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Something Fishy: 1906

Something Fishy: 1906

Gloucester, Massachusetts, circa 1906. "Drying fish." 8x10 inch dry plate glass negative, Detroit Publishing Company. View full size.


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Bacalhau -- yummy

Sun-dried salted codfish is the Portuguese national fish, it's called there "bacalhau". Portugal has, by far, the highest yearly consumption of sun-dried salted codfish per capita, worldwide. However, the most of it nowadays comes from Norway. As a matter of fact, Portugal consumes 20 percent of the worldwide codfish catch every year. Portugal has a population of just 10.5 million!

There are more than 1,300 different bacalhau recipes known. Even the typical Christmas eve food, is, you guessed it, bacalhau.

If you want want to surprise yourself, go and visit the next Portuguese restaurant near you and ask for bacalhau. I am sure you won't ever forget the delicious taste of a well-made bacalhau.

Salt Bankers

Gloucester fishing schooners (and "sloop-boats") -- you can see both types in the background of the picture -- are called salt bankers for good reason. After the dorymen caught the fish with longlines, they were filleted and salted the same day and stowed in the hold with layers of salt separating layers of fish for the run back to harbor. A schooner would stay out for several days or weeks; a sloop-boat usually did not stay out overnight. There's a dory tied up to the schooner in the left background. With all that salt in it, gulls and bugs may not have shown much interest in the drying fish.

On a recent trip to St. John's, Newfoundland, I found drying racks set up in residential areas and on part of the waterfront. Plastic bags were tied to clotheslines stretched above the racks and I think their fluttering in the wind was enough to deter gulls who hadn't tasted the salt fish yet. The drying fish had no detectable smell at a reasonable distance.


Salt cod goes for up to $25 a pound and is considered to be quite the yummy treat by many. Others, however, say it's stinky and impossible to debone.

They sleep with the fishes

This is truly one photo where you can honestly say, "They're all dead now."

Mental picture

I recently finished reading "The Hearth and the Eagle" by Anya Seton. It takes place in Marbleheadand describes the early days of the fishing trade there. Now I see what the fish flakes look like.

Oooh, That Smell

I can smell it from here, in distance and time.

Salt Cod

My guess is salting would stop the bugs/fly larvae infesting them before they'd dried, but I'm not sure whether that'd prevent birds - do birds eat salted fish, or would they learn to stay away?

Gloucester Flake Yard

Preparation of the cod and other salt fish for the market, 1911


The fish are dried on flakes and the drying yard is known as the flake yard. The flake consists of a lattice bed about 8 feet wide, 30 inches high, and as long as the requirements may demand. The lattice used on this bed is made of triangular strips 1 inch on the base, and these are placed about 3 inches apart. The fish therefore rest upon a sharp edge about every 4 inches. This is for the purpose of giving the maximum circulation of air about the fish. …

The flake yards are located near the fish factory. Formerly they were all placed on the ground, sometimes near a street, but the practice has changed, and they are now found above the butt sheds or other buildings, thus avoiding the dirt and dust which might be distributed by passing vehicles. Some of the flake yards are built over the water.

At regular intervals along the flakes, crosspieces are provided over which to stretch a canvas to protect the fish from sunburn during hot weather. Boxes or coops are also provided to cover the fish during rains and at night, the tops of the boxes being pitched to shed the water. These flake boxes are about 38 inches long, 24 inches wide, and 14 inches high, and will cover from 20 to 40 fish; during the day they are pushed under the flakes.

Perfect Sunny Day

Flies and seagulls? Are we not Gloucestermen?

Nuoc Mam

When I took my all expenses paid "vacation" to Vietnam in the Sixties, this was a common sight near the villages and much of the overripe fish was used to make a very pungent fermented fish sauce known as "nuoc mam". The odor was extremely unpleasant, at least to my "western" nose, and so strong that you could tell you were nearing a village just by the smell. The Vietnamese used it for a dipping sauce, or like ketchup. I still shudder at the thought of it.

A Simple Solution

The seagulls are all off to one side, on their own drying racks.


Did they salt the fish before putting it out to dry? As someone else posted, how did they keep the flies off the drying fish? The process worked but how did they adjust for humid days? I just never did consider the process of drying fish. Too many questions but not enough answers. I'm lost.

Cod of Our Fathers

I presume that these were codfish. They were very plentiful off New England in the early part of the 20th century. They were heavily salted first in brine and then liberally sprinkled with rock salt to aid in the drying process. The brine and salt combination tended embalm the fish.

Even today you can get salt cod. You need to soak it overnight with multiple changes of water to get the salt out.

Salt Cod

Think they are drying cod which we see as salt cod around New York, for some reason. Never had it and probably never will.

During the 1930's depression

Maritimers sent dried cod to the people on the Canadian prairies and there were reports that they used them as shingles on their outbuildings and tried to cook the salt cod without soaking out the salt.

Lots of salt

I expect that the fish is heavily salted which should keep the sea gulls and bugs away. They should dry quickly so as to miss the rain.

Check those barometers

They must have a contingency plan in case of rain, right? Please tell me they have a plan or else I may not sleep tonight.

I'm surprised

No sea gulls. Would have expected there would be massive problems with birds with the fish laid out like that.

Lord of the Flies

What keeps the flies and other bugs from infesting these fish?

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