Arthur Lawrence used to say that the economic condition of the country could be judged by a can of fruit cocktail. If the mixture ran heavily to cherries, it meant an overcrop, consequent unloading at short prices, and financial stringency in upstate New York. A shortage of pineapple would show Hawaii in a strong position, selling high. And I was wondering just now if the decline of Western civilization can be foreseen in the decline and gradual disappearance of salt codfish. It has been many years now since I have seen a summer display of nourishing groundfish by the Maine coast - the same coast that once had its own flake in every dooryard and acres of them surrounding numerous factories. How long, kind friend, hath it been since you faced a fishball that adorned your breakfast plate?
On our hearth we have a small wooden box to hold our kindlings. It is an antique. I have refused chances to give or sell it as such. It is of pine, machine-dovetailed at the corners, and it had a print job in two colors. In red, it says,''12 1-lb packages boneless cod.'' In blue it reads, ''Product of Canada , packed by N. C. Sollows at Port Maitland, Nova Scotia.''
It is possible Mr. Sollows still salts a decent cod, but I doubt if he packs his product in that kind of a wooden box. A box once made by the thousands and available for unlimited purposes when the contents were eaten. A box that could be fitted with a handle and used for kindlings - for picking berries, for carrying a picnic, for going to the store, for horseshoe nails in the smithy, for spools of thread. A box that - no matter how old it gets or what uses it finds - will always yield a rugged onshore whiff of the Blue Nose sea. Except as an antique, the once ubiquitous salt fish box is long gone.*
Think what that means. It means loss of jobs for choppers, teamsters, sawyers , handlers, and everybody who got out lumber for fish boxes. Loss of work for the printer, who did the two-color job. No work for the men who ran the shop where the boards were fashioned into shook. Nobody gets paid to dray the shook to the fish factory, where schoolboys could come to earn a few dimes by fitting the shook into boxes. All these people out of work, and we haven't yet considered the boatwrights, the fishermen, the dock workers, and the women who came when the whistle blew.
Cod was by no means the only fish that got ''cured'' by salt and smoke. Corned hake was esteemed a delicacy, particularly here in Maine. Alewives were called smokers, and herring bloaters. In Maine kitchens, a ''Kennebec Turkey'' was never fowl - in Nova Scotia the bird was a gaspereau. Fish. Put a cream sauce to a Kennebec Turkey!
Along the Down East coast an occasional old-timer will still ''flake'' a few pollock for his own use. (The flake was a drying rack.) If a tourist says pretty-please, he may come away with one as a gift. But it's hard nowadays to find some ''salt-slacked pollock'' cured on purpose for sale. And it has certainly been a long time since any grocery store offered the real thing - a pile of salt fish racked up like firewood where the customer could turn them over to find the one he wanted. Bill Nye wrote about the indolent salt cod loitering about the village store with his vest unbuttoned. That was the real ''split'' fish. And Holman Day wrote about a man who put on an address, pasted on some stamps, and mailed a salt fish, deshabille.
As the salt fish declined, the world has been patently skidding to its inexorable conclusion. The Yankee magazine cookbook doesn't have a single fishball! How will the generations to come measure ''a tear in his eye big's a fishball?'' Taxes keep rising. Where can you get a good shirt today under $5? Boats once dedicated to fishing are now sailed in yacht races by the indolent rich. Things are at a pretty pass. That seems to be a fact.
*Poetic allusions persist:
Herring boxes without topses
Sandals were for Clementine.
We're the girls from Antigonish
We know how to pack the fish.