Fish and Chips is as British as well, fish and chips. A culinary masterpiece rivalled only by the full English and roast dinner in the British culinary cannon. All however distinctly different in their use and cultural position.
Unlike it’s cousin at the other end of a drinking session fish and chips are not the invention of a medieval aristocracy as the full english was. Fish and chips is a purely Victorian creation facilitated by and made for an industrial age. Industrial scale use of oil needs a means of production. And the British seized it.
The first pairing of chips and fried fish is not something the modern Brit would recognise. Dickens refers to fried fish and potatoes in his 1837 novel Oliver Twist and with his deft social commentary it is probably safe to assume this was already a popular food with sections of the working class.
But this was not deep-fried fish and chunky chips. This was pan-fried fish in the style of Portuguese-Jewish immigrants who had arrived during and after the Napoleonic wars. The impact of immigration on cultural classics is evident throughout this series. The fried potatoes being simply that- pan fried potatoes.
Another theme we have seen emerge in this series is found in the claimants to the creation of the first modern fish and chip shop. A battle not between different nations but different regions. A battle that is part of a large cultural war still raging in England today, North v South. Whoever can lay claim to the invention of the beloved chippy tea will score invaluable but practically useless cultural points
The Souths claim dates back to 1860 and a man called Joseph Malin who claims to have opened his fish and chip shop in East London three years before his rival John Lee. Lee opened his shop in Oldham in what was then Lancashire , now Greater Manchester in 1863.
Lee offered fish and chips as ‘’food for the worker’’, another theme we see in this series. Indeed it was cheap, highly calorific and very tasty, just like the pizza, full English and burger, highly useful for any industrial worker.
No matter who served the first chippy tea- undoubtedly on a Friday evening – its popularity snowballed. All the shops had the same formulaic layout; a counter underneath which was a cauldron of scalding hot oil in which all the delectable’s were thrown into. The process became properly commercialized Italian immigrants chose it as a business of choice.
The chippy was at its peak in the first half of the 20th century. In 1935 there were 35,000 shops, in 2009 there were 10,00 despite an 80% increase in population. Other fast foods have emerged as rivals, pizzas, burgers, fried chicken and curry-houses to name a few. Fish and chips is now served in places with an n instead of and or a hut in the name- sacrilege if you ask me. The chippy has also often being derided as least healthy, something recently shown to be untrue.
Fish and chips still persist however despite the changes. The cultural tradition of wrapping them in old newspaper was banned in the 1980s ,replaced often with styrofoam boxes. Another Americanisation. Yet is still remains culturally significant, this food that was saved from rationing during the second world war to maintain public morale. And it remains embedded in our cultural heritage, just listen to this song written as an ode to fish and chips:
It is for millions, whether on a Friday night in front of the tele or a drunken pit-stop a true panacea, not just for the working-class as Orwell stated but for all classes. From Churchill and Lennon to the pissed guy on a Saturday night, Brits love their Fish and Chips.