Fisherman Ernest L. Smith with codfish, Monhegan, 1910. Collections of Boothbay Region Historical Society. Order a copy at VintageMaineImages.com item #98689.

When people think of Maine seafood, they usually picture lobster and clams. But it was not the crawling sea spider, nor the bivalve, that first brought Europeans to our shores.  It was codfish.  Dried cod was first used, perhaps, by the Vikings, who would catch them and dry them right on board their longships.  After removing the head and innards, they would dry them in the sun and create a durable, wood-like product that could be reconstituted and enjoyed months later.

Zac McDorr is the founder of the Bath Maine History Center on Facebook.You can reach him at [email protected]

According to marinalife.com, when John Cabot explored North America in 1497, he discovered the Grand Banks. There, codfish could be caught by simply dipping a basket into the water and hauling it up, or so he claimed.  This led to the earliest settlements in Maine, such as those at Damarascove, Pemaquid, and Mantinicus.  Cod soon became the area’s most important export.

The Catholic faith in Europe led to a demand for fish during Lent and meatless Fridays. Dried cod was perfect for people in the interior countries who lived far from the sea.  Unlike dry Scandinavia, where fish could be air-dried and then salted, New England was humid. The fish had to be salted first to reduce the moisture content, and then rinsed and dried in the sun on racks. According to a video I saw at the Pemaquid museum, the flesh side would be turned up in sunny weather. When rain came, the colonists would flip them over so the skin side would get wet. By 1660, 150 shiploads a year were heading to the European market.  A single fishing station could produce almost 100,000 salted fish in a season, according to early accounts.

Varying weather led to varying quality of product. Europeans were picky, so the best fish were sent across the ocean and the poorer stuff was thrown away. This soon changed due to slavery in the Caribbean. Slave owners needed to feed a lot of people, and they didn’t much care about quality. Low-grade salt cod fit the bill perfectly.  A couple of different trading triangles soon developed.  Ships full of fish were sent to Europe, then sailed to the Caribbean loaded with wine and fruit, and then returned to New England full of rum, sugar, molasses, and tobacco.  Other enterprising ship owners entered the slave trade, transporting slaves from Africa to the Caribbean and then selling salt cod to the new owners.

Cod was so important to England that it was referred to as “British Gold.” A “codfish aristocracy” developed in the Massachusetts colony, where rich cod dealers built large mansions with their profits.  As the years passed, fishermen started using nets and larger vessels, where the fish could be pre-salted before being brought to shore. The process would be finished onshore, and then the fish could be crated up for export. This changed in the 20th century with refrigeration.

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