Stoking the Flames of Debate: Cultural Competency in Fish and Chips

Food Features Fish and Chips
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Stoking the Flames of Debate: Cultural Competency in Fish and Chips

Fish and chips is a dish widely recognized to be the epitome of British fare. More than any other national dish, its contributions to history are undeniable and well-documented. It’s a working class hero, an export equally iconic as the royal family, and the dish that gave Britain its reputation as the home of brown food. During the D-Day landings, British parachuters found themselves behind enemy lines in the deep dark of night. It was impossible to tell who was a friend and who was an enemy. They developed a password that was an appropriate nod to their Britishness. One soldier would say “fish” and, if British, the other would reply “chips.” It was also one of the few foods never rationed during World War II in an effort to keep morale and patriotism up.

The history of Britain’s greatest culinary export is long and vexed, but a few milestones are agreed upon. Of course it is common for the food of immigrants to be co-opted by Anglo people all over the western world and although Britain has a longer history and richer (white) food traditions than the U.S. or Australia, this is the case even for its most iconic dish. We know that the pairing or fried fish with fried potatoes for one meal did originate in England, although the component parts had been served elsewhere in the world previously. It is well recorded that fried fish was brought to Britain by Jewish refugees from Portugal and Spain in the 17th century. In fact, Thomas Jefferson wrote about eating “fried fish in the Jewish fashion” when he visited London towards the end of the 18th century.

Most agree that the first recorded dedicated fish and chips shop was opened in London’s east end by Ashkenazi (western European) Jew Joseph Malin around 1860. At the time the area was populated with working class Jewish people and the thirteen year-old wanted to supplement his family’s income. However this is disputed, mostly by those residing in the north of England. Some believe that it was northern entrepreneur John Lees of Lancashire who opened the first fish and chip shop in 1863. He was selling fish and chips out of a wooden hut in an industrial market area. To many Brits these men’s names are unfamiliar, but the north versus south debate around fish and chips remains. A simple google search for the history of fish and chips in the United Kingdom wields results published in various reputable publications with wildly different origins. There even seems to be confusion over which Charles Dickens novel first mentioned fish and chips: Oliver Twist or A Tale of Two Cities.

There are other debates around fish and chips that carry on. The differences in opinion are rooted not just in arbitrary opinion but also in class, region and age. Presented without comment or personal opinion — and consciously adding to the huge canon of fish and chips debate pieces — below is a broad strokes, birds eye view primer:

Condiments
In the U.S. we mostly eat fish and chips with tartar sauce, or at least that was my understanding before moving to the U.K. The topping options are in fact much more nuanced. Generally, consumers choose between salt, vinegar, ketchup, brown sauce (we’ll circle back to this), mayonnaise, gravy and tartar sauce. A YouGov poll surveyed 5,334 British adults on their toppings of choice for chips (sans fish). Although any sane adult knows that a condiment for one component part may not be the same as the sum of all parts, it’s a good indicator of the variety available. In the north of England 23 percent pour gravy on their chips, compared with four percent in London. Twenty-three percent of Scots pour HP brown sauce on their chips compared with 10 percent of people from London and the rest of the south. For the uninformed, the “HP” in HP sauce stands for Houses of Parliament and the sauce tastes a little like Worcestershire sauce. Anecdotally, I like mine with a winning combination of ketchup, tartar sauce and vinegar.

Pub vs. Chip Shop
Both the product and the experience differ widely when eating fish and chips in a pub versus a chip shop. A chip shop (which can go by a few names, including “chippy”), is generally a brightly-lit establishment that’s open late into the night. There, fish and chips come in a cardboard box or some other disposable transportation option, and are eaten elsewhere, typically on the shore if that’s an option. In cities not by the sea, the product is still often taken away, either to a home or to eat outside. For young people — especially those who’ve had a few drinks — it can be eaten anywhere: walking, sitting on a wall, or on a bench. If there is cutlery, it’s plastic. Food may be handed over wrapped in newspaper and thus soggier. Sometimes it’s a grab and go home after a busy day at the office. Just like in the 1860s in London, fish and chips from a chippy remains a warming, filling lunch option for builders and other hard laborers. When the first McDonalds came to Britain in 1974 it threatened the previously loved fast food, yet chippies still far outnumber outlets across the country, according the The Federation of Fish Friers. On his Word of Mouth blog for The Guardian, Tony Naylor claims fish and chips should be eaten in a chip shop and only in a chip shop. Naylor, who lives in and hails from Manchester, writes that “fish and chips in a pub or restaurant… just feels wrong. It shouldn’t be eaten indoors, with a knife and fork.”

The experience of eating with silverware in a wood-paneled pub with lively banter, likely years of history, beer and condiments that come in bottles is completely different. It may be a romantic Cheers situation where everyone knows your name at the local pub. Fish and chips could be eaten while competing in a pub quiz, or to soak up the many pints consumed. A bold person with a stomach of steel could even consume fish and chips on a pub date. The dish will likely come with a side of mushy peas. In this case, it’s usually dinner and eaten with lager to wash it down.

North vs. South
This is, of course, a false dichotomy, given that the north and south imply “of England,” and fish and chips shop are also ubiquitous in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the east and west coasts of England. However, there is no rivalry as fraught as that between the north and south of England when it comes to this dish, likely because of the question of its origins. Consensus on the internet and among northerners living in London is that you can’t get good fish and chips in London. According to a 2016 listicle in the Mirror, the 10 best chippies are scattered about the whole of the United Kingdom, including shops in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Devon and Hertfordshire, among others. Interestingly, none of London’s hundreds of chippies make the list.

According to a friend from a seaport town in Lincolnshire (the north), fish and chips in a restaurant is a special treat for families. Rather than an adult beverage experience, fish and chips is served with a pot of tea in a “semi-classy” place, according to another northern friend. “I wish I could take you back 25 years to when my whole family – three generations – would go out for fish and chips. Then you’d see its cultural position, particularly in the north,” he told me.

But fish ands chips in London isn’t all trendy takes on a classic, although those exist. One of the oldest fish and chips shops in the U.K. still stands in London’s Covent Garden. Rock and Sole Plaice dates back to 1871, although it’s changed hands and names several times since then. And in the south outside of London, there is little that feels as unique to Brighton as eating fish and chips on the shore, keeping the too desensitized seagulls from stealing a bite.

In any pub or fish and chips shop across the United Kingdom, a question about the best way to eat fish and chips or the best condiments/ location/ setting would garner varied and passionate responses. One thing is for sure: this very British dish is good.

Photo by Smabs Sputzer, CC-BY

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