Steakers, tobies, tongues and cheeks: January is — was — the month for cod fishing.
As most know, Block Island fishermen hunted inshore. They fished the seasons, and winter was the season of codfish. In the days when “boats were made of wood, and men were made of steel,” island fishermen would go just off shore in double-enders and fishing schooners, tended by four to eight men in dories, handlining for cod. Several times a day each dory’s load would be transferred to the main boat, and then the dory-men would strike out again to land another load.
Atlantic cod are a fish of northern seas. In winter they seek the warmer waters of the New England shelf, Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank. Once bountiful, cod populations today are sorely struggling.*
There was a day, however, when codfish was the staple of Block Islander’s winter diets and commerce. It was a hard way to make a living. Many island fishermen would brave the icy waters around, and in sight of, the shoreline. They would don thick, boiled woolen, double-palmed mittens — “hauling hands” — and pull in, hand-over-hand, baited and jigged taut lines of cod. Smaller “market” sized fish (up to 30 pounds or so) would be barreled and sold at off-island markets. A day’s catch might produce several barrels of fish, but only a box of “steakers”: large cod upwards of 40 pounds delivered with the heads cut off and ready to be cut crossways into steaks rather than lengthwise into filets.
The codfish heads did not go to waste. Refer to the “Block Island Cookbook” for a recipe for preparing and serving a cod head. And the tender, meaty tongues and cheeks of the cod are a delectable and often-served meal throughout cod-rich communities. Likewise, codfish roe — called tobies — fried, boiled, or hashed, have sustained many families.
Nowadays, Atlantic cod is a struggling fishery, over fished with unsustainable methods that scour the ocean bottom. Trawling not only catches all fish, and other animals within reach, it can disrupt the ocean floor ecosystem. The cod fishery in the western north Atlantic is comprised of two different populations: the Gulf of Maine and the George’s Bank populations. The average size codfish caught in the Gulf of Maine in recent surveys is about 3.5 pounds — not yet of breeding size or age. In spite of 2008 reports that the Gulf of Maine cod were rebounding and on track to become a viable fishery, 2011 reports are showing such a decline that the Gulf of Maine may be closed to cod fishing in the future. And yet, we still see — puny though they may be — codfish in the markets and on menus.
The story of cod is fascinating and complex, and cod have played a vital role in Block Island history. Alas, we may have to cease eating them so that our grandchildren and great-grandchildren can one day savor tongues, cheeks or steaks.
To gain a greater understanding of our Atlantic cod world, and to answer the question “to eat or not to eat?” check out:
*“Cod: a biography of the fish that changed the world” by Mark Kurlansky is a great read and full of fascinating information about the history of the Atlantic cod fishery.
**“41.N,” Vol. 5 No. 2, 2010, A publication of RI Sea Grant & the Coastal Institution at the Univ. or R.I.