|Janice Wald at Mostly Blogging called my attention to the role fish and chips play in the British diet, so let’s see what you can learn about them from a vegetarian.
The Federation of British Friers (who are not to be confused with friars, who may have eaten fish on Fridays but otherwise have nothing to do with the story) writes that “fish and chips are the undisputed National dish of Great Britain.”
Yes, they do capitalize national for no better reason than that it matters to them. It’s a British thing, capitalizing words they like.
No, they’re not objective; these are the people who fry fish for a living, or at least represent the businesses that fry fish. But that stuff about fish and chips being the national dish agrees with pretty every other source I checked. Historic U.K. claims, “Fish, chips and mushy peas! There is nothing more British than fish and chips.”
Yeah, they’re asking a lot of that exclamation point, and the poor little thing didn’t manage to generate the excitement they were looking for, but I’ve done a bit of freelance writing myself and I cranked out copy that was just as dismal. So let’s just nod knowingly and move on.
In fact, we’ll move on so fast that we’ll skid right past the mushy peas for now. I’ll come back to them. What you need to know for now is that everyone says fish and chips are as British as it’s possible to be.
Except for beer, because in a recent post I quoted an ad supplement that claimed eccentricity, beer, apologies, and tea were the essential elements of Britishness. It didn’t mention fish and chips. It all goes to show that you shouldn’t take anyone’s word for the essentials of Britishness.
And all the more so since neither source mentioned curry, although people here often say, “Nothing’s as British as a curry.” It’s meant to have an ironic edge, curry being a cultural import and all, unlike the deeply British fish and chips, but it turns out fish and chips also came from someplace else. They—or is fish and chips an it? Singular fish, singular dish, plural chips. It’s messy. Anyway, they or it either were or was brought here by (gasp) immigrants.
And the immigrants in question were, in case anyone isn’t getting this, foreigners, every last one of them.
So what are people who want their British culture pure to do? Give up both curry and fish and chips? What’ll be left?
Maybe a kebab. Or a plate of spaghetti. Or a nice cup of tea.
National purity’s hard to find. If you locate any, send up a flare, would you?
The BBC (which covers all the important stories) reports that “fried fish was introduced into Britain by Jewish refugees from Portugal and Spain. The fish was usually sold by street sellers from large trays hung round their necks. Charles Dickens refers to an early fish shop or ‘fried fish warehouse’ in Oliver Twist (1839) where the fish generally came with bread or baked potatoes.”
Fried fish was (were?) introduced in the seventeenth century—roughly the same time as fried potatoes. (The potato was brought from the Americas earlier, by Sir Walter Raleigh. Unless it was brought by Sir Francis Drake. You can find claims for both.) It was probably the French who first thought of deep frying them.
So that’s yet another bunch of foreigners messing with British cooking.
Chips, by the way, is American for what the British call crisps. Sort of. We (the we here being Americans) usually add “potato,” so it’s potato chips. Chips is British for what Americans call french fries.
Are you still with me? Am I? I went over that three times to make sure I hadn’t gotten lost.
Some of the sources I read are clear about the immigrant role in hooking Britain on fish and chips, but a few manage to run through the entire history without mentioning it. I’d be amused if immigration weren’t such a charged issue just now.
The north and south of Britain both claim to have invented the combination of fish and chips. According to Wikipedia (when I checked; it will have changed by now), “Some credit a northern entrepreneur called John Lees. As early as 1863, it is believed he was selling fish and chips out of a wooden hut at Mossley market in industrial Lancashire.
“Others claim the first combined fish ‘n’ chip shop was actually opened by a Jewish immigrant, Joseph Malin, within the sound of Bow Bells in East London around 1860.
“However it came about, the marriage quickly caught on. At a time when working-class diets were bleak and unvaried, fish and chips were a tasty break from the norm.
“Outlets sprung up across the country and soon they were as much a part of Victorian England as steam trains and smog.
“Italian migrants passing through English towns and cities saw the growing queues and sensed a business opportunity, setting up shops in Scotland, Wales and Ireland.
“To keep prices down, portions were often wrapped in old newspaper–a practice that survived as late as the 1980s when it was ruled unsafe for food to come into contact with newspaper ink without grease-proof paper in between.”
During both world wars, fish and chips were considered so essential to civilian morale that protecting the supplies was a government priority. During World War II, they were one of the few foods that were never rationed, although that doesn’t mean they were always available. When word got out that the local chippie had fish, queues formed and people were willing to wait an hour or more.
I’m not sure if fish and chips are still considered primarily working class or if they’ve gone upmarket. I do know that they’re not as popular as they once were, partly because, as stocks of cod and haddock have been depleted by overfishing, the price has gone up and partly because people have become leery about eating too much fried food. But there are still some still 8,500 fish and chip shops in U.K.
And here we circle back to mushy peas, because all or most of them sell mushy peas as well.
I think. Listen, I’m a vegetarian. I don’t poke my nose into fish and chip shops if I can help it, and I generally can. I’m taking other people’s word for this.
If you’re not British, you’re asking, “Mushy what?”
Peas. They’re dried peas, soaked and then boiled with a little salt, a little sugar, and some baking soda, called bicarbonate of soda here, until they form a lumpy, green moosh and taste of nothing in particular.
Why would anybody eat that, never mind do it? Well, it’s food. If you eat it, it will fill your stomach. And if you grow up on it, you’ll learn to love it. Either that or you’ll run screaming every time they’re mentioned.
When I told my friend R. that Wild Thing and I had worked up our courage and tried mushy peas, she told me people eat them with fish and chips, not on their own. And given the British habit of packing a bit of every food on the plate on the end of their fork, that means they can count of the fish to lend the peas some taste.
How do Americans eat? One food per bite unless the dish itself mixes them the way, say, stew does, or a mixed salad. No, I don’t know why. I also don’t know why the British eat a bit of everything at once. Honestly, I’m no longer sure why anyone does anything. Humans are hard to make sense of.
By the time R. told me that mushy peas weren’t meant to be eaten on their own, we’d each taken one lone bite and didn’t feel the need to try again. I may be a vegetarian and they may be vegetabilian, but I don’t go out of my way to eat oak leaves and grass either, and they’re equally vegetabilian.
I’ve now told you everything I know about fish and chips and mushy peas–and more.
Could the next topic someone throws at me be about something that’s more clearly either singular or plural? Please?