A kingdom united by the deep fryer

J. Alfred Prufrock, that self-effacing nonhero - that ordinary man - of T.S. Eliot's poem, may have "measured out his life with coffee spoons," but mine has been measured out with what the Scots rather cozily call "fish suppers" or the English (who invented them) call "fish and chips."

Stretches of a life can be punctuated by surprisingly small, even ordinary moments. Why not fish-and-chip moments? Toothsome white fish in crispy, delectable batter and chunky rectangular fingers of potato, all deep-fried for exactly the right amount of time. The rarity of the commonplace.

Fish and chips recall for me times when I was a student in Cambridge; a teacher in Hertfordshire; on holiday at the seaside. My decade in Yorkshire, painting and writing, when I might dine in the remote village of Dent, high in the Dales, or low down in Settle, the busy town five miles' drive from the farmhouse in my rattling Ford Transit.

Today in Glasgow, we are spoiled for choices of fish-and-chip shops. There must be dozens in easy striking distance, though not all at the peak when it comes to quality. Lately, we have been carrying out an individualized survey to discover which is best. Mr V's at the foot of Battlefield Road is running current favorite.

But good as some fish-and-chippy experiences continue to be - the finest often served up in the most grotty-looking establishments - nothing rivals the fish and chips of my early childhood.

The fish-and-chip shop some way up Park Road featured large. My older brother, whose skill at badgering the grown-ups was of notable prowess, would campaign persistently for threepenny-worth of chips. Dad would generally give in gracefully and provide the cash.

There was one proviso: We must save some of the chips for the dog. Our golden retriever, himself the color of perfectly fried fish and chips, took a pleasure in this British staple that was wind-millingly commensurate with our own. We would finish our salty chips, piping in their newspaper wrapping, before we rolled up our drive and ran up the front steps - to be welcomed by dog, expectant and ecstatic.

I love the casual nature of this food. It is "fast" - the first fast food in Britain, well before hamburgers, curries, kebabs, and pizzas invaded. And it has the advantage of being available absolutely everywhere in Britain. Almost instantly sustaining, it remains comparatively cheap, and above all, it is local. There's not a city side street that doesn't have a fish-and-chip shop on or near it. This is everyman food: "Frying tonight" knows no rural/urban divide. It is food for farm helps and stockbrokers, for those on the dole, and for billionaires.

"Fish and chips" can be encountered in other countries. But national pride forces me to claim that nobody but the British understands fish and chips. It's the potato half of the marriage that isn't grasped. It won't really do if it is refined into "French Fries." The bite should go through the gently crisped outer layer, then discover a measure of actual potato inside - succulent, hot, and fresh. If the whole thing has been made filamental and dry, it ain't real chips, no how.

Fish and chips doesn't standardize easily, though one franchise has done well. But I revert to the little man. Wherever you are on this island, the feeling is that this is where fish and chips originated. In Yorkshire, I had no doubt it was a Yorkshire invention. Settling in Glasgow, I was assured by the natives that the Scots invented it. Apparently, Lancashire holds that distinction. Every place, anyway, makes them its own - and every fryer produces a slightly different result. That's as it should be, and is partly why I associate them so strongly with "home."

Categorically, fish and chips should never, ever be eaten on a plate. Nor should knives and forks be involved. There should be a correct level of inconvenience about the experience. This is not polite, napkinny, table-clothy stuff. This is grease-on-the-steering-wheel, lick-your-fingers-for-half-an-hour, how-on-earth-do-I-dispose-of-the-wrappings stuff.

Moons and moons ago, I was staying with a couple of close friends. One evening we went out and ended up with fish and chips. We were ravenous, and the meal, steaming the car windows, was going down a treat. It was what the husband then said that I have not forgotten.

"This is what I love," he said. "The family all out together eating fish and chips!" He thought for a moment, realizing that by conventional definitions we did not constitute a family at all. I was on my own. We are friends - chosen - not foisted relatives.

"Well, you know what I mean," he added with a chuckle. I did know.

The great British melting pot is full of tasty victuals

Eating habits - and opportunities - change. For communities and classes as well as individuals. In my childhood, our British middle-class family had two full meals a day, plus a good British breakfast. Now we have one proper evening meal. Soup and cheese midday. A light breakfast. It's plenty.

In his 1981 book "The People's England," historian Alan Ereira describes his Russian Jewish aunt, Rachel, emigrating to England in 1905. An illiterate needlewoman, she lived in London's East End, and worked for "next to nothing." She married another migrant, a skilled worker, but their income was still less than a quarter of the poverty-line wage. "They lived on herrings and potatoes."

Ironically, immigrant cuisines have enriched British eating habits in the last 200 years. This change is explored by an exhibition (until Dec. 5) at the People's History Museum, Manchester, "From Butties to Bhajis - working people's food in Great Britain."

A "butty" is a sandwich. If it were a "jam butty," that probably meant a more expensive filler was out of the question. An onion bhaji is typical of Indian food. Today's multiculturalism has brought a varied take-out or eat-out diet for working people. Not just fish and chips, now, but Indian, Jewish, Italian, Turkish, Afro-Caribbean, even African foods - and, of course, North American of the fried chicken and hamburger sort - are everywhere. Fish and chips still do well, though.

In the early 1900s (when Rachel arrived from Russia), there were some 30,000 fish-and-chip shops in Britain. Now there are 8,500 - still eight times more than there are McDonald's.

Readymade meals and junk food foster eating habits today that differ markedly from food sold on market stalls at one time - tripe, for example, and oysters. Yes, oysters were once an ingredient in Lancashire hot-pot, an inexpensive stew that now contains meat.

Food levels classes. Today, all income brackets eat carry-out Indian or Italian dishes - and fish and chips. Though considered typically British, fish and chips is often, like ice cream, produced by Italians.

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