|The Secret of Everyday Things|
|by Jean Henri Fabre|
|Fascinating conversations with Uncle Paul reveal the mysteries behind the dyeing and weaving of cloth, the lighting and heating of homes, the processing involved in bringing oil, coffee, tea, spices, and other foodstuffs to the table, and the power of water in all its manifestations. Excellent as follow-on to The Story Book of Science. Ages 11-14 |
MILE came to his uncle with a question. "Tell me," he
began, "about the cod that has to be put to soak
several days before it is eaten, in order to freshen
it—isn't it a fish? Yet I don't see any head; and
then it's all flat, with the bones showing on one
"Yes," was the reply, "the cod is a fish, and a very
fine one, too, as it swims in the sea. To preserve it
for keeping a long time the fishermen remove its head,
which is of little value on account of its bones; then
they split the body all down the stomach, throw away
the entrails, and spread out the two fleshy halves,
forming together a sort of slab, broad at one end and
running to a point at the other. Finally, the fish thus
treated are liberally salted and put to dry in the sun.
So the cod reaches us all out of shape and almost
unrecognizable. In its natural state it is a beautiful
fish. The back and sides are bluish gray, with numerous
golden-red spots like those that adorn
 the trout of our fresh-water streams; the stomach is
silvery white; the upper jaw is prominent, while from
the lower hangs a worm-shaped little barbel; and the
mouth is armed with innumerable fine, pointed teeth
that fringe not only the jaws but also the cavity of
the mouth and throat as far down as the bottom of the
gullet. And so, as you might guess from its appearance,
the cod is very greedy, always in quest of food,
endowed with an insatiable appetite."
"And what does it live on," asked Emile, "this greedy
eater with teeth down to the bottom of its gullet?"
"It lives on other fish, weaker than itself. It is the
most formidable enemy of the small fry, which it
devours in enormous numbers. But if it is the terror of
the weak, it becomes in its turn the prey of a host of
equally greedy eaters. At certain seasons of the year
the cod gather in countless numbers and make long
journeys to lay their eggs in favorable places. The
famished denizens of the deep surround these schools of
fish; the hungry inhabitants of the air soar over their
course; the voracious occupants of the land await them
on the shore. Man hastens to the spot to secure his
share of the ocean manna. He equips fleets and sails in
quest of the fish with naval armies in which all
nations are represented; and what he catches he dries,
salts, smokes, puts into cakes, and packs in bales.
Every year millions and millions of cod perish in this
way, by man's fishhook, by the beak of birds of prey,
and by the ferocious jaws of rapacious fish. With such
extermina-  tion constantly going on it would seem that the end of
the cod must be imminent; and yet there is no sign of
it: the next year these fish resume their journey in as
large numbers as ever."
"Nevertheless," said Claire, "their ranks must in the
end become thinner by millions and millions."
"There is no sign of it, as I said before. A cod lays
nine million eggs at a time! Where are the eaters that
could put an end to such a family?"
"Nine million eggs!" exclaimed Jules; "what a family!"
"Just to count these eggs one by one would take nearly
a year of eight or ten working hours daily."
"Whoever counted them must have had lots of patience,"
"They are not counted; they are weighed, which is soon
done; and from the weight it is easy to estimate the
number when it is known how many eggs it takes to make
"Ha! how easy it is when you know how!" cried Claire.
"What would have taken a year of tiresome work becomes
the affair of a minute or two."
"One of the favorite rendezvous of the schools of cod
is the neighborhood of Newfoundland, a large island of
the seas that wash the eastern coasts of North America.
Near this island is a vast extent of shallow water
called the Newfoundland Banks. Thither in summer,
attracted by abundant food, come myriads of cod from
the depths of the northern seas. Thither, also, come
fishermen of all nationalities.
"This is not the small fishing that you sometimes see
on the banks of a river; the fishermen do not wait
 hour after hour under the shade of a willow for an
ill-favored little carp to come and nibble at the hook
baited with a worm, and count themselves lucky if they
go home with half a dozen diminutive fish strung on a
twig or lying in the bottom of a basket. Fishing in
Newfoundland is a different matter: cod are caught by
the ship-load. France alone sends out every year four
or five hundred vessels, with crews aggregating fifteen
thousand men, to the various fisheries conducted on a
large scale; and among these fisheries that of the cod
is chief and employs the most men. At the same time
think of the Dutch, Danes, Swedes, English, Americans,
and many others, all bound for the same
fishing-grounds, their fleets manned by an army of
fishermen, and you will gain some idea of the activity
prevailing off the coast of Newfoundland.
"At daybreak the boats leave the ship and take their
places, one here, another there, at the most promising
spots. From both sides of each boat hang
lines—stout cords of hemp carrying at the end an
iron fish-hook baited with a small fish or with a shred
from the entrails of cod taken the day before. The
voracious codfish rush up at the sight of these
dainties and greedily swallow at a gulp both hook and
bait. The fisherman pulls in his line and the victim
follows, its gullet pierced by the fish-hook. Scarcely
is the line baited again and thrown back into the water
when another cod is caught. On both sides of the boat
every man watches his lines and keeps on renewing the
bait, throwing the line into the sea and pulling it in
again with a cod at the end.
 By evening the boat is filled to the gunwhales with
fine large fish, still wriggling."
"Certainly that is a kind of fishing," said Claire,
"that leaves no time for napping, with a line dangling
idly at the end of one's rod; and when you do get a
bit, it's no miserable little gudgeon, either, that has
swallowed your hook."
"No, it is no miserable little gudgeon. The average
length of a cod is one meter, and its average weight
between seven and eight kilograms. Occasionally cod are
taken that weigh as much as twenty or thirty kilograms.
A fish of that size caught in one of our rivers would
be the talk of all the country around."
"You say," Jules interposed, "that the hooks are baited
sometimes with small fish, sometimes even with pieces
of the entrails from the cod taken the day before. If
they pounce like that on the remains of their own kind,
codfish must be very greedy indeed! Other animals don't
devour those of their own species."
"Their voracity is unequaled. With these fish the large
gobble up the small, the strong devour the weak,
without the least scruple and under no compulsion of
extreme hunger, though they must often be hungry
enough, as they are endowed with digestive powers that
are truly astonishing. Moreover, if some indigestible
prey, too bulky for comfort and swallowed too greedily,
incommodes them, the cod have a quick way of getting
rid of it: they reject the excess of food by vomiting."
"Oh, the horrid creatures!" cried Marie. "Their
 white flesh in its pretty layers doesn't correspond at
all with their way of living."
"I do not deny it, but it is that particular way of
living that has given us their savory white flesh as a
highly esteemed article of food. And then this
greediness that excites your disgust is not without its
importance in the scheme of things. Think of a cod's
family, of the nine million eggs laid by a single fish.
If all those eggs hatched and the young were allowed to
reach maturity, in a few generations the millions would
become billions, and these latter would in turn
multiply and become other billions, so that before long
there would be no room in all the seas taken together
for the codfish alone. Therefore these fishes must eat
one another now and then, if only to offset this
alarming multiplication. Man, birds of prey, large and
voracious fish—all lend a hand in this work of
extermination. And thus with immense slaughter the
prolific cod is held down to reasonable limits within
its ocean home instead of becoming a portentous
"Filled to overflowing, the boats return in the evening
to their respective ships, where the preparation of the
fish takes place. With a large knife one fisherman cuts
off the heads; another slits the decapitated cods along
the line of the stomach; a third takes out the
entrails, being very careful to set aside the liver; a
fourth flattens the fish thus treated; and a fifth rubs
them well with salt and piles them up."
"What do they do with the livers that were set aside?"
 "They fill a cask with the livers and leave it exposed
to the air. Soon decomposition sets in, the whole mass
putrefies, and there rises to the top a greasy liquid
that is known as cod-liver oil. This oil is carefully
collected, for it is held in high repute as a
"I have heard of it," said Marie. "They say it is
detestable to take on account of its horrid smell of
decayed fish. The way it is obtained accounts for its
nastiness. Decayed fish-livers couldn't possibly
furnish anything pleasing to taste or smell. But after
all a person conquers his repugnance if the detestable
remedy is really a cure."
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