The Good Companions:
The True Story of Fish & Chips
EMG Fish & Chips Show Notes
In this episode, our host, Simon Majumdar, examines the history of his favorite dish of all time, Fish & Chips.
It will take him on a journey to the times of the Ancient Greeks, the Romans, the Aztecs, Medieval Europe, the Seven Years War and Dickensian London. He will also bring in some of history’s most well known (Louis XIV, Charles Dickens, Thomas Jefferson and Frederick The Great) and lesser known (Oppian, Jose de Acosta and Mrs. “Granny” Duce) characters. It will be quite a journey for something that used to be sold in yesterday’s newspaper.
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EAT MY GLOBE: THINGS YOU DIDN’T KNOW YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT FOOD
The Good Companions: The True Story of Fish and Chips
SHOW INTRO MUSIC
Hi Everybody. I’m Simon Majumdar, and welcome to “EAT MY GLOBE: A Podcast About Things You Didn’t Know, You Didn’t Know About Food.”
So, what should we talk about today?
Well, since this is my show, I thought I’d begin with my favorite food of all time.
A dish that would not exist without a pogrom in Lisbon and a religious exile from France and Belgium. It’s a dish whose ingredients were referenced by both Thomas Jefferson and Charles Dickens. A dish that was described by George Orwell as the chief comfort of the working class, and was so identified with the morale of a nation that Prime Minister Winston Churchill refused to ration it during World War II, saying that the ingredients were the nation's “Good Companions.”
So now you know why we titled this episode this way.
Have you guessed it yet?
So, this week on “EAT MY GLOBE: Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Food” let me tell you the true story of Fish and Chips.
If, as I often am, I was asked what I would choose to be my last meal, well apart from asking why everyone seems quite so keen for me to have a last meal, my answer would always be a simple three-word reply: Fish and Chips.
Well, let me tell you a story. Imagine if you will a cold Friday night in the rather dour northern British town of Rotherham in the late 1970s. It would be fair to say that there was precious little about that period of time for which I retain any fond memories. Britain was at a low ebb and, as a pudgy teenager, there were few opportunities for joy in the declining mine and steel town in which I had been brought up. However, there was one moment each week that, even now, some forty years later, I still look back on with enormous fondness. And that was Fish & Chip Friday.
That’s right. Friday was Fish & Chip night. This is a tradition that dates back almost to the beginning of Christianity, as people declined from eating the flesh of warm blooded animals on a Friday, in recognition of the crucifixion of Jesus. Instead, they chose to eat fish, not only as it was a cold-blooded animal, but also because of the shape of the fish drawn by Christians as a secret symbol of their faith. The word in Greek for fish is ICHTHYS (transcript note: Simon pronounced it as ICHTHUS), which stood for the words, “Jesus Christ Son of God.”
Anyway, back in Rotherham, my father and older brother would drive up to the chip shop. I can still recall the name of it: The Tankersley Fish Bar -- while my mother would lay out trays on the table -- each one labelled underneath with the name of one of the Majumdar siblings. Funnily enough, when we still go back home now, we insist on using the trays with our own names on them. On top of those, she would put out large dining plates. And then, in the middle of the table, she would lay out the pre-requisite accompaniments to a fine fish supper: pickled onions, malt vinegar, thick slices of bread and butter, tomato ketchup, and brown sauce – an essential ingredient -- a tangy accompaniment to many things that was created in the late Victorian era, great as a relish with cold cuts, but now as essential to British life as the queen herself, Gawd bless her.
Once my father and brother had arrived home, laden down with bags of the night’s supper, the paper wrapping of the fish & chips would be opened, letting a waft of vinegary steam from the chips out into the kitchen. We would then descend onto the packages using our hands to transfer huge piles of chips from paper to plate, and then topping it off with a thick slab of battered fish --either cod or haddock. And then, in what little remaining space remained on the plates, we would place any of the accompaniments that we felt necessary before giving everything another good splash of malt vinegar. We would then carry our prized plates to the living room where we would sit in designated seats, of course, to enjoy our meal while watching a favorite comedy show or suitable piece of TV entertainment.
Forty years later, even though I have been lucky enough in the intervening years to travel the globe in my desire to “Go everywhere, and Eat Everything” and to have had some of the finest chefs on the planet prepare meals for me, these Fish and Chip nights remain some of my happiest memories.
The same is true, I am sure, for very many other people around Great Britain, because, despite the influx of modern interlopers -- you know I am looking at you, Chicken Tikka Masala -- there are few meals that can be seen as so quintessentially British as fish & chips. In fact, in 2016, the famous firm of Tea suppliers, Tetley, commissioned a survey of what British people thought were the essentials of being British, and Fish & Chips came second only behind Roast beef, and ranking ahead of The Royal Family, a good old cup of tea and even standing in line, which as you may well know is a bit of an art form in Britain.
There are still over ten and a half thousand Chip shops in the United Kingdom, which may be way below the 25,000 that were around just after World War I, but still equals a huge number, particularly when put into the context of the number of other fast food rivals that have entered the market in the intervening years. And, if you, like me, are a fan of excruciating puns, then you have to love the names that owners of fish & chip shops often choose to give their establishments, such as “New Cod on the Block,” “The Rock & Sole Plaice,” and my own particular favorite, “Frying Nemo.” Sorry, Nemo.
And if you check out the website of the National Association of Fish Friers -- yep, that really exists -- you will see that the British still consume over 360 million meals of fish and chips every single year -- that equates to about 6 meals for every man, woman and child.
So, while here in my new home of the United States, we might say, and I quote, “as American as Apple Pie,” end quote, back in my native land of Great Britain, the term, “as British as Fish & Chips,” is still very much in order.
However, I have always been fascinated by how a dish that is so quintessentially British came into existence.
So where should we start? Well, I think as good a place as any is with the key ingredients themselves.
So let’s start with the fish.
Archaeological excavations in South Africa have shown that humans have had fish and seafood as part of their diet for over 140,000 years. Initial methods of catching fish would have been pretty primitive, mainly consisting of trapping, using nets and spearing. However, as humanity always does, they soon began to develop more efficient ways of catching fish, and we also have discoveries from expeditions in East Timor that show by 40,000 years ago, people were not only equipped with fishing hooks but were also capturing fish that were in much deeper waters than we had previously ever believed.
The first writings we have about fishing come from the classical period, and we have references to fishing in Homer’s The Odyssey where he talks of men, and I quote, “fishing with bent hooks,” end quote. And also we see them in the writings of Pliny the Elder, in his long work called,“The Natural History.”
However, it is not until the 1st Century C.E. that we have a full-on guide to the methods of fishing in the rather splendid, Halieutica, a three and half thousand line long poem on fishing that was dedicated by its young author, Oppian, to the joint emperors Marcus Aurelius and Commodore. In this treatise, Oppian not only gives a run down of all of the species of fish he has encountered on his travels, but also the many and varied methods that people developed to improve efficiency in how fish were caught. These F.A.D’s or fish aggregation devices were designed to get as many fish into one place so that they were easier to catch, or to provide lures that did the same. The book is filled with fantastic examples, such as herding goats into the water, using tame dolphins to coral fish closer to land so they could be netted with more efficiency and, perhaps my favorite method, dragging sheep-gut intestine along the floor of the shallow waters and then blowing to inflate them once they’ve been swallowed by a saltwater eel so it would rise to the surface.
However fanciful some of Oppian’s observations may be, what these writings do show is that even at this relatively early point in human development, the increasingly important role fish played in diet around the world. What it also showed was the nascent ability of humans to plunder -- and perhaps over plunder -- the resources of the earth. That is a tendency which over the next centuries begin to impact not only the type of fish that were caught, but also where they were caught, as over fishing of freshwater fish and pollution caused by the increase in urban developments forced those who fished to look to the oceans rather than the rivers for their regular fish supplies. Add to this, the development of larger ships that could go into deeper waters and we can see the development of the trawler industry with which we are very familiar today.
By the 1500s, the Dutch already had trawlers that could remain at sea for weeks as they caught herring which was salted to preserve it and then return to shore. Similar developments were also taking place with the fishing fleets of the British and the Spanish.
And it’s with mention of the Spanish, or more specifically the Iberian Peninsula, which also includes, of course, Portugal, that we can answer the question I’m sure you’ve all been wanting to ask: “What the hell does this have to do with Fish and Chips, Simon?”
Well, patience my dear friends. I’m getting there. Because one of the main reasons for the creation of Fish & Chips is the re-conquest of the Kingdom of Portugal in 1249, and the fact that Portugal also played home to a large number of Sephardic Jews.
In the 13th Century, Sephardic Jews in Portugal were treated with a level of tolerance that was not often found elsewhere. This was in part a tradition that dates back to the Moorish occupation of the Iberian Peninsula, where Jews were granted a wide amount of religious freedom and even granted a place at court in the form of a representative called the Arraby Mor.
Unfortunately, this all began to change in the 15th Century. In 1496, Manuel the First, the King of Portugal was betrothed to Isabel of Spain, who made one of her marriage stipulations the expulsion of Jews from Portugal. Their religious practices had already been outlawed in Spain in 1492.
Manuel was not best pleased by this as he felt the Jews contributed a great deal both culturally and economically to Portugal. So, he came up with an alternative that they would be allowed to stay if they converted to Christianity. Some did so, becoming known as Conversos while others fled Portugal, heading to Amsterdam and other cities, from which they began to spread across Europe and even to the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam – becoming, the first Jews in the New World.
Others, proclaimed that they had converted to Christianity, while still practicing their Jewish faith in secret. These people were known as the Marrano or as they are now referred to in scholarly manuscripts, “Crypto-Jews.” They would worship in Christian churches but would silently mutter the following as they entered the building, and I quote:
“I enter this house, but I do not adore sticks and stones, but only the God of Israel.” End quote.
They were often treated with great suspicion by the Catholics and they were subject to much persecution, which became worse around the middle of the 14th Century as the church chose to use Jews as scapegoats for The Plague. It was an accusation which led to a public outcry and many, many more attacks on the Jews of Lisbon and consequently more departures from Portugal.
When they left Portugal, the Sephardic Jews took with them not only their religion, but also their culture, which of course, included a deep, deep love of food. Among the many dishes that formed part of Sephardic cuisine was one dish whose roots at the very heart of British Fish & Chips: Peshkado Frito, or in the Andalusian dialect, Pescaito Frito. A selection of fish deep fried in a light flour coating that is still a favorite in Spanish and Portuguese cuisine today. It would often be prepared by the Sephardic Jews on a Friday, so that it could be eaten cold on the next day, the Sabbath.
The Sephardic Jews brought this tradition with them to England when they arrived in London and over the next century or so developed a business of selling the fish on the streets of London from trays that were suspended around their neck with a leather band. The fish was eaten with bread or baked potatoes.
This dish became very popular with the British and references to the dish began appearing in literature and recipe books. Hannah Glasse, wrote about, and I quote, “The Jews’ way of preserving salmon and all sorts of fish,” end quote, in her 1781 book called, The Art of Cooking. And in Oliver Twist, we find one of Charles Dicken’s great villains, Fagin, living in Field Lane where there is a, quote, a “fried fish warehouse” and, after a visit to Britain, Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter about having sampled, and I quote, “Fried fish in the Jewish fashion.” End quote.
So that’s quite a story about how fish found its way into Great Britain, but it’s Fish and Chips so that’s only half the story. So join me after the break for a discussion on matters spudular.
[ADVERTISEMENT Re Culinary Medicine Podcast by Dr. Terry Simpson]
The potato had a long history before it ever found its way into a wrapping of day old newspaper.
And, potatoes are actually not that humble. They are the fourth most grown crop on earth, ranking only behind maize, rice and wheat in the amount grown. And, the world eats nearly 300 million tons of them every year. China is now the number 1 producer and consumer of potatoes. However, if you want to know who eats the highest amount of potatoes per head of population, you would have to look to the small nation of Belarus where each person consumes about 180 kilograms or 400 pounds of potatoes every year.
The word potato comes from the word, “Patata,” which was used by the Incas to describe the plant which was later given the Latin name, “Solanum Tuberosum,” which it is believed first originated in the Andes, land which now connects Chile, Bolivia and Peru. These grizzled tubers – Grizzled Tubers, I think they were one of my favorite punk bands – anyway -- were unlike the potatoes we are so familiar with today and we have evidence that they were cultivated for over 8,000 years. Once harvested, they were often frozen at night and then dried in the hot sun to produce a product called, “Chuño” -- which means wrinkled in the native Quecha dialect, the language of the Incas. This product could be stored for use later and was used by Inca warriors -- both as a source of healing and nutrition. One of the first references we have to them in this context is the writings of Jesuit missionary, Jose De Acosta from Spain, who wrote in his 1590 work, “The Nature and Morals of The Indies,” and I quote:
“[T]he Indians use another kind of root, which they call papas, or potatoes….. The Indians gather these potatoes and let them dry in the sun and then mash them to make what they call chuño, which lasts for many days in this form and takes the place of bread…. In short, these roots are the only bread of that land. . . .” End quote.
However, explorers had already begun to send potatoes back to their home countries before that, as part of a two way system that became known, and I quote, “The Columbian Exchange,” end quote, a term that was first coined by historian Alfred W. Crosby in his book of the same name in 1972. This exchange saw Europeans, at the beginning of the colonial period both importing what they had discovered in the New World -- such as potatoes, the subject of this podcast -- and exporting products to the new world to be raised for future profit. It also, of course, included a darker transmission of diseases, such as influenza and smallpox, which would later have terrifying consequences for the indigenous populations of the countries of the New World.
The first mentions of potatoes outside of Central and South America were shipping records to the Canary Islands, and references also in the archives of the Hospital De La Sangre in Seville, Spain that mention potatoes being purchased around 1570. From Spain, they began to find their way across the rest of Europe, first to the Netherlands – held then in a personal union with the Spanish Kingdom – and then to France.
The British would like to tell you that it was Sir Walter Raleigh who first brought potatoes to Great Britain. However, there are two reasons why I think this is more of a myth than a reality. The first of which being that none of his explorations took him anywhere near the area where potatoes were being grown. The second being that if you look at some of the references to potatoes in books of the time, particularly, a book called, “Adam in Eden, or Nature’s Paradise,” by 17th Century British botanist William Cole, he states, and I quote:
“The Potatoes, which we call Spanish, because they were first brought up to us out of Spain, grew originally in the Indies…” End quote.
Which gives evidence to the fact that potatoes were acknowledged, even at the time, to have come from Spain.
At first, potatoes in Europe were viewed by many with some suspicion. Particularly as they were part of the nightshade family, and their plants and leaves are poisonous. They were even believed to be a cause for leprosy, scrofula and syphilis, and they’re actually banned from being cultivated in parts of France, such as Burgundy.
Even as they became more popular, they were often still not held in great esteem, as is shown in this quote from Denis Diderot, an 18th Century French Philosopher, who referred to the potato in his book, Encyclopedie, and I quote:
“no matter how one cooks it is insipid and starchy . . . one blames and with reason, for its windiness, but what is a question of wind to the virile organs of the peasant and the worker?” End quote.
So, there you go. Windiness.
However, despite the wariness of some towards eating potatoes and the dislike of others when they did, the tuber did gain some very high-profile potato fanatics. King Frederick the Second of Prussia ---- or Frederick The Great, who lived from 1712 to 1786 -- was known to be a great supporter of the potato, believing that as they were grown beneath the ground, they would survive onslaught from marauding troops. There is even a popular story in Germany that when some of his subjects showed a resistance to eating and growing potatoes, he planted a field of potatoes on royal land and set guards around it so that people would believe it was of value. The guards were instructed to be not terribly vigilant at night allowing people to break in and steal the crop. Now that story may be more fun than fact, but if you doubt his success in promoting the potato, try eating a meal in Germany without Kartoffel and see what response you get. Oh, and just in case you needed extra proof, go and visit his grave in Potsdam, Germany and you will see that people still leave potatoes on top of it every day as a memorial to his love of the tuber.
And it was the Prussians who, in turn, helped promote the eating and growing of potatoes in France. Antoine Augustin Parmentier -- a name with which most cooks will be familiar because of the famed layered dish that has potatoes as its key ingredient -- and by the way, if you go to our website, I popped a recipe on there so you can give it a go yourself. Parmentier was a man on a mission to persuade the French that potatoes were worth adding to their diet. He had fallen for the potato’s charms under rather unfortunate circumstances when he was captured by the Prussians during the Seven Years War – which went from 1756 to 1763 – while in captivity, he was forced to survive on potatoes, a plant that even then, was still considered in France barely fit even as hog feed.
His love of potatoes came out later when he entered a competition at the Academie de Besancon -- where they were looking to find new ways of nutrition for working class people; his essay was about his joy of the nutritional value of potatoes, and in the most part down to his efforts, the potato was declared fit for human consumption in France around 1772. He was known for throwing lavish parties that included potatoes as the star ingredient, and also once while presenting the ill-fated Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, a potato flower bouquet, he was delighted when the queen picked a blossom from it and placed it in her hair, while the king did the same in his button hole. Other courtiers followed suit and soon potato blossoms were the decoration of choice in the court of Versailles.
Across in Britain, the potato had been viewed with similar distaste but had become more successful during times of food shortages. By 1795, the Board of Agriculture published a book with the rather winning title, “Hints Respecting the Culture and Use of Potatoes,” which had suggestions for preparing land, and for different types of potatoes suitable for using straight away and for storing.
Importantly for our story, the potato became particularly significant in Ireland. For small scale sharecroppers, potatoes proved a far more successful crop and of far more nutritional value than the cereals that they had previously been able to grow. Soon, potatoes became the major part of the diet in Ireland.
This was all well and good when the crops were successful, however, in 1845, the crops suddenly began to fail due to a fungus, that was later identified as phytophthora infestans, a fungus that is believed to have originated in North America and arrived in England on trading ships and then was transferred by winds to Ireland. The result of this unwelcome arrival was immediate and catastrophic, rotting both the roots and the plants of the potatoes in days and causing a level of hunger that that had never been seen before in Ireland.
The reaction of the British government to the famine in Ireland was pathetic to say the least, and the ongoing situation meant that over the following few years, the population of Ireland shrank from almost 8.4 million to around 6.6 million people. Over 1 million people perished and the rest began to emigrate to the United States, Australia and across to the northern parts of England. Even today, you will still see large communities of Irish families in towns such as Liverpool and Manchester.
Despite the fact that the failure of the potato crop had been their reason for reaching England, the love of eating potatoes remained, and by 1854, we have our first records of people selling pieces of fried potatoes to the public. Possibly the first was a Mrs. “Granny” Duce, who, according to W.H Chaloner’s book called, “Industry & Innovation,” and I quote:
“It is claimed that Mrs. Duce was the first person to fry chips for public sale and that may well be so.” End quote.
Mrs. Duce was a tripe seller in the West Riding of England – that’s the home of such cities as Leeds and Bradford -- and Chaloner goes on to say that the business of frying chips for sale soon became so popular that people began to produce cooking ranges for sale to these shops, so they could offer chipped potatoes along with their tripe.
So that begins to explain how chips began to be sold in the North of Great Britain, but how about the South? Well, we do know that they were on sale in London almost at the same time as we hear about “Granny” Duce selling them in the North. In fact, in his 1859 novel, “A Tale of Two Cities,” Charles Dickens write what is believed to be the very first reference to chips, and I quote:
“husky chips of potatoes, fried with reluctant drops of oil.” End quote.
For more information about how these “husky” chips arrived on the streets of London, we have to look abroad again, and it’s another story of religious intolerance. This time, we’re going to go back to France and Belgium and we’re going to look at the expulsion from these countries of Protestant Calvinists in the 1680s during a period that was known as the Dragonnades.
These were a series of policies that were decreed by King Louis XIV in 1681 that was set to prohibit the practicing of Protestant Christianity and to promote converion to Catholicism. Louis believed that having such a sizeable religious minority, even one that had to this point proved to be loyal, was still a potential threat to his monarchy. The Calvinists were also known as “Huguenots” and nearly 200,000 of them chose to leave France rather than live under these conditions, even though emigrating from France was illegal and those caught were often threatened with execution. Of those who left the country, some found their way to the Netherlands and to other parts of Europe, the United States, and colonies in Africa and nearly 100,000 of them found their way to Great Britain, where many chose to live in parts of London like Soho and Spitalsfield where there were already existing French communities and where Protestantism was seeing a revival after the recent coronation of William III, previously William of Orange, a staunchly Protestant king. Along with their religion, the Huguenots also brought with them their love of potatoes and in particular, fried potatoes.
As is so often the case, there are claims from both Belgium and France to have invented the chip. A Belgian journalist, Jo Gerard, claims that fried potatoes were first brought to the Spanish Netherlands in the 1680s and they became popular in the region of Namur, Andenne and Dinant -- in present day Belgium -- when fishermen would cut the fried potatoes into the shape of fish to eat at times when fishing was impossible due to frozen rivers.
The French also claim ownership over the history of the chip, and point towards a note from President Thomas Jefferson -- who we’ll remember spoke about and I quote, “fried fish in the Jewish fashion,” end quote, back in London -- who talked of eating, and I quote, “Pommes de terre frites a cru, en petite tranches,” end quote, or, in English, “potatoes deep fried while raw, in small cuttings,” end quote. He wrote about this in a manuscript that was in his own handwriting and is dated somewhere between 1801 and 1809. Now, it’s hard to know but the period from 1794 to 1815 was when Belgium was annexed by France, so I think it’s perfectly possible that a recipe for frying potatoes had been discovered and enjoyed by the French in Belgium and brought back to France. We will never really know.
However, while it would be impossible to be certain where chips originated, we do know that by the time Dickens wrote about them in his book, “A Tale of Two Cities,” they were already a staple street food in parts of London.
So, there we have it. That’s the story of how both fish and chips found their way in to Great Britain. But, I can hear everybody ask. Once they arrived here, how did they end up being served together. Well, once again, there are many claims to be the location of the first shop to start selling fish and chips together.
In London, the first examples of Fish & Chips being sold together comes in 1860 with the opening of a shop by a Jewish immigrant named Joseph Malins in the London area of Bow. However, another strong claim also comes from the town of Mossley, near Manchester in the north of England, where in 1863, a chipped potato shop run by one John Lee was already selling the winning combination.
As with the origin of the chip, it’s impossible to give a definitive answer to who came first, but what cannot be disputed is the rapid rise to success of the meal that was sold primarily to members of the working class. It was a nutritious and cheap meal that could be eaten on the go, particularly when sold wrapped in a copy of the previous days newspapers -- and it was a practice that was only prohibited back so far as the 1980s, when food handling laws in the UK underwent a huge revamp.
And, as I said earlier, it’s a dish that still supports over 10 a half thousand dedicated establishments in Great Britain, as well as being served in thousands of pubs and restaurants across the country. It’s also a dish that is arguably the most associated with Britain of any.
So the next time you try out a plate of my favorite meal, I hope, after listening today’s EAT MY GLOBE, you will look at it in a whole new way. A dish that was brought to you because of religious persecution and famine. A dish that was sampled by presidents and the greatest literary figures, that contains ingredients that were once thought to cause leprosy and syphilis, were banned from production in France, and a dish that was so important to British morale that the greatest Englishman of all time, Winston Churchill, refused to ration it even in the darkest days of World War II.
And, what better dish to be my favorite of all time, as those of you who know me know, that I like to think of myself as “British as Fish & Chips.”
SHOW OUTRO MUSIC
So, make sure to check out the website associated with this podcast at EatMyGlobe.com where we will be posting the transcripts from each episode, along with all the references and resources we used putting the episodes together, just in case you want to delve deeper into each subject. There is also a contact button, so please do let us know if you have any questions or if there are any subjects you would like us to cover.
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So thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, and we will speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE: Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Food.
The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions” and is created with the kind co-operation of the UCLA Department of History and its Public History Initiative Director, Karen Wilson, PhD. We would also like to thank Sybil Villanueva both for her help with the research and in the preparations of the transcripts.
Published: October 1, 2018
Last Updated: October 1, 2020
For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.