This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, Fish & Chips: Uncovering the Forgotten Jewish and Belgian Origins of the Iconic British Dish, first released on May 9, 2023. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
LACKEY 2: London?
LACKEY 3: London?
AVI: Yes, London. Y’know. Fish, chips, cup o’tea. Bad food, worse weather, Mary fuckin’ Poppins. London!
NICOLA TWILLEY: That’s London, at least according to Cousin Avi, the New York jeweler slash mobster in Guy Ritchie’s horrible movie Snatch.
CYNTHIA GRABER: You’re not going to defend your home town?
TWILLEY: London needs no defense against the likes of Guy Ritchie. We rise above.
GRABER: But he’s right about one thing, you do most definitely have fish and chips.
TWILLEY: We even sometimes wash it down with a cup of tea. Although I prefer a beer.
GRABER: If you listeners haven’t figured it out yet, fish and chips is on the menu for this episode of Gastropod, though you’ll need to bring your own drinks. You are listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and and history, I’m Cynthia Graber—
TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. And this episode we’re exploring how fried fish and french fries met, got married, and somehow despite neither fried fish nor french fries originally coming from the UK, ended up becoming Britain’s national dish.
GRABER: Along the way we’ll also tell the story of cod, the iconic fish in fish and chips, that also happened to help fund and spur America’s independence movement. How did this burly bottom-feeder change the course of history, and why did it nearly disappear entirely?
TWILLEY: All that plus Chuck Berry. Gastropod is part of the Vox Media Podcast Network, in partnership with Eater.
BARTON SEAVER: Fish and chips is this perfectly greasy, crunchy, delicious to look at, Wonderfully aromatic dish that starts with a side of french fries. Brits call them chips, right? So there you go, America. Starts with french fries. We’re off to a good start, aren’t we? Yep. And then next to that is this piece of cod, traditionally cod. Wrapped into, sort of enrobed, veiled in this layer of crunchy, textured, voluminous breading. That has just, as I said, sort of the perfect amount of grease that just leaves your fingers glistening, but your mouth so happy.
GRABER: Barton Seaver is a chef and a self-proclaimed seafood evangelist, and he’s written quite a number of awesome cookbooks, including For Cod and Country. He’s making fish and chips sound pretty amazing. But it’s not a super common dish in the US.
TWILLEY: Whereas there is not a town in England without a chippy to its name. A chippy is, of course, where you buy fish and chips. Otherwise known as a chip shop or if you must, a fish and chip shop. British people just prefer shortening things.
GRABER: And they really like fish and chips. Panikos Panayi can’t even remember the first time he tried it.
PANAYI: No, but my parents do. [LAUGHS] Because they told me it was more or less the first solid food that I ate.
TWILLEY: Panikos is a professor of European history at DeMontfort University in Leicester and the author of Fish and Chips: A History. He grew up in North London.
PANAYI: There was a fish and chip shop nearby and apparently I used to tell my mother and signal that I wanted to go to the fish and chip shop. [LAUGHS]
TWILLEY: Fish and chips’ popularity with Panikos dates back before his conscious memory. And so too does its popularity with the British people.
GRABER: To figure out when fish and chips became such a huge thing in England, let’s focus first on the fried fish part of it. England is an island, and people along the coast in particular ate quite a bit of fish, but they don’t seem to have had much of a tradition of frying it.
TWILLEY: The people who were frying fish were Sephardic Jews.
PANAYI: Hannah Glasse, who writes quite a famous cookbook in the 18th century. And the phrase that’s used both by her and subsequent cookbook writers is fried fish in the Jewish style.
GRABER: The Jewish community in England has a bit of a complicated history. As we do in most places. We were kicked out all together from England in 1290, but we started to kind of sneak back in during the 1500s. Sephardic comes from the Hebrew word for Spanish, and Sephardic Jews were Jews who were kicked out of Portugal and Spain during the Spanish Inquisition. They moved all around North Africa and Southern Europe, and some went to England. By 1650 they were officially allowed back, and their numbers steadily increased.
TWILLEY: They also had a culinary tradition of frying things. Think about latkes and the fried jelly doughnuts called sufganiyot. And they also fried fish, especially on Fridays.
PANAYI: So the whole argument about why fried battered fish takes off is you can’t cook on Saturday.
GRABER: Saturday is Shabbat, or the sabbath in English, and observant Jews don’t cook on Shabbat starting from sundown on Friday night through saturday night, but they still have to eat.
PANAYI: So, the fish is fried and battered on the Friday, and then it’s preserved until the Saturday. And so you don’t do the cooking on the Saturday.
GRABER: That’s one of the reasons, the batter does seem to slightly preserve fish more than just cooking it. But probably the more likely reason they were frying fish in particular on Friday evenings was to not be singled out and maybe killed by their Catholic neighbors.
TWILLEY: Because Catholics were also eating fish on Fridays.
PANAYI: From the Roman Catholics’, Christian point of view, so you can’t eat meat on Fridays. But you can eat fish because it’s regarded as cold blooded. And so it doesn’t count as meat.
TWILLEY: So Sephardic Jews brought their fish frying tradition to London with them when they moved. Slash, fled for their lives. And they became known for selling it to Jews and non Jews alike. Thomas Jefferson apparently ate, quote, “fish in the Jewish fashion” when he visited London in 1786.
GRABER: In 1838, Dickens wrote about a fried-fish warehouse in a quote “dismal alley.” The scene is about the super nasty thief Fagin, who’s Jewish in the book, and it’s set in a seamy and squalid neighborhood filled with unsavory characters and fried-fish merchants. Dickens was a bit of an antisemite.
PANAYI: Another sort of very anti-Semitic trope that if that is around in the second half of the 19th century which is that if you smell fish, fried fish, that means that there’s a Jew in your presence.
TWILLEY: Anti-semitism aside, the stereotype wasn’t even true. Not all the vendors were Jewish, although they were all poor. Henry Mayhew—we’ve mentioned him on the show before, he chronicled London street vendors in the 1850s—and he counted between 250 and 350 fried fish sellers on London’s streets. They fried their fish in pans, either at home or out and about, and they sold their wares by going from pub to pub or setting up a stand at fairs or busy markets. You’d just buy a chunk of fried battered fish to snack on.
PANAYI: There’s no necessarily standard accompaniment. So you could purchase it with bread. Or you could purchase it with a baked potato.
GRABER: So by the mid- to late-1800s, fried fish had become a fairly popular dish and it was mostly eaten by poor people. If any wealthier Londoners happened to walk through the neighborhood and pick up a piece of Jewish-style fried fish, they were indulging in a guilty pleasure and kind of slumming it.
TWILLEY: There’s an anecdote about one of the most famous chefs in Britain at the time, Alexis Soyer, who would go from serving the rich and famous in white kid gloves, to grabbing some fried fish on the way home and quote, “eating it with the greatest relish as he walked along.”
GRABER: During that time, things were changing that made fried fish cheaper and more available. Railways were being built so it was easier to get fish inland faster, they could put it on ice to keep it fresher.
TWILLEY: There was about to be another big change too, in the availability of fish to fry. Originally, fish fryers used the cheapest possible fish—often stuff that fishmongers hadn’t managed to sell during the day before, and that fryers could sort of disguise underneath batter and lots of oil. Mayhew said that one of his sources said that a gin-drinking neighborhood is the best for selling fried fish, because quote, “people haven’t their smell so correct there.”
GRABER: But Barton said that what’s now considered THE traditional fish for fish and chips is cod, and in fact if you order fish and chips, you basically assume you’re getting cod unless you specifically choose something else. So how did cod take over from all those leftover fish of days past?
TWILLEY: To answer that, we need to take a step back from the story of fish and chips, and tell the story of cod.
SEAVER: Well, cod is sort of the benchmark of all fish. It is, as Mark Kurlansky and his great book describes it as sort of the, I guess, the benchmark from which all other fish deviate.
MARK KURLANSKY: They’re kind of a burly looking fish. They always have their mouths open. They swim with their mouth open, you know. [LAUGHS] So that anything that happens to come by, they can eat.
TWILLEY: That second voice, that is Mark Kurlansky himself. And as Barton pointed out, Mark did indeed write the book on cod. It’s called Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World.
GRABER: Cod hang out around the bottom of the ocean floor, they’re bottom feeders. And the ones we’re talking about, Atlantic cod, they can be found throughout the northern Atlantic ocean, from like North Carolina up the coast of North America and over to Europe.
TWILLEY: In Europe, going way back, people who lived near the sea would eat cod. And in particular the Vikings, who were big sailors—they fished for a lot of cod and ate a lot of cod. And gradually, as they fished their way through the North Sea and up toward Greenland and then across the Atlantic, they started hitting up that North American cod, too.
SEAVER: You know, exploiting the incredible bounty along these shores. Vikings and Norse were over here fishing for quite some time. And, that legacy is not much seen. Part of this is just that, you know, the ocean is so temporal. It washes away any mark of our presence. Whereas our presence on land endures to a far greater extent. And so we don’t have much history of this, but we do know that they were here.
GRABER: This was before the year 1000, hundreds of years before Christopher Columbus got here. A little bit later, around the turn of the millennium, the Basque, who lived around what’s now northern Spain and southern France, they also sailed far out to sea and they also happened upon these incredibly rich cod stocks.
KURLANSKY: Well, they were whalers. And the Basques just wiped out every whale they could find. So they kept going further and further away looking for whales. I mean, they, they really killed off the whale population in Basque waters and they headed north. That’s how whale travels. It travels from, you know, kind of Iberia across the Atlantic and up to Newfoundland and Labrador. And you know, when they got there, they found all this cod.
TWILLEY: The Basque did not put pictures of this exciting new cod hunting ground on Instagram.
SEAVER: Well, certainly not. I mean, just like great foragers never tell you where they find their morels. You know, there was not a lot of public display of their newfound wealth there.
KURLANSKY: They didn’t talk about where they had gone or where they were getting this stuff. Which is not surprising for anybody who’s ever been a commercial fisherman. So they were bringing this enormous amount of cod into the European market, but with no explanation of where it was coming from.
GRABER: The Basque were able to store and then sell cod extensively on the European market because they had something the Vikings didn’t.
KURLANSKY: What did the Vikings not have? They did not have salt. Because you know, northern people have this problem with salt because they can’t solar evaporate seawater. The weather’s just not right for it. And the Basques, they had their own salt works and they had Mediterranean places around them that had salt. They had no problem getting salt.
GRABER: Instead of salting cod, the Vikings just dried it.
KURLANSKY: And if you dry cod which is called stock fish—you can trade, it holds up, it’s fairly durable. And then you have to soak it. But it’s not nearly as durable as salt fish. And maybe this is a personal opinion, but I think it’s not nearly as good to eat. We’re, we’re going to hear from Scandinavians about this, but. [LAUGHS]
TWILLEY: Listen, it’s just more stock fish for you if you love it OK. No angry emails necessary.
GRABER: So, people have traditionally used salt to cure fish, they salted herring, they salted anchovies. But those are fatty fish.
SEAVER: What made cod so particularly unique and important was the fact that it cured so well. Because its fat is almost all stored in its liver. About 98% of its fat content is there. The flesh only has 2 to 3% fat content on average. And fats makes things go bad faster through rancidity. So that low fat content, high moisture content, and high protein content, meant you could salt it or just sun dry it, even wind dry it. And turn it into a tradable, you know, lasting durable commodity. And that, that’s what really created an economy out of cod rather than just sort of subsistence fishers that would catch very locally and sell very locally if selling at all. And it really turned it into this global commodity, really our first global food commodity.
TWILLEY: The Basque fishermen may have been a tight-lipped bunch, but they couldn’t keep this cod gold mine a secret for long.
KURLANSKY: The Portuguese got over there not long after the Basques. The Portuguese were there quite early. These huge fishing fleets called the White Fleet because the ships were all white. And, you know, to this day salt cod is very traditional in Portuguese food. But they were also selling it all, all over Europe.
GRABER: The British were also apparently fishing out these North American cod stocks even before Christopher Columbus showed up in the Caribbean in 1492. And then a Brit made a trip to Newfoundland in 1497—
KURLANSKY: John Cabot the English Explorer who actually wasn’t English, he was Italian. Giovanni Cabota. But he led the English to Newfoundland. Somebody on his ship reported back to England that they were just scooping cod up in baskets. And it kind of created a cod rush in England. Everybody started going over there to get cod after the Cabot people got back.
TWILLEY: This new generation of explorers did not behave at all like foragers trying to hide their secret mushroom patch.
SEAVER: The early, early European explorers sent over here, whether to find a new spice route or new land, et cetera. Described these waters as so teeming with fish as to be able to walk upon their backs. Which is, you know, a little bit over the top. You know, those were entrepreneurs. Those guys were entrepreneurs themselves and you know, they wanted to get more funding for more voyages. And so the more fantastic they could make it seem the better. But the truth of the matter is actually kind of, close to what their hyperbole was saying.
GRABER: Mark says that there was so much cod, and Europeans were catching and drying and salting so much of it, that by the mid-1500s, 60 percent of all fish eaten in Europe was cod. And it would stay that way for the next two hundred years.
KURLANSKY: It was so plentiful. It became, you know, THE fish.
TWILLEY: All this cod was being eaten in the form of salt cod. And it really was a mainstay, thanks in part to God. Or at least, the Catholic Church.
SEAVER: The Catholic church in years past had 150 different fast days in its calendar. And those were the days when you were to abstain from meat. And thus, salt cod filled that role to a very large extent.
GRABER: Apparently, on these non-meat days, Catholics also aren’t supposed to have sex. So Mark says it’s kind of odd that in multiple languages, words connected to cod became also connected to all sorts of things below the belt.
KURLANSKY: Even today, the French slang word for a prostitute is a morue, which is the French word for cod. And those huge odd purses that Tudors, you know, like Henry the Eighth wore at their crotch was called the cod piece. And—and salt cod is, in the English speaking Caribbean is, is slang for women.
TWILLEY: Of course, the Puritans weren’t into all of this kind of thing, but they were into money. And eventually, independence. The story of how cod made America, after the break.
GRABER: The Puritans, who were kind of religious zealots—thanks, England, for sending over your best—they got to what’s now New England in 1630. And there were lots and lots of cod, but the Puritans pretty much ignored all that fish.
KURLANSKY: As we learned in school, they starved. There they were, their first terrible winters, starving. And you think, why are they starving with all that codfish around? And the reason was that they didn’t know how to fish. They also didn’t know how to farm. They didn’t know how to do anything. They were just religious nuts. And they realized their mistake and they sent over for fishing and farming experts. And, and fishing experts came over and told them how to fish for cod.
TWILLEY: And then they quickly realized that God was undoubtedly great but it was cod that was going to be their ticket to the big time.
SEAVER: And those people who looked at the ocean said, oh my. Goldmine. Quite literally, even if you look at the value of it. Because total value of cod bought in North America, outstrips the value of all of the gold mined in South America. Over time. And so you begin to see this incredible growth of wealth in the colonies here. And you begin to see the Cabots, the Lowells, the Lodge families, some of these early New England dynastic families. Whose wealth really came from, in part, to the cod trade.
KURLANSKY: It was the basis of the economy for quite a few years. Until the industrial revolution. And then it became an industrial powerhouse and things like that. But up until then, cod was the basis of the New England economy.
GRABER: By the mid 1700s, the wealth built up from cod allowed Americans to think pretty seriously about cutting the English out of the loop.
SEAVER: The fishery and that economy was so big that it forced the British to allow American colonists to bypass British merchants. In order to sell directly into Mediterranean, into Basque, into Spanish markets, et cetera. And so all of a sudden, the British were not really in control or didn’t have, you know, their foot on the growth of that industry.
KURLANSKY: And New Englanders were having this big trade with, with cod. And they didn’t need the British, the colonial system was inhibiting their trade prowess. And that’s one of the origins of American independence.
TWILLEY: Forget the tea, it’s all about the fish.
GRABER: But if the cod stocks are so plentiful all the way up through Newfoundland, why weren’t the Canadians getting super rich and agitating for independence, too?
KURLANSKY: And the reason is that New England has a year-round fishery. And in Newfoundland and Labrador you can’t fish in the winter time. It just freezes over. So it’s just a seasonal thing. Whereas in New England, it’s all year round.
TWILLEY: Cod was making New Englanders wealthy but Newfoundlanders not so much. But while cod was building American wealth and even independence, those fortunes were also deeply entwined with the slave trade.
SEAVER: Unfortunately, the cod trade also connected us into a really vicious cycle, that the boats full of cod would go from here to the Mediterranean, empty. They would then head to the coast of Africa to pick up slaves. Down to the Caribbean to drop off slaves, pick up sugar cane to bring back to New England to make rum. And so, there’s a really nasty, vicious, criminal and inhumane—to put it as mildly as I can—history that’s also associated with this, with this economic growth.
GRABER: And there’s another connection to the slave trade. Originally, enslaved Africans were fed salted beef from England, but salt cod was cheaper. So any salt cod that was bad quality, the fish had split, it was too salty or not salty enough, it had been handled badly, that all went to the Caribbean. And salt cod is still a big part of Caribbean cuisine today.
TWILLEY: Salt cod is not typically what you use to make fish and chips. So the salt cod boom of 1600s and 1700s didn’t really contribute to the growth of the fried fish trade in London in the 1800s. But by the mid-1800s, like we said, there were railways and ice, and eventually even my number one most favorite thing, refrigeration. And all of that meant that fresh cod was suddenly as plentiful as salt cod had been.
GRABER: And so something that Jews had been selling in London to both Jews and nonJews but kind of on a small scale suddenly was primed to get big and help feed the British working class. But how did fried fish—fried cod at this point—how did it meet the chip?
TWILLEY: The chip! Or French fry as it is known in the US. It too has a story, which we actually told in an entire episode called Super Fry. Turns out, the chip is a surprisingly recent invention, and a surprisingly recent immigrant to the UK.
PANAYI: The evidence I could find for chips was from recipe books. And actually the phrase they often use was French fries. And so my theory, which I’ve never been able to prove, was that somehow French or, and or Belgian immigrants probably started selling it in the streets in the 1860s and the 1870s. But I’ve never found evidence of that.
GRABER: Potatoes had become particularly popular in England in the early 1800s because there had been some grain harvest failures and so bread prices had gone up. It became a staple in northwest England first, and kind of expanded throughout the rest of the island.
TWILLEY: From what evidence Panikos can find, it seems as though fried fish was a big London street food, and fried potatoes in chip form were popular in the northern cities. And so, somehow the two met and maybe dated casually, but didn’t settle down into their forever partnership for a while.
PANAYI: The marriage of fish and chips, if you like, takes place sometime in from about, well, by the beginning of the 20th century fish and chips is: you eat chips with fish. But I mean, it’s a gradual process until this sort of marriage, if you like, takes place. So it does seem to evolve.
GRABER: The first fish and chip brick and mortar shop seems to have been opened in the 1860s, but then by the 1900s, that was it: you ate your fish with chips and you could get that at the neighborhood chippy. And the people who were buying that fish and chips had changed—it wasn’t the poorest of the poor, but rather the working class.
TWILLEY: And it’s actually hard to exaggerate how much fish and chips was being eaten by the working classes in Britain at this point. For some families it was what was for dinner a couple or even three nights a week. So, why was it so popular?
PANAYI: Well, I suppose there’s a taste aspect. I mean, there’s a culinary aspect to it. Protein marries carbohydrate. But I mean, one of the main reasons I would suggest is, it’s cheap food for the working classes. So you buy it on your way home if you’re a working class family, and the wife’s working, and you don’t want to do the cooking.
GRABER: In fact, the National Federation of Fish Fryers says fish and chips is the first takeaway food. Now to be fair, people have been buying street food for thousands of years. So the question is when does street food become takeaway that you eat at home, but I’ll buy their argument that this is one of the early modern versions of it. Panikos and his family took it home every week.
PANAYI: Well, that’s what we ate on Friday. I mean, almost religiously actually.
TWILLEY: This was and is still super common in England today—fish and chips on a Friday night. Fried fish may have started as a Friday thing because of the Sephardic Jews, and caught on with their Christian neighbors as a fish on fast days thing. Then in the early 1900s, for working class families, Friday was payday. But these days, it’s more about the fact that it’s the end of the week, and you want a treat that soaks up booze and that you don’t have to cook.
GRABER: It clearly was a Friday thing in Ireland in the 90s, according to one of my favorite TV shows, Derry Girls. Here the family is arguing over their regular Friday order.
DAD: Okay, that’s one portion of redfish. One portion of whitefish, two bags of chips.
GRANDFATHER: No, no, no. Two bags won’t be enough.
DAD: Two’s plenty, John.
GRANDFATHER: Four. Four should cover it.
DAD: Three, then, we’ll compromise.
GRANDFATHER: I’ll compromise you through that window.
MUM: That’s enough, da.
GRANDFATHER: The tight bastard’s trying to starve us all, Mary.
DAD: Okay. Four bags of chips then.
TWILLEY: To be honest, I’m mostly in it for the chips too. And the nostalgia—at this point fish and chips is just a national treasure. But that’s actually kind of weird because as we’ve just seen, fish and chips is a really recent invention.
GRABER: We have the story of how a food fried by Sephardic Jews and Belgians or maybe French using ingredients from the New World became iconically British, after the break.
TWILLEY: By the 1900s, fish and chips was working class sustenance and British working people ate a lot of it.
GRABER: Part of that was because of the very fish we’ve been talking about. In the 1920s, new powerful boats came on line that could scoop up more and more cod, so more and more made its way to England. There was so much of this beautiful, white, flaky fish, and it wasn’t kind of all the end-of-the-day leftovers that fryers had been using. So it became a dish for the middle class, too.
TWILLEY: By the 1930s, cod and chips wasn’t just for sale at the fish and chip shop, it was on the menu everywhere—work canteens, cafeterias, boarding houses and hotels, tea rooms, you name it. During the Second World War, fish and chips was one of the only foods that wasn’t rationed—because the government thought it was essential to national morale.
VOICEOVER: Once upon a time it was roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. Now it’s fish and chips. Britain’s new national dish. And here’s the latest thing in delivery service: the mobile fish and chip shop.
GRABER: This is a wartime movie made by the British government to show how fish and chips was being delivered to land girls. That’s what the government called the women who were working the land when the boys were off at war.
VOICEOVER: Hard work on the land gives any girl a hearty appetite. And a nice bit of cod served up on the spot for the kids is another worry off mother’s mind. Packing up and getting on the road again is only the work of a second. Other hungry mouths are waiting, waiting to come and get it.
TWILLEY: Fish and chips may have won us the war, with some help from the land girls, but after the war, it faced a battle of its own. For the first time it was going up against some exciting new takeaway options.
PANAYI: When Chinese and Indian restaurants arrive. Chinese restaurants in the late 1940s up to 1960s, and the Indian restaurants from the sixties onwards—then the National Federation of Fish Fryers decides well, hey, if all these products are selling themselves on an ethnic sort of national basis, then we should start selling ourselves as British. And so there’s an advertising campaign from the 1960s, seventies, eighties, which the National Federation of Fish Fryers, you know, using Union Jacks and so on to, to emphasize the British-ness of fish and chips.
GRABER: The Federation was a little nervous about this competition, so they really doubled down on branding fish and chips as the truly British choice for dinner. And it worked—so much so that Nicky Perry in New York was basically forced to open a chip shop a couple of decades ago.
NICKY PERRY: Because I own the restaurant next door. Tea and Sympathy. British. A long time. And it’s tiny, it’s got an open kitchen, it doesn’t have gas. And a, lots of people would ask me about fish and chips, which we couldn’t do in there. So I came home one day and I said to my husband: everyone keeps asking me about fish and chips. It’s driving me insane. Should we open a fish and chip shop? He said, yeah, why not? So I said what should we call it? And he, it was ten seconds, he goes, A Salt and Battery. I went, that’s it. We’re doing it. We, and we did. So that’s that. There you go.
TWILLEY: Nicky is of course British, she’s a Nicola like me. And we went to visit her chippy, A Salt and Battery in New York, to get a taste of the real thing.
[BACKGROUND CHATTER, BANGING]
GRABER: Does it smell familiar to you?
TWILLEY: Yeah! [LAUGHS] It smells like a chippy.
GRABER: That is not a, I don’t even know what that means.
TWILLEY: Deep fat frying and malt vinegar in a delicious nose tickling fug.
GRABER: I don’t actually know what a fug is either.
TWILLEY: The British have their mysteries. A fug is the warm slightly stuffy atmosphere you get in a pub or a small kitchen filled with cooking smells. I’m here all day.
GRABER: The menu in this fug-filled chip shop is pretty straightforward. They do have a bunch of different seafood that they fry there, but you know what you’re getting when you walk in the door.
PERRY: It’s basically just fish and chips.
TWILLEY: The fish is battered, of course, although Nicky was not about to tell us what she puts in the batter.
PERRY: I’m not giving you no secrets!
GRABER: The chips are British style, not American style, they’re bigger and fatter.
PERRY: So what we did was we brought over a proper English chipper. So that our chips are cut to the same size as they are in England. And some Americans were a bit confused by the chips. But they’re not supposed to be crusty, crunchy French fries. They’re not supposed to do that, be that. So anyway, they get what they’re given in here.
TWILLEY: And then there’s the sides.
PERRY: Curry sauce. I mean, I eat, like, baked beans with my chips, but that’s not so popular. Mushy peas, obviously, which we make here.
TWILLEY: Mushy peas for those of you who have avoided this delicacy are basically peas that are allowed to get old and starchy and then dried and then boiled and mashed up. It’s kind of like a British daal, but not actually as good.
GRABER: And then there’s what you put on the fish and chips.
TWILLEY: Which really speaking as a purist here should only be malt vinegar. But Nicky allows people to follow their own bliss.
PERRY: Some people put ketchup. Yuck! Ketchup on your chips, I can see. It traditionally is salts and vinegar, but not everybody does that either. We make our own tartar sauce here, which is amazing. So a lot of people will do tartar sauce. We don’t serve lemons unless people ask us. Because I don’t think lemon is supposed to go with fish and chips. I really don’t.
TWILLEY: I mean, you have to draw the line somewhere.
GRABER: Nicky and her husband have at times tried to expand their menu, but nobody was having it. Literally.
PERRY: Over the years we’ve tried to do bouillabaisse, or non fried items. Or fried vegetable baskets, and people don’t come here for that. They come here for fish and chips. So we’ve kept it really, specific and traditional.
TWILLEY: And so did we. We ordered two portions of fish and chips, one haddock and one whiting.
[BIN OPENING, METALLIC SCRAPING]
GRABER: The folks behind the counter fried up our order and then brought it out to us at the window counter.
GRABER: They’re beautiful.
MAN: Okay, this one here is the whiting. And that’s the haddock over there.
GRABER: Perfect. Perfect. So that’s the whiting and that’s the haddock. And they’re evenly golden brown.
TWILLEY: Yeah. They really are. This is kind of a picture perfect. If it was in newspaper, it would be like, let’s just put this in the ad for Visit Great Britain.
TWILLEY: Fish and chips is traditionally served wrapped in newspaper, a slang term for a newspaper in the UK is a fishwrapper. But Nicky told us it’s hard to get hold of newsprint these days. RIP.
GRABER: Obviously fish and chips is for eating, not just for gazing upon, so that’s what we did next.
TWILLEY: It’s thick, but not claggy. I like it. We need napkins.
GRABER: The tartar sauce is really good too.
TWILLEY: I’m going to have that.
GRABER: I did particularly like their tartar sauce, and Nicky was into the chips.
TWILLEY: That’s a real chip. And that’s the kind of chip you have in a chip butty. And you just, your day is made. Especially if you’re hungover. It’s so good.
TWILLEY: All I needed was a soft fluffy bap to put my chips in and I would have been in heaven. Again, some translation: A chip butty is a French fry sandwich, and a bap is a bread roll.
GRABER: I’m learning so much this episode.
TWILLEY: The things they don’t teach you in school over here. Frankly, I’m shocked. And while we’re on the subject of chips, Cynthia there’s no need to be modest, you loved them too.
GRABER: Yeah, they’re a little… they have a little bit of limp to them, but like in a good way.
TWILLEY: I know. When you describe it as like, a little bit floppy and a little bit softer, it doesn’t sound good, but it is good.
GRABER: As you listeners might have noticed, Nicky and I didn’t eat any cod, because while they did have it on the menu, cod isn’t something I eat frequently, because there aren’t a lot of cod around anymore.
TWILLEY: Fish and chips *was* synonymous with cod and chips, and now it’s not, and that’s because we ate it all. Which initially seemed impossible.
KURLANSKY: There was this mistaken belief that you could not possibly overfish cod because cod produces an enormous quantity of eggs. Fish, the bigger they are, the more eggs they produce, which is why it’s important not to kill them off when they’re too young. And a good sized cod will release millions of eggs. And so, how could this animal that produces millions of eggs possibly ever be wiped out?
TWILLEY: From the first Viking and Basque fishermen to Boston’s cod aristocracy, for centuries no Europeans worried about New England’s waters running out of cod.
SEAVER: You know, if you step off the coast of Cape Cod with a net, it’s, you couldn’t help but catch a cod. There was just such bounty and such space in America, and the idea of manifest destiny came into this and you know. Just, no. There, there wasn’t really much concern about overfishing.
KURLANSKY: What they didn’t understand—Darwin explained this, but I’m not sure that anybody in New England was listening. That the more offspring an animal produces, it’s a reflection on the chances of survival. So a codfish produces a million eggs in the hopes that two will survive.
GRABER: And so if you keep fishing out all the big fish you can, you have no fish left to reproduce, not enough babies make it to adulthood. We ended up pretty thoughtlessly just wiping out the cod. We’ve told this story before in our episode Counting Fish, you should go check it out. We fished cod hard for hundreds of years, and then fishing got industrialized, and things got worse.
KURLANSKY: I mean, start with engine powered boats. And dragging nets. What we call in New England a bottom dragger can just take everything that’s down there and scoop it up. Just, enormously destructive form of fishing.
TWILLEY: Long story short, by the time we were done scooping all the cod out of the water with these huge trawlers, nine-tenths of the codfish population in the Gulf of Maine was gone.
GRABER: There is cod fishing today. Frankly I’m not convinced that most of it is a good idea. You’ll find cod from Iceland, but that comes from big trawlers. There are regulations that are supposed to protect the cod, and I will occasionally buy Atlantic cod at a restaurant when it comes from a fisher who just went out on a day boat that doesn’t use those big destructive trawler nets. Barton says he does too, that’s a more sustainable option for cod.
SEAVER: They are technically overfished, meaning they are not at their historical levels where they should be. But overfishing, meaning the active process of fishing too many, is not happening. And these are fishermen that are following the letter of the law following what the best available science says that we should be, could be doing in the ocean.
GRABER: They are, and they don’t seem to be making things worse, and some cod stocks are improving. But today, other fish have moved into cod feeding groups, and also the water is warming because of climate change.
SEAVER: So do I think they’re coming back? I—yes. But never to the, never to the degree that they once were.
TWILLEY: And honestly, the same is true of fish and chips. For different reasons, of course. But its heyday as the takeaway of choice in Britain is over. Nowadays people can choose between chicken and chips, or burger and chips, or kebabs, or a curry, or a pizza, or any number of exciting newer options that have emerged as the UK has become more multicultural.
GRABER: And although for decades cod had been THE fish of fish and chips, its disappearance didn’t really have any effect on sales. Although some of the fish fryers were worried.
KURLANSKY: [LAUGHS] I for some reason, remember this woman in Devon who had a chip shop. And she was going on about the, the cod were getting smaller, which is what happens when, when a species is under pressure. So the cod were getting smaller and she said, she just kept saying, you can’t get any more chunky pieces. You can’t have a good fish and chips unless you have chunky pieces. And the chunky pieces are all gone.
TWILLEY: Barton agrees that the chunkiness of cod is important if you want to achieve fish and chip nirvana.
SEAVER: In years past, cod were far bigger than they tend to be today. Average catch size are now relatively small. But they still have this very girthsome filet that just has this wonderful volume to it. And so you can get quite a lot of fish-to-coating ratio, which is a great thing. And because it’s so thick, typically, you know, especially up towards the—the head. What you can do is you can cook it for a fairly long time in the fryer, so you can really ensure that you get that coating crisp.
GRABER: That said, you don’t need cod for fish and chips, Barton says there are other good options today.
SEAVER: Like, hake is this supremely flaky, delicate, incredibly sweet fish. That you couldn’t grill it because it’s just too flaky. But once you put it in that batter, ooh, you’ve got that protective sort of structural architecture around it. To hold it together. Man. That to me is the very best fish. But most commonly used now, these days, is dogfish.
TWILLEY: So fish and chip fans need not despair about the loss of cod chunky bits. But what if you are lucky enough to get a hold of some sustainably-caught cod. Is fish and chips the best way to enjoy cod?
SEAVER: No, no. [LAUGHS] I think deep frying anything is, except for a chicken wing, maybe. It diminishes the overall charm and charisma I think of, of what could be captured through, I think, more delicate culinary approach. So, cod to me is at its apex when poached. And my favorite way to do it is to poach it very, very gently in an acidulated broth with lots of fresh herbs in there. Even some, some hard herbs like rosemary, thyme, coriander seeds, maybe even a couple of cloves thrown in there for that warming rich, inviting spice that we love. A glug of white wine to add that acidity. Some bay leaves. Poach it very low, slow, gentle in that. And then, once it’s about done, turn the heat off and let it cool down in that liquid. Cool it down overnight. The next day, take the cod out, flake it beautifully, and just gently rewarm it in just a few tablespoons of that cooking broth that you’ve reduced down. You’ve added a pat of butter to it and some chopped fresh parsley. I, mmm, yep, yep, yep, yep, yep, yep, yep.
GRABER: Yep. Definitely.
TWILLEY: And that’s a yep from me too. I do love a soggy chip but the fried fish has never been the main attraction for me.
GRABER: And now here’s a big reveal from me—not just that I would far rather eat Barton’s cod dish, which sounds absolutely delicious—but when it’s not for professional reasons, I never order fish and chips. I’m going to let James on Derry Girls speak for me—he’s the British cousin who’s come to live with this character Michelle. They’re in the chippy, and the owner wants to know what James will be eating.
FIONNULA: What about the wee Lime, eh?
MICHELLE: Well, dicko?
JAMES: I’m okay. Thanks. I don’t really want anything.
ERIN: You don’t want anything?
MICHELLE: How could you not want anything? It’s lovely.
JAMES: I just don’t really fancy it. That’s all.
ORLA: I don’t understand.
CLARE: Are you not feeling well, James?
JAMES: I don’t like it! Okay? It’s too greasy. It’s much, much too greasy. Even the smell of it makes me feel physically sick.
MICHELLE: I’m sorry that you had to hear that, Fionnula.
GRABER: Michelle and everyone else—I’m sorry. It’s boring tasting, it’s really greasy, I feel sick after I eat it. No. Again, listeners, please don’t write in.
TWILLEY: Can’t beat a proper British chip with vinegar though! And I will also not be taking questions on this.
GRABER: And I’m clearly not the only one who thinks fish and chips is a bad idea. The Brits tried to export it when they deliberately started to export football, or as some call it, soccer. This was back in the 20s and 30s. Soccer caught on nearly everywhere in the world, it’s an obsession. Fish and chips is not.
TWILLEY: The only places that share the British love of fish and chips that I know of are Australia and New Zealand. Canada’s department of fisheries even ran an initiative to encourage the development of a nationwide fish and chip trade, based on what was apparently a small foothold in Montreal. But no. Canadians didn’t want fish and chips either.
GRABER: But Chuck Berry did, for reasons unknown. He wrote an entire song called Fish and Chips, and let us know if you know what this song is about. Because maybe we’re super innocent. I mean yes the song is about sex, and maybe the fish and chips reference goes back to some of those rather lewd meanings of cod, but we couldn’t figure it out.
CHUCK BERRY: Fish and chips…a little cork and you, oh babe. Honey drips… two more to go, oh babe…
TWILLEY: So random. And with that, we must say: thank you this episode to Nicky Perry at A Salt and Battery in Manhattan, to Barton Seaver, whose cookbooks we have links to. To Mark Kurlansky, author of Cod, and of course Panikos Panayi.
GRABER: Thanks as always to our fantastic producer Claudia Geib, and to James of the Derry Girls for saving me from having to explain quite so forcefully how I feel about fish and chips.
TWILLEY: We’ll be back in a couple of weeks with a brand new episode for you all. ‘Til then!