My codless life in the Land of Cod

Peter Jackson
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A tiny part of me, deep in my primal core, doesn’t give a tinker’s damn about the codfishery, or its much-dissected closure 20 years ago.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s the fish, not the fisher, that lies flash-frozen in the coldest corner of my heart. While I treasure the centuries-old lifestyle spawned by the once plentiful Gadus morhua, the codfish itself is my mortal enemy.

One day in the early 1960s, my father stuffed me into our black Volkswagen Beetle and took me salmon fishing. I vaguely recall holding a salmon as long as I was tall. I also remember the red rash, asthma and swelling.

I am allergic to fin fish, including cod, salmon, trout and caplin. Growing up in the Land of Cod, therefore, has been a truly unique experience — one that could only have been surpassed had I been born a cormorant or osprey.

I have never had a feed of fish and chips, never poked through the crusty batter with a fork and gently pulled apart the moist, white flakes within.

I have never enjoyed the celebrated pan-seared cod.

Cod tongues? Fish sticks? Never had ’em. Cod au gratin? Not on the radar.

Neither is fish stew, nor that most treasured local staple, fish and brewis. (My mother would set aside some “brewis” for me with a few scruncheons and a bit of syrup.)

My whole life has been one of look but don’t touch. I can throw a line out and even pull a trout off my hook, as long as I then rinse my hands in the water, rubbing them vigorously with beach stones, minimal contact being the watchword.

And the ultimate reward of fried trout over an open fire? Beans and weiners for me, thanks.

In school, I sat through hours of local history lessons, learning about the fishing exploits of merchants and mariners. The Portuguese fished here, the English fished there. the French fished wherever they liked.

Without a personal stake in this treasured bounty — economically or gastronomically — it was difficult to appreciate its significance.

History is best understood in the flesh, and I have witnessed my share of the fishery up close. I’ve watched fishermen gut cod on a rickety table — yearning to try my hand at it. I’ve stood on the scale-encrusted floor of fishing sheds and marvelled at the array of ropes and buoys.

I’ve jigged cod from a dory, and helped a friend haul his nets. I’ve waded up to my knees to scoop up a bucket of caplin.

But l always felt a little like a tourist. Like someone behind a velvet rope, watching a splendid pageant without being able to fully participate.

When the cod moratorium was announced in 1992, it tore the hearts out of Newfoundlanders. What for me was an arm’s-length affair was, for many compatriots, the very core of their existence.

Some cod is still fished, but the focus now is on shellfish: shrimp, crab, lobster — ironically all delicacies my fickle immune system tolerates.

And the mighty codfish has gradually faded into the background — sadly more a subject of museum and art exhibits than a physical unit of business and survival.

In this narrow respect, I am more at peace in the new Newfoundland than I was in the one of my cod-deprived youth. Wharves and beaches are no longer awash in toxic guts. Fewer homes are steeped in fumes of fried fish. Restaurant menus offer ever-widening alternatives.

But in another way, I have a uniquely personal perspective on the cod moratorium and the gaping hole it left in this province.

After all, it’s a moratorium I’ve known my entire life.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s commentary editor. Email

Twitter: pjackson_NL

Geographic location: Newfoundland

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