There’s been fish and chips sold together in Britain since the 1860s. The first mention of chips of potato being deep fried, if Wikipedia can be trusted, comes from A Tale Of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. The fried fish has been a Mediterranean classic which found its way to Britain. The development of the transport network during Victorian Britain meant the cod and haddock could make its way across the land.
The development of rail made it possible but it doesn’t answer the question “why”? It is an extraordinary phenomenon when you think about it. There are no other similar national parallels – a hot takeaway food which is on every high street. When I was young I remember that you could get a pie or a sausage to go with your chips instead of fish. There was even curry sauce, mushy peas and beans. Pickled eggs, gherkins and pickled onions have been accompaniments as long as I can remember. As an aside, I’ve only ever had a pickled egg once. I can attest that they are truly the food of the Devil.
I am prepared to be shot down but I defy anyone to tell me that the taste of fish and chips is so extraordinary that taste alone explains the survival of this phenomenon. Add to this the undoubted unhealthiness in the current climate and their must be something else going on. There have been burger joints and pizza shops offering takeaway food which have come and gone despite their more distinctive flavours.
Today I went to the seaside with my daughter and my dog. There was never a doubt that we would have fish and chips for lunch. There was never any question that we would eat it outside in the cold, from the paper, with a wooden fork. Fish and chips is more than just the seaside though. There are plenty of inland ‘seasides’ with the tradition of eating Britain’s favourite snack. Near where I live Matlock Bath is a British seafront, complete with arcades, in all but grid reference. There is something in the shared experience of eating fresh, basic, mouth-burningly hot fried food in the open air.
It’s certainly not about the flavour or the cooking. Impoverished as we have been in Britain in culinary terms at various times in our history, we have always had plenty more tasty options. I think that the shared experience and the basic ingredients explain the popularity of it. Fish and chips are shared by rich and poor, city and urban dweller, young and old. It is egalitarian as the burger is on the more modern high street.
My fish and chips today was decidedly average. The chips were overcooked and the fish was neither cod nor haddock. The batter was quite cloying and stayed with me for some time later. So what? Fish and chips, in my 50 years at least, has never been inedible and I’ve seldom left anything but a few chips. Today I shared both fish and chips with my dog and sat chatting with my daughter while we ate. The wind was blowing and I’ve definitely had more comfortable restaurant seats.
It may not be the most tasty meal I’ll have but it’s uniquely British and eaten with good company.