Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Dumb fish.

November 14 ...

Thomas Jefferson (from his home in Monticello) wrote to his granddaughter Ellen Randolph Coolidge in Boston on this day in 1825, asking her to be his “agent” there, and procure various desirable articles for him.

“I want to engage you, as my agent at Boston, for certain articles not to be had here,and for such only. But it will be on the indispensable condition that you keep as rigorous an account of Dollars and cents as old Yerragan our neighbor would do. This alone can induce friends to ask services freely, which would otherwise be the asking of presents and amount to a prohibition. We should be very glad occasionally to get small supplies of the fine dumb codfish to be had at Boston, and also of the tongues and sounds of the Cod. … We should be the better perhaps of your recipe for dressing both articles.

Codfish are not noted for their intelligence, but was it really necessary for Jefferson to refer to them as “dumb”? He was wrong, of course. Not about the intelligence of cod, but about the word. It was a longstanding Chinese-whispers type error. The cod he wished to have sent to him were those that had been “dunned”, not “dumbed”. “Dunning” is a particular method of slack-salting and curing cod, at the end of which process they develop a dun colour. At some point, “dun” was heard as “dumb” (because it fitted with the accepted understanding of the intelligence of fish), and the rest as they say, is linguistic history.

Salt cod has made a huge mark on history: it has two huge merit points – it is capable of long-storage (suitable for voyages or hard times), and in the past it was eminently acceptable for the many fast days decreed by the Church. It was (is) a challenge to prepare on account of its dryness and saltiness. Ellen did respond to her grandfather’s request for advice on its preparation, so gives us our recipe for the day.

“The salt cod is prepared the first day very much as we do our bacon hams, soaked the over night, & boiled a good deal to soften & freshen it. It is then eaten with hard boiled eggs, melted butter or oil, & various boiled vegetables, as beets, carrots, &c. Egg or anchovy sauce may be served with it, & is preferred by some. The second day the fragments of the cold fish are minced very fine, & mixed with boiled potatoes, & either eaten with a sauce or made into cakes & browned in a frying pan. With the tongues & sounds the principal care is to freshen them as much as possible by washing & soaking, & they are oftenest boiled plain & served with a sauce.”

[We have considered cods’ sounds and other funny fish bits in a previous story]

Tomorrow’s Story …

Is there a chile you cannot eat?

Quotation for the Day …

It is a true saying that a man must eat a peck of salt with his friend before he knows him. Miguel de Cervantes, in Don Quixote

1 comment:

T.W. Barritt said...

I'm dun-founded. What a great story!