pieces rather than in piece?
Tony Deyal was last seen saying that in American drug slang, “COD” means “a large piece of money”. It is no different and might be worse in the Caribbean.