Last week’s column recalled the pleasure of chips eaten outdoors. Chips, French Fries or whatever you know them by are a really tasty, guilty pleasure but so much better when eaten out of a newspaper, English style.
As a kid growing up in England people eating chips out of newspaper, on the street was a common sight. Every village had at least one “chippy”, towns had numerous ones and they were all kept busy. The British chippy opened around 11.15 am and did a roaring trade until around 1.00pm, when the closed for the afternoon. Occasionally one would open over supper hour but mainly they didn’t open for evening business until 8.00 till around 11.00pm.
Very rarely during opening hours would there not be a line up of customers. At lunch time many people would take their purchase home and have their meal served on plates, round the dining table. The main offering was fish and chips but most chip shops also sold steamed meat puddings or meat pies and many people took a bowl so they could get their chips “wet”. This disgusting term referred to the juice from the pot full of mushy peas which many people wanted poured over their chips. To me this was gross as I liked my chips with their crispy edges. Many people also had scraps which was the floating excess batter from oil the fish was fried in. The resulting mess in the bowl would probably feed the whole family.
Chips in the evening were almost exclusively eaten out of newspaper as people walked home from various events. Something about the cold night air and fresh, hot chips smelling of malt vinegar is almost magical.
Invariable in small towns chip shops would be family owned. The man was usually in charge of the automatic potato peeler and the potato cutter. This used to be a steel contraption where the potato was inserted between the top and bottom of two bladed surfaces, a handle was then swiftly bought down and pushed the raw potato through the blades, into a waiting pail. I am sure that many of these men lost a finger end during their working life as this action was repeated with every single potato, probably hundreds each day. This was carried out near to the deep fryers and I used to watch in fascination as this operation was performed repeatedly.
The man would also mix the fish batter, keep the huge black pot of mushy peas simmering, and see to the steaming of meat puddings. The wife would nearly always do the cooking and serving. She took your order then served it up either wrapped or left open for immediate consumption. You would then get to put your own salt and vinegar on and off you went. Quite often hardly a word would be spoken between the two workers as they were constantly busy. The high counter would have the salt and vinegars placed along the surface and every few minutes a wet rag would be passed along to clean the surface.
From the age of fifteen onwards I was allowed to go to the evening pictures, as we called the movies, with girlfriends. No matter how far it was we always walked home with our chips, reliving the film and swooning over the male star. Most films in our small town were for general release and were very harmless with never a bad word.
A little later, when I was getting into my twenties, chip shops started offering curry sauce. This was a green concoction that was poured over your chips. I never had it, mainly because I was now married and we could not afford either the films or the chips. If it wasn’t home made we didn’t eat it.
Returning to holiday in Britain after seven years in Canada I noticed that any chip shops we visited now used pre-cut chips. Gone was the newspaper wrapping and a moulded cardboard dish was used to put the food in, probably much more hygienic than newsprint but it lacked the correct “feel”.
On subsequent trips to Britain I noticed that much has changed in the chip shop business. They are still as prolific but now they are mostly ran by immigrant families, usually East Indians and the food offered has much more variety. We passed a chip shop in what used to be our home town with the name of “The Bombay Chippery”, the mind boggles. Fish and chips are still on the menu but sausages are now battered and deep fried as is haggis, Scotch eggs and all sorts of other foods. Meat pies are dropped into the hot oil instead of the oven, I never had one as the thought makes me feel ill but they are popular. So many different things are now submerged into the same oil that I honestly do not fancy the chips any more.
As we age it is natural that things change but sometimes not always for the better.