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Eating the Past: the origins of fish and chips

A plate of fish and chips.

Hi, I'm Tammy Proctor. For today's episode, I travel across the Atlantic to focus on a mainstay of British life, fish and chips. This summer I spent some time in the UK with students on a study abroad program, and as I munched down on fish and chips and mushy peas on the Welsh coast, I began thinking about the origins of this quintessentially British dish. After a little general research and a reading of Panikos Panayi's book "Fish and Chips: A History," I've got a better idea of how this dish became ubiquitous in the UK and many of its colonies. So, let's dig in!

First, the centrality of fish in British cuisine should not be a surprise to anyone who thinks about British geography. As an island nation that also possesses abundant rivers and small waterways, seafood and fish have been important to British diets since pre-Roman times. Songs and poems often extol the virtues, for instance, of pickled eels or cockles and mussels. Fishing communities along the coasts of Britain lived on bounty from the sea, especially in winter, and specialties such as herring have long been associated with the British Isles.

Potatoes, on the other hand, don't have ancient roots in British soil. They arrived in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century from the Americas as part of the exchange of food, animals, plants and people that marked the globalization of the early modern period. While many historians have repeated the idea that the potato took time to catch on among common people, Rebecca Earle in her recent book, "Feeding the People: The Politics of the Potato," demonstrates that the reality was quite different. By using innovative primary sources such as tithing and tax records, Earle argues that the rural working poor ate potatoes in some regions as early as the seventeenth century, and they used its novelty as a strategy. Many local elites based taxes and tithing on crops, so Earle examines how households found the potato to be invisible to the tax collectors, at least in early years. Earle's idea that maybe historians have overlooked the kitchen gardens of early modern families precisely because those families did not want their potato consumption to be noticed sets an important tone for the book and suggests that potato eating became common pretty early in British and European history.

So back to fish and chips. Panayi goes into a lot more detail in his book about the origins of fish and chips, but I'll highlight a few points.

Ice, which emerged in the late nineteenth century, helped make British fish and chips shops possible in high streets across the country. Fish, often cod or haddock, from massive Atlantic and north sea fishing fleets, could be preserved until it reached markets and shops with ice.

Industrial processing, specialized equipment and packaging later helped lead an expansion of the shops in the late nineteenth century.

There continues to be some argument about the origins of fried fish and fried potatoes and their combination, but certainly the presence in London's east end of a large Jewish community with a tradition of fried fish was significant. Fried potatoes as "chips" may have had ties to the French and Belgian fried potato traditions as well.

What is clear, according to Panayi, is that fried fish and fried potatoes were sold separately for much of the nineteenth century. One shop, Malin's, in London's East End, claims the role of Britain's first "chippie" or fish and chips shop, and most people agree that its emergence in the 1860s lines up with that claim. From these humble beginnings, a tradition was born. By the outbreak of the first world war, Panayi reckons that 25,000 chippies dotted the landscape of Britain's communities. Thus a tradition was born.

Stay tuned next week for our introduction to season two of Eating the Past!

Reading List:
"Fish and Chips: A History" by Panikos Panayi
"Feeding the People: The Politics of the Potato" by Rebecca Earle

Tammy Proctor is a specialist in European history, gender, war, and youth. Dr. Proctor has written about Scouting, women spies and the way war affects the lives of ordinary people. Currently she is writing a book on American food relief to Europe during and after World War I. She has worked at Utah State University since 2013 and is a native of Kansas City, Missouri.