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Eating the Past: how Haddon Salt perfected fish and chips

A scoop of fried fish in an industrial kitchen.
Claus de Graaf

Tammy Proctor: Hi, I'm Tammy Proctor. Today's episode is part two of our exploration of that delicacy, fish and chips. My guest today is Utah Public Radio's chief engineer, Friend Weller. What listeners may not know about him is that he is a fish and chips aficionado. He's here to talk about the dish in the United States, and in particular, one restaurateur who perfected their version of English fish and chips. Thanks for joining me, Friend. Can you talk a bit about when you first ate fish and chips and where?

Friend Weller: Well Tammy, it was in the early 1970s at a place called H. Salt Esq. Authentic English Fish & Chips, in Canoga Park’s Fallbrook Square - an outdoor mall in southern California, which lent itself to Haddon Salt’s original concept of patrons being able to eat fish and chips the English way - while walking!

Tammy Proctor: I understand that you have a case to make for this particular restaurant chain's mastery of this meal. Can you give us a bit of the history of the chain?

Friend Weller: Haddon Salt’s father, a former coal miner, opened a fish and chips shop in the resort town of Skegness, England, during World War II. It became very popular as he insisted on maintaining the highest possible quality at a time when English food was not known for being of terribly high quality.

The popularity of Salt’s fish and chips among American servicemen who were stationed at a nearby air base helped convince the junior Salt to emigrate to the United States and bring his family’s recipe with him. So in 1964, Haddon Salt, his wife Grace and their three children relocated to Sausalito, California and opened his first shop.

Within a few years, Salt, knowing he needed experts in the field of restaurant franchising to grow his chain of eateries, approached Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) who was the leader in the fast food industry at the time – even bigger than Mcdonald's! Salt named his price and within a few hours, he had become the third largest stockholder in the corporation. Sadly, over time he learned that KFC wasn’t really selling chicken, they were selling the character of Colonel Sanders, and with his company, they were really only selling the character of H. Salt. The quality of the fish and the other ingredients was being cheapened and moving away from Salt’s tried and proven concepts. By 1973, Haddon Salt was out of the picture. Then in 1987, KFC sold off the H. Salt brand and with it, their corporate support. Today, only a few of the fish and chips shops are still in operation.

Tammy Proctor: What makes these fish and chips so special? What tricks of the trade did H. Salt perfect?

Friend Weller: Haddon Salt’s father insisted on the highest quality ingredients and equipment. This belief was carried to America and to do so, Salt became the sole U.S. importer of Henry Nuttall stoves, made in Britain, who Salt felt had mastered the art of making frying ranges. They were 18 feet long with glass fronts so patrons could watch their orders being cooked. Salt said the ranges were "the heart of the operation." In addition, peanut oil kept precisely at 350 degrees, Icelandic cod fillets, Penistone pure malt vinegar. Salt specified every item, and franchisees had to buy everything through Salt to maintain the quality he demanded. Salt was very frank in his views on customer service, stating that there might be a wait for an order simply because the food was prepared on request to assure it was piping hot, “which really is the only way to enjoy fish and chips." On a lighter note, the original stores would even accept British currency!

Tammy Proctor: Where can people try these fish and chips today?

Friend Weller: Unless you are taking a trip to either the Bay Area or southern California anytime soon, the nearest H. Salt to the residents of Utah is in Ontario, Oregon. When I am visiting friends and family in Los Angeles, I make it a point to stop at the H. Salt Esq. Authentic English Fish & Chips in Reseda, which is still looks like and is operated much like the stores that Haddon Salt opened nearly 60 years ago.

Tammy Proctor: Thanks to Friend Weller for joining me today to talk fried food! For more about Eating the Past, please visit the website. Stay tuned next week for our introduction to season two of Eating the Past!

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.