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Grace amid the grease

By Peter A. Lee / February 28, 2005



The fishermen on the east coast of England invented chips (French fries). They used to land their catch, then trundle it off to market for sale. This system was good for coastal residents, but, as the transport of the day was horse and cart, inland residents had to rely on fish being preserved in some way. Smoking worked for long-term storage; frying was a short-term alternative.

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The fish were fried in large, wood-fired outdoor vats, and regulation of the heat was difficult. The story goes that, to cool off the fat for the next batch of fish, chipped (cut-up) potatoes were dumped into the smoking fat. Initially, these chips were thrown away, having served their purpose - until someone found they were good to eat. So were born English fish and chips.

"'Ow 'jer like some chips, Peter?" my Uncle Eric asked. He had been hospitalized during the war and a couple of years later was still at home.

"Smashin'," I replied, knowing it was up to me to go get them.

"OK, 'ere's arf a crown. Fish 'n' six for me, six for you."

"Can't I have fish, too?"

"Nope, only got 'arf a crown. It's six pennyworth of chips or nothing." I snatched the silver coin and scuttled out the door. My world consisted of red-brick row houses with front doors that opened from the street onto the parlor, with the exception of the corner houses that might have a reception room. Our local fish 'n' chip shop was a converted corner house. Patrons of the "chippy" formed an orderly line to wait. If one were fortunate, a seat inside on the windowsill was available. If not, the only escape from the boredom was to read the newspaper one had to bring in which to wrap the meal. As any 7-year-old will tell you, newspapers are boring.

The interior of the shop dated from the early1930s, all blue and white Delft tile and nickel fittings. The smell of that sizzling fat combining with the fish and batter would set my tastebuds vibrating. Add to this the earthy aroma of freshly diced chips with acid overtones of vinegar, and you have a culinary paradise.

The batter-dipped fish was fried, drained, and stacked in a rack, ready to be served. Time was of the essence - customers began to fidget. More and more people crowded into the confined space, and my field of vision narrowed.

"Fish 'n' six three times," the man in front of me requested, ordering three servings of fish with six pennyworth of chips in each serving. "Got any scratchin's?" he added.

Scratchings, I thought ... that would be nice. I couldn't buy fish of my own, but I did have just enough for a bag of scratchings - the flakes of fried batter that fell off the fish as it cooked. Straining to try to see the counter got me nowhere. I was being pushed from behind; a grubby raincoat filled my view.

"Three fish 'n 'six 'n' scratchin's, mate. That'll be three 'n' eleven." I heard the clink of coins as they fell into his palm. "Ain't yer got the right change? All me tanners is gone. I can give it yer in coppers, if yer want. Anyone got some tanners to spare?" The other customers began looking in their pockets - anything to get the line moving before the fish cooled. Eventually the finances were sorted out, the raincoat left, and the counter was revealed to me.

"Fish 'n' six 'n' six please." I stood on tiptoe to push the newspaper over the marble slab. "Can I have some scratchin's as well, please?"

"Scratchin's?" the man at the counter repeated incredulously. "Did yer order it when yer come in? If yer di'n't order it when yer come in, yer can't 'ave none."

"But there's a bag there." I said, pointing at the white paper bag slowly turning transparent as it soaked up the hot fat. How could I have ordered anything? I hadn't been visible.

"That's for Mr. Norton." He nodded confirmation over the top of my head; a grunt from the direction of the door replied.

"But I was 'ere first." The sight of the paper bag and its mouthwatering contents gave me courage to speak.

"You're the Faulkner lad from Ratcliffe Street ain't yer?" His face, florid from the heat, lowered toward me. For an instant I thought he was being kind.

"Yes. Peter," I confided eagerly.

"Well, if yer argue wi' me, I'll be round to tell yer mam." He slammed the newspaper parcel on the counter and replaced my silver coin with two pennies.

"Can I 'ave salt 'n' vinegar, please?" My mother always insisted I remember my manners. That way, people wouldn't get angry with me.

"No, it's already wrapped," snapped the red face angrily.

"I can unwrap it for you, and I did say 'please.' "

"Giz it back 'ere!" he said at the same time as he snatched the parcel back from me. A blur of paper was followed by a flurry of salt and vinegar - and the parcel appeared back in my hand.

"Thank you," I said to the angry red face as it eased into a grin. "You won't tell me mam, will you?"

"Gimme back that twopence," he said. That stunned me. Was he demanding a bribe? Was that the cost of salt and vinegar? And did I have a choice? My fingers opened to reveal the two coins.

"That's for remembrin' yer manners." He swapped the pennies for the bag of scratchings.

"Thank you," I repeated, backing away in case he changed his mind. As I ran home, I decided my mother was right.

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