~~~2001~~~ I knew what was going through my brother’s mind as we crossed the threshold of the stylish entrance to the ‘Livebait’ Restaurant and Bar on Northside, Wandsworth Common SW 18. We both had our separate business matters to attend to in South London and had arranged to meet up at Clapham Junction Mainline Station for a late fish and chip lunch at Livebait, before parting company, to make our long train journeys home: him to return to Suffolk, and me back to Dorset. We didn’t say anything at first as we sat comfortably in the lively eating area, with people all around us drinking, eating, chatting, cracking crabs, pulling the heads off prawns, intimately sharing large seafood platters. With two large glasses of chilled Chablis in front of us to relax with, I spoke first, “ I know what’s going through your mind!” “It is” he replied. ~~~1920~~~ He grew up with the sound of the cash register ringing in his ears. Our Dad that is. Our Russian immigrant grand-parents had a fish and chip shop in Greenwich and he was born in the upstairs flat. Right from his birth our Gran would bring him downstairs in time for the evening session of frying and serving, where she’d put him in a drawer, lined with a blanket, under the cash register for him to sleep in. Each time someone rang up on the till to put money in, his makeshift cot would shudder and the Ring! Ring! of the jangling till would echo in his infant head. He swears to this day he’s always loved the sound of the old fashioned cash register. Music to his ears, as it means someone is taking money, even more so if it was him! World War Two saw our Dad in the RAF, so no chance of anything as ambitious as his own business, but by 1950 he had his own wet fish shops in Balham, South London, but fish and chips were in his blood, and the ringing of the cash register was still in hi
s ears. ~~~1960’s~~~ It was the early sixties and he bought his first fish and chip shop, less than two miles away from where my brother and I were lunching that day in ‘Livebait’ Northside, Clapham Common. For the ‘60’s era, mum and dad were rather cool, and they christened the brand new, smartly fitted restaurant ‘Frankie’s Plaice’ after my mum. Frankie, not Plaice! My brother and I were too big to be put to sleep under the cash register, so he gave us both Saturday jobs instead-and I loved it. The Formica topped ‘eat-in’ tables ready laid up with salt, pepper, vinegar and brown sauce. The vast stainless steel range of deep fryers and the hot draining cupboards at the top. Enormous jars of pickled onions and gigantic pickled cucumbers called Wallies, sat waiting on the counter; tartare sauce wasn’t even considered an option then. The variety of fish on offer was cod, haddock, plaice, hake, skate and the then very trendy scampi. Giant white enamel bowls of jellied eels, complete with jugs of liquor waited temptingly to be devoured. No pea fritters, but a big saucepan of permanently simmering mushy peas were on a back burner. The big tea urn hissed and spluttered, and plates of white, sliced buttered bread waited to be served at the tables. The large vats of clean vegetable oil maintained at the perfect frying temperature plus dad’s own secret batter recipe. Light and thinly applied to the fish resulting in a crisp, golden coating, and I soon learned how to tell when the fish was cooked. It simply floated to the top of the bubbling golden vegetable oil. The chips were made from real potatoes, and that was my first job-out the back in the preparation room-fortunately not hand peeling them-but putting the potatoes in a cumbersome machine that filled with water and beat the skins off them. The machine didn’t remove the eyes, so that had to be don
e manually, then into the automatic chip cutter, then piled in a bucket and proudly delivered by me to the fryers ready for cooking. Promotion for me meant I was allowed to serve out the front, and sometimes even drain the cooked chips into the big wire baskets. I loved serving in the restaurant, as the fish and chip shop was in a busy street market and I was bowled over by the cheeky Barrow Boys and their Sarf London chat up lines (I was twelve years old, so I haven’t changed that much have I ?) The only downside was discovering my dad was paying my younger brother twice as much as me for the same work. In those oh so politically incorrect days, when challenged he simply said, “ Well he’s a boy!” I’ll quickly move on… Getting to my Saturday job involved a short bus journey there and back, and it was some weeks before I realised that the comments from other passengers on the bus were directed at me, “Can you smell fish and chips? All right when you’re eating them, but don’t it pong?” ~~~Sometime in the 1880s~~~ So who was first with fish and chips then? Charles Dickens, the social commentator, wrote in Oliver Twist of ‘shallow fried fish warehouses, with street vendors selling their wares’ and other vendors selling baked potatoes. But is this yet another North/South divide? Londoners claim it was Malin’s in the East End who opened the first fish and chippie in 1868. In the North of the country it is claimed John Lees set up the first shop in a wooden hut in Mossley, Manchester in 1863. Manchester born Morty, and London born me have something else to jest about now! During World War Two, the Minister for Food refused to ration fish and chips as it was considered a very nutritious food. Mobile fish and chip shops toured the country selling food to keep the evacuees warm. In the North they deep fry in fat, and in the
South in vegetable oil. ~~~2001~~~ Another glass each of chilled Chablis and my brother and myself began to eat, each of us with our individual memories. The fresh fish offered on the menu at Livebait is dependent on the catch of the day, so I started with ‘Livebait’ Fish Soup and Sweet Potato Rouille followed by Skate wings in Black Butter. My brother began with Deep Fried Whitebait, and next, a large plate of Haddock and Chips. We both agreed if it had been an evening visit we would have settled into lashings of wine and ordered a ‘Livebait Platter for Two’. Lobster, Dorset Crab (Aaaw) Crevettes, Prawns and from what we could see on the orders flying past us, a whole lot more glorious shell-fishy things to crack, smash and pick at; but we had trains to catch. Prices ranged from around £4.00 for a first course and about £8.00 for a main course. I t would be a perfect menu to play around with and have several first courses to share with friends, getting a taste and flavour of everything available. A Mix ‘n’ Match evening. Deserts and Cheeses are priced at around £4.00, but the only desert worth having after a glorious fish and chip meal is Ice Cream isn’t it? My brother and I reminisced about the fish and chip restaurant experience we had both shared as kids, and then that of our dad, a new born baby sleeping in a badly ventilated chip shop, inches away from the boiling oil, with bells ringing in his little head. How times had changed, but we both agreed that we were the richer for these experiences, and for the many tales our dad tells us, and tells us, and tells us…but we always laugh still, and ask him to tell us again!
I'm not sure why i'm writing an oppinion on fish and chips but here goes... Fish and chips is a traditional English meal which most people will have eaten at least once in their lives. The 'chip shop' is very common at the sea side in places all over the coast of Britain. Chip shops do not just sell fish and chips, they usually have an extensive menu which includes battered sausages, chicken pies, mushy peas, etc... all very bad for your heart! This idea of fish and chips probably originated in Britain because, being it a quite small island compared to neighboring countries, a lot of the trade was fishing. This meant that we had lots of fish to eat and also, people of Britain used to eat a lot of potato before vegetables were imported. Somebody must have come up with the idea of shoving it all in the deep-fat-frier and wehey!, an incredibly tasty meal. Chip-shop food tastes especially nice with salt and vineger and tastes especially disgusting without it, strange that. I have to complain that the portions are all the wrong sizes normally. When we want a 'small' portion we do actually want a 'small' portion, when we ask for a 'large' portion, we want a mountain. The portions arent much different in size. Anyway all you chip-shop owners, keep up the good work!