This section is from the book "Meals Medicinal", by W. T. Fernie. Also available from Amazon: Meals Medicinal: With "Herbal Simples" Curative Foods From the Cook in Place of Drugs From the Chemist.
As to the animal characteristics and endowments of Fish, both generally, and particularly, a reference may be made to former writings, whilst we have now to consider specially the therapeutic principles and capabilities of Fish foods regarded as medicinal.
Speaking broadly, the substance of Fish served at table is thought to be lighter of digestion, but less nourishing, than the flesh which we eat as beef, mutton, lamb, veal, and pork. It is credited with the faculty of imparting phosphorus to the brain, and to the nervous organization; it is further believed to be a sexual stimulant, and restorative, but its exclusive protracted use is thought to engender outbreaks of skin disease. Some persons also find Fish, as a food instead of meat, to be a nervine calmative, and to exercise soporific effects. Moreover, the oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel, cod's-liver, herrings, and sprats, when adequately digested, promote fatty development, and bodily warmth. Fish roe is reputed to be a rich source of organic phosphorus; and bone materials, such as phosphates of lime, potash, and soda, are contributed by various fish.
Count Romford concluded that of all foods a red herring has the highest specific sapidity; that is, the greatest amount of flavour in a given weight of insipid food with which it is intermixed. Again, a Connecticut Professor in the State Agricultural College found when investigating the comparative values as food, of meat, and other matters of daily sustenance, that the climax of nutrition is reached in the eminently popular Red Herring. Alphonse Karr tells amusingly in his Tour round my Garden of a midnight mass at Lille, where some old women were praying, and preparing a supper called a "reveillon"; "from time to time they drew from under their petticoats a small chafing dish, upon which were cooking two or three herrings; they turned the herrings, put the chafing dish back in its place, and resumed their prayers." The bloater is so called because partially smoke-dried (bloat, an obsolete term to smoke) after some salting, and is not split open. The fat under the skin of a herring is never of good taste, and is best extracted by broiling.
Kippered, or smoked, herrings are frequently dipped instead into pyroligneous acid, which gives them the smoky flavour. "But they furnish," says Dr. Haig, "more than 6 per cent of gouty uric acid." About the year 1600 Robert Greene, the Playwright, fell a victim to a surfeit of pickled herrings, and Rhenish wine, at some merry gathering of his associates. A "Yarmouth Capon" (or fowl), is a bloater, and says old Fuller, "Few Capons save what have more fins than feathers are bred in Yarmouth".
Irish herrings are frequently smoked with juniper wood. Father Prout was loud in their praise: -
"Sure! of Dublin bay herrings a keg,
And an egg, Is enough for all sensible folk! Success to the fragrant turf-smoke That curls round the pan on the fire; While the sweet yellow yolk From the egg-shell is broke,
In the pan,
Who can If he have but the heart of a man, Not feel the soft flame of desire Which inflames e'en the soul of a friar? "
Sydney Smith, writing to Lord Murray, from London, in November, 1843, said: "I shall be obliged to you for the herrings, and tell me at the same time how to dress them; but perhaps I mistake, and they ought to be eaten naked." Mr. Benjamin Bell, a famous surgeon of the last century, supposed the eating of fish to be on the whole a mischievous practice; and Dr. Cheyne, a well-known physician of 1730, entertained similar views. The products of decomposition in fish are rapidly formed, and then act as poisons to the human system; occasionally also living fish elaborate similar toxic substances. The widespread impression that much fish-eating entails a liability to skin diseases, and particularly of stale fish to leprosy, is founded on trustworthy scientific data, and has been confirmed by eminent authorities. One practical outcome of this belief is shown by the abolition of fish from the dietary of the patients in the St. Louis Hospital for Skin Diseases at Paris. "Perhaps, indeed, Gehazi, the grasping and dishonest servant of the Israelitish prophet in the Old Testament, fell a victim in his pursuit of the newly-cured Syrian to his greed of appetite, as well as to his avarice.
If he fed while overtaking the chariot of Naaman, on such an unattractive, but eminently portable diet as dried fish, septic in its nature, his punishment was doubly justified. Certain is the fact that while in England the stale Cod, or carelessly pickled Halibut, are no longer consumed as food by the masses, leprosy has vanished from the land; yet in those countries where this enlightened policy is not pursued the fell disease is still rife. It is true, nevertheless, that the man who eats bad dried fish, though not of necessity a leper, is still somewhat of a beast." Two hundred years, or so, ago cases of leprosy, and scurvy, and allied diseases were frequent throughout England; for at that time all sheep, and cattle, except those reserved for breeding, were killed, and salted down at the beginning of winter; and the meat-eating population had for several months in the year only salted meat. Now, thanks to the cabbages, and turnips, grown in most cottage allotments, and to the winter use of these vegetables on farms, such terrible scorbutic diseases as formerly prevailed are no longer with us.
With reference to the theory that leprosy is due in the main to badly-cured, and badly-cooked salt fish, a modern authority holds as an opposite opinion that the leprosy is owing, not to the imperfect curing of the fish, but to the inherent uncleanness of the creature itself. "Fish," says this deponent, "are scavengers, garbage-mongers, and devourers of carrion; and although, thanks to a taste for cabbage, we nowadays avoid leprosy, we still contract lupus from the turbot, epilepsy from the festive whitebait, with tuberculosis from the mackerel, and the filleted sole." It has been supposed that the mackerel was one of the fish forbidden to the Israelites of old under the law "Whatsoever hath not fins and scales, ye may not eat".