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Goldsmiths' Official Student Magazine

The Cultural significance of fish ‘n’ chips

22 May 2020
Food and Drink editor Maisie Goulsbra investigates the cultural significance of fish 'n' chips - it's origins, evolution, and unclear relationship with current and future generations.

There are two kinds of chippies. There is a chippy. There you go with a few coins rattling in your pocket, knowing that you will walk out with a portion of chips big enough to rip open your insides. Or there’s a fish and chip shop. The kind found in Borough Market, that will set you back the best part of £20 for cod and chips, where no one really has a preference on haddock or cod, but you can buy battered swordfish and calamari.

Haddock or cod? Traditionally haddock is preferable, for bigger, meatier flakes. For their love of deep, cold waters, haddock were fished largely in the North sea. Fish from the seas of Greenland and Iceland began emerging on our lands with the invention of the steam trawler over 200 years ago. With concerns about the impact of fishing, usually there are ‘catch of the day’ options on menus, and often plaice or halibut make appearances on menus. Farmed fish don’t necessarily produce the same nutritional value as those which aren’t farmed. Such as salmon, a naturally carnivorous fish, but when fed a vegetarian diet, doesn’t produce as much Omega 3.

Hailing from an unknown creator. Although (and despite claims to Lancashire) Jay Rayner tells The Guardian that fried fish goes back to Joseph Malin; a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe, who owned a fish and chip shop in London’s East End, in the 1860s.

Eaten on a bench, a wall, off your knees, or in a cone whilst strolling the seafront; fish and chips have an accompanying aesthetic. If they’re for the family back home, it’s a race back to make sure the chips aren’t soggy. If not, beer or soda water is often used to make a thin crispy batter in restaurants or on the menus of pubs nationwide.

“Near to the spot on which Snow Hill and Holborn Hill meet, there opens, upon the right hand as you come out of the City, a narrow and dismal alley leading to Saffron Hill. In its filthy shops are exposed for sale huge bunches of second-hand silk handkerchiefs, of all sizes and patterns; for here reside the traders who purchase them from pickpockets. Hundreds of these handkerchiefs hang dangling from pegs outside the windows or flaunting from the door-posts; and the shelves, within, are piled with them. Confined as the limits of Field Lane are, it has its barber, its coffee-shop, its beer-shop, and its fried-fish warehouse.” Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

I asked an avid fish n chip eater how he likes his fish n chips, he told me:

I want to see an Everest-sized mountain of deep-fried potatoes on top of a freshly battered haddock, caught the same day by a local with a rod. Salt and vinegar should be distributed liberally, and no area of the entire newspaper should be left ungarnished.

Fish and chips can, most definitely, be described as a working class treat. Across the country lots of us still look forward to our Friday fish and chips, but I have to say, they have gone slightly forgotten since I moved out from living with my parents. I do associate fish and chips with my Grandma, and no wonder – fish and chips were one thing that escaped rationing during World War II.

Fish and chips emerged two centuries ago, saw us through one more, and survived into this one. But has the humble fish and chip shop thrived? They aren’t exactly the preferred fast food choice of millennials. Or at least, they have kebab shops to compete with nowadays. Nevertheless, I can’t imagine the after-school queues getting any smaller, anytime soon. There’s very little to stand in the way of chip shop prices – except in South London, that’s what Morleys does. Chippies have proven versatile – not only can we swap the type of fish for something kinder to our seas; the plastic fork came and went. And we can do without polystyrene trays, in favour of something biodegradable.

What exactly is it that detracts from younger generations then? What’s not to love? They cater for everyone, and everything. If you’re only half heartedly ordering, or fancy a snack, chips lay the foundations for a ladling of curry sauce. And though I have never in all my life met or seen anyone order a Pukka pie from a fish and chip shop, they do exist. I have seen them, sat waiting under the glass counter for someone to claim one as their own. And scraps, which in most shops can be added for free. A sprinkling of fried nothing – the remnants of the deep fat fryer, which I used to beg my parents for as a child.

I spoke to an anonymous fish n chip fryer so that we can get our chance at standing behind the counter. The interviewee worked in his Mum and Dad’s fish and chip shop in a Lincolnshire coastal town in the eighties, but due to the last comment, would like to remain anonymous. This is what he had to say:

The day started at 8.30am when prep would begin, peeling lotsa spuds, ready for an 11.30am open. We would close at 2.30 then open again from 6.30pm till 11.30pm. This was seasonal and usually the shop would stay open till October.

Why did you close? During and around the time of the miners’ strikes, people lost their jobs so it wasn’t busy. Not so many people were on the caravan sites, from Leicester, Derby, and South Yorkshire.

What were the customers like? Lots of holiday makers, mostly genuine people; some moaned and some didn’t. Those who did, like the people that said portion sizes were too small; we had tactical punishments – we used to buy concentrated vinegar, to dilute with water, but when people complained, they’d get the neat vinegar and we’d watch their reaction as they left…

Words, Words, Maisie Goulsbra

Illustration, Molly Rafferty @r.afferty