Mary Randolph offers a robust collection of seafood dishes in a chapter simply titled, “Fish.” Her recipes include methods to prepare both fresh and salted, ocean and freshwater fish as well as oysters and eels. Unsurprisingly, recipes for preparing codfish appear with great frequency in Randolph’s collection. Eight recipes for fresh and salted cod compose nearly a quarter of the recipes in the chapter. Randolph’s inclusion of several ways of preparing cod, including baked, boiled, fricasseed, and baked in a pie, speaks to the pivotal role played by cod in North American history.
Atlantic Cod (Gadus morhua) has a dense, flaky, white flesh and mild flavor. The fish were spectacularly plentiful in the cold, deep waters of the North American coast from Maine to Newfoundland. John Cabot marveled in a report from his 1497 voyage that
The sea there is swarming with fish, which can be taken not only with the net but in baskets let down with a stone, so that it sinks in the water.John Cabot quoted in Harold Innis, The Cod Fisheries: The History of an International Economy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1940), 11
Attracted by accounts like Cabot’s, fishermen from France, England, Portugal, and Spain established temporary operations to catch, dry, and salt cod for European Catholics. Permanent settlements in New England also prospered from trading salted cod with European markets, West Indies plantations, and the southern colonies. A wood carving of a codfish, known as the Sacred Cod of Massachusetts, displayed in the State House serves as “a memorial of the importance of the Cod-Fishery to the welfare of this Commonwealth,” and has a fascinating history of its own.
Massachusetts was not the only economy beholden to the codfish. Rather, as Canadian historian Harold Innis argued in his 1940 study, The Cod Fisheries: The History of an International Economy, the cod fishery produced and relied upon complex international relations. In his work, Innis focused on interrelationships between economics, culture, and technology that marked the codfish industry. First, the large population of observant Catholics in Europe produced a demanding market for fish. References to abstaining from the meat of warm-blooded animals on Fridays in recognition of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for humankind begin in the first century C.E. By the Middle Ages, European Christianity had added many meatless days to the calendar. In addition to Fridays, observant Christians abstained from meat on Wednesdays and Saturdays, during the Lent and Advent seasons, and on other holy days. These observances created an enormous market for fish, so much so that the rumor spread that a pope made a secret pact to sell more fish.
Technology also played a role in the ascendency of the cod. The Vikings perfected a method of air-drying fish; Innis argues the English adapted the Viking method to North America’s more humid climate by salting the fish before drying. Consumers preferred salt dried cod to fish packed in brine, allowing the English and then the Americans to dominate and reap monetary rewards from the cod trade. Easy to ship, inexpensive, and tasty (if you knew how to prepare it), dried salted cod perfectly fit the bill for observant Catholic’s tables throughout Europe. Light on the budget, easy to ship, and long-lasting, dried salted cod frequently appeared in enslaved rations on West Indies plantations. In the American South, cod appeared on the tables of all classes. The variety of dishes Randolph offers for the fish suggests it was a staple in her household or she expected it to be in the homes of her audience.
particular recipe presents fresh cod, boiled, and served in a crust of potatoes, onions, and seasonings. At the end of the recipe, Randolph notes, “For change, it may be baked in the form of patties.” I felt my family would be more likely to try and enjoy this recipe in the form of patties. The recipe was simple to make, although I did find it difficult to form and keep the patties in shape. I used a combination of parsnips and potatoes because I didn’t have quite enough potatoes and cut back on the amount of onions because I feared the amount stated in the recipe would be overwhelming. Everyone ate this, from the one-year-old who doesn’t really enjoy fish to the fish-loving five-year-old to my picky husband. My five-year-old declared it “good,” high praise indeed!
To Dress Cod Fish
Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife (1838), p. 64.
Adapted by RA Snell
- 1 lb cod fish
- 1 lb white potatoes or parsnips, peeled and chopped into equal sized pieces*
- ½ cup diced onion**
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 tablespoon white wine (optional)
- 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
- salt and pepper
- milk or cream, as needed
* I used half potatoes and half parsnips.
** Randolph’s recipe stipulates an equal quantity of fish, potatoes or parsnips, and onions. I’ve reduced the amount of onion to suit the taste preferences of my family.
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Boil the fish until cooked through and set aside.
2. While the fish is boiling, boil the potatoes and/or parsnips with the onions until the vegetables are soft.
3. Drain the vegetables and mash with butter, nutmeg, and salt and pepper to taste. If your mash is too stiff, add a tablespoon of milk or cream until it can be easily mixed.
4. Break the fish into small pieces and mix into the vegetable mixture. Form the mixture into patties and place on a greased baking sheet. Bake 30 minutes, flipping the patties halfway through the cooking time.
My patties did not crisp in the oven the way I hoped they would. I had better results cooking for 2-3 minutes per side on a griddle over medium heat.
I did not need to add any additional liquid to the vegetable mash.
Yield: one dozen patties, about 6 servings
Harold Innis, The Cod Fisheries: The History of an International Economy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1940).
Sandra L. Oliver, Food in Colonial and Federal America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005).
Andrew F. Smith, ed., The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).