WHO PUT THE CHIPS WITH THE FISH?
These you may eat of all that in the waters; whatever has fins and scales in the water, in the seas and in the rivers, them you may eat. (Leviticus 11:6)
We remember the fish, which we used to eat back in Egypt for free! (Numbers 11: 5)
Woe betide any rabbi or Jewish leader who attends communal functions who does not like fish. From a simple kiddush through to the most formal occasion, fish is a favoured dish. Even back in Europe when our ancestors lived far from the sea, they developed gefilte fish based on carp, a fresh water fish. When Jews went to Glasgow they adopted the kipper with enthusiasm, and if you visit my synagogue in Hatch End one day, the most crowded place in the area is likely to be Sea Pebbles, the local fish and chip restaurant.
Did Jews introduce fish and chips to Britain? Controversy rages:
Near to the spot on which Snow Hill and Holborn Hill meet, opens, upon the right hand as you come out of the City, a narrow and dismal alley, leading to Saffron Hill. In its filthy shops are exposed for sale huge bunches of second‑hand silk handkerchiefs, of all sizes and patterns; for here reside the traders who purchase them from pick‑pockets. Hundreds of these handkerchiefs hang dangling from pegs outside the windows or flaunting from the door‑posts; and the shelves, within, are piled with them. Confined as the limits of Field Lane are, it has its barber, its coffee‑shop, its beer‑shop, and its fried‑fish warehouse. (Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist (1838),Chapter 26)
A warehouse was originally a house where a shopkeeper kept his wares, but in Dickens day also a shop with a stock of wares. Would that “fried fish warehouse” have been like today’s fish and chip shops? Undoubtedly not, because there was no simple means of keeping fried fish hot, and this shop would without a doubt have sold cold fried fish. And in this perhaps lies a clue. For who eats fried fish cold? Jews do. I have attended dozens of Jewish parties over the years, and I can tell you that 90% of the time Jewish caterers serve fish cold, and non-Jewish caterers serve it hot.
But I digress from Dickens. Let me take you back for a moment to that narrow and dismal Regency alley.
Here, the clothesman, the shoe‑vamper, and the rag‑merchant, display their goods, as sign‑boards to the petty thief; here, stores of old iron and bones, and heaps of mildewy fragments of woollen‑stuff and linen, rust and rot in the grimy cellars.
It was into this place that the Jew turned. He was well known to the sallow denizens of the lane; for such of them as were on the look‑out to buy or sell, nodded, familiarly, as he passed along.
Fagin, the Jewish villain of Oliver Twist, had his dubious friends there, undoubtedly meant to be other Jews. And Dickens suggests they ate fried fish. Historians tell us that it was the crypto-Jews of Shakespeare’s England who introduced the dish, and it has long been favoured by Sephardi families. In my mother’s Sephardi family cold fried cod and haddock has long been the main dish served at the seder. US president Thomas Jefferson wrote about eating ‘fried fish in the Jewish fashion’ after a visit to Britain towards the end of the eighteenth century and the first Jewish cookbook, published here in 1846, included a recipe for it. Ashkenazi Jews contributed their own invention, “chopped and fried”, but those delicious fish balls, still a favourite at kiddush in Britain, are all but unknown to Jews of the rest of the world.
But who put chips with fish? We turn to the standard work on the subject, Fish and Chips and the British Working Class by John K. Walton (1992). An academic work on fish and chips! Apparently one day John Walton claimed to his history students that anything could be the subject of academic study and, to prove it, said he would write a paper on the history of the chippie.
Walton’s argument is that the fish and chips trade was vital for social stability among the British working classes around 1910 through to the 1940s, providing them with a nutritious and inexpensive food which kept serious hunger and starvation at bay. Fish and chips was a dish that bridged the north-south divide. Fried fish as we have seen was a London delicacy. Chips though invented in France, had become popular in Lancashire. They were brought together in the 1860s in Oldham and other Pennine towns. (Maybe it was the Jewish textile traders of Manchester who introduced fried fish to these towns which were full of textile workers.) The first fish and chip shop in the England, argues Walton, opened in Mossely, near Oldham, in 1863. Mr Lees had a wooden hut in the market from which he sold pigs trotters and peas, and he added fish and chips to his menu. Later he transferred the business to a permanent shop across the road which had the following inscription in the window, “this is the first fish and chip shop in the world”.
So there you have it. Jews had the fish, but they didn’t put them together with the chips. And there the story might have ended, had it not been for Claudia Roden who found the tale a little fishy and decided to do her own research (Book of Jewish Food 1997). She discovered that In 1860 a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe called Joseph Malin opened a shop in Cleveland Street Bow selling fried fish alongside chipped potatoes which, until then, had been found in London only in the Irish potato shops. She discovered too that Malin’s of Bow was still around in the 1960s and that In 1968 the National Federation of Fish Fryers even presented a commemorative plaque to them, recognising their founding role in the chippie business. According to Roden, nobody has challenged her version, and John Walton admits he got it wrong.
Does it matter who had the first shop? Undoubtedly! Fish and chips is an English national dish. Through two World Wars the British Government bent over backwards to keep fish and chips off the ration card and supplies strong. The damage to morale if they had failed to do so was unthinkable. Today, there are nearly 9 thousand fish and chip shops in Britain, nearly all of them still owned by small traders. They sell 250 million meals a year. 50% of the population eat fish and chips once a month, and 14% once a week. What does it mean, that the first shop was Jewish? It means this – that without a doubt in the future chicken tikka masala is going to be as English as fish and chips is now. Our food has its origins in many different cultures. Like Jews other groups contribute to that overall sense of what is British. But at the same time these contributions to what is British only take place because minority groups retain and pass on their own recipes for food, recipes for life, their own distinctive identity. So next time you have fish and chips, be proud of your Anglo-Jewish heritage and don’t forget to check that the fish had both fins and scales.