Eating My Words: Ewan McDonald
GRAHAM is a big man. Big enough to have been a onetime Auckland rugby rep (I think it was onetime, when a couple of bigger-name players were injured, but he may have been asked to play twice), with a big voice (Gilbert & Sullivan arias are his forte, after a couple of reds), and a very big man in his chosen career, banking.
And a man of small pleasures. One small pleasure comes his way on Friday nights, when he drives to a tried, tested and trusted purveyor and buys fish’n'chips for the family. Takes them home and spreads out the paper for everyone to dig in.
He is particular – very particular, to be precise – about where he buys them. The choice of fish, the batter, the cooking, the cut of the chip, must be just right. His current haunt is somewhere in Onehunga; I can’t tell you any closer than that, because he took me there, but I was blindfolded and had to swear an oath that involved hopping on one leg and promising to do things with a goat if I gave away the secret.
TIME WAS when every Kiwi family did the same as Graham. That would be when I was in short pants and knobbly knees (it was Wellington College uniform), delivered the Evening Post after school, and went with my little brother to pick up the family’s Friday feed from Bay Road Fisheries in Kilbirnie. All those are memories now (apart from the knees, which may still be around somewhere).
Tony Simpson, who has done more than anyone to chronicle New Zealand’s gastronomic – okay, culinary – history, believes our first fish’n'chip shop opened long before World War I, and points out that until 1965 Roman Catholics – about 15% of the Kiwi population – were prohibited from eating meat on Fridays.
North Islanders preferred snapper until catches declined in the 70s; hoki, shark (the species formerly known as lemonfish) and tarakihi took over. Mainlanders ate gurnard and blue cod. Whatever: fish’n'chips were always eaten with slices of white bread – there was no other kind – and butter. Never margarine. Because there wasn’t any: until the 70s you needed a medical prescription to buy marg. True.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING. Nowhere was this better displayed than in the Friday night fish’n'chip ritual. This was not the joyless rote of burger or chicken drive-through, order, swipe card, pick up at the next window.
Mum would phone Bay Road Fisheries with the order. Stephen and Ewan would be dispatched to collect it, a 10-minute walk across the Catholic girls’ high school tennis courts, through someone’s backyard, cross the road WHEN THE BUZZER GOES, then down Bay Rd to the fish shop. If we were lucky, there were only two or three orders ahead of ours on the peg. If we were not … they had old Reader’s Digests.
When we got the newspaper parcel – the very same newspaper I’d spent the soaking afternoon delivering from the sacks across the crossbar of my Raleigh pushbike – we had to tear a hole in the top, let the steam out, and slather over the aroma all the way back up Bay Rd, over the road at the crossing by Mrs Norman’s bookshop, through the backyard, across the tennis courts, and home. Woe betide Stephen and Ewan if we sneaked a chip. We had two big brothers. They counted, in more ways than one.
And then – all too sadly overlooked in the hubbub of modern life – Mum and Phyllis had perfected the art of preparing the dinner table before Dad drove the Morris Oxford into the carport at 5.30. That bread and butter, salt and pepper shakers waiting. The parcel, now torn open, placed in the centre of the table to show that when Mum asked for two pieces of fish she got three, six she got seven.
More chips than Mum, Dad, four boys and a sister could eat. And a family argument between those who insisted on drowning the newspaper in tomato sauce and the others who doused the dish, more delicately, with vinegar. I was on the vinegar side of the table until aioli came along, but that’s another story. Or maybe another part of this one.
However you sliced it – and the chips, not fries, they’d come later with other, faster food, were always thick and straight-cut – it was an economical meal. And one where the whole family had to sit, together, and eat, and meet, around the dinner table.
FISH’N'CHIPS was always so. So far as anyone can tell, the idea originated in the United Kingdom in 1858 or 1863, as a cheap food for the working classes when trawlers first plundered the North Sea. We know the result now, but then it was one of those happy accidents that have marked great moments in cuisine.
Like that time when some hunter-gatherer in Central Europe – why has history not recorded his name? – looked at the big, hoofed animal on the plain across the river and thought, “Wow! If I can trap and kill that giant beast, I can cut him into pieces and put his flesh on the fire for a few hours and call it … barbecue!” And his mate thought, “Gee! I should wash the dirt off this funny round root and put it in the embers beside the beast and call it … jacket potato!”
There has been quite a lot of argument about what exactly the Belgians have contributed to history, but no one can take away the fact that they invented French fries. They have sauteed potatoes carved into the shape of fish since 1680, at least.
We’re not sure when the fad crossed the Channel but Charles Dickens, one of the most reliable chroniclers of 19th Century English life – he was the editor of several women’s magazines, so we can trust every word he wrote – mentions a fried fish warehouse in Oliver Twist, published in 1838. Further north they took to fried spuds.
A marriage was made in heaven, or somewhere around Manchester, a little less than 200 years later. One story that anyone who has a skerrick of romance in their bones would wish were true goes like this: fried-potato shops spread south from Scotland until they met up with fried-fish shops spreading north from London.
It’s highly possible because the Scots would have got bored with fried potatoes and no-one had yet experimented with the culinary possibilities of the Mars Bar. Think: Billy Connolly, bored, Friday night. “Och, nae bluidy taties agin. Ah’m gittin’ on ma Harley an’ gettin’ a wee summat tae tart it oop wi’ …”
Joseph Malin opened the first recorded fish’n'chip shop in London in 1860 or 1865; a Mr Lees pioneered the concept in Manchester in 1863.
PERHAPS: there are several perhaps. It might have been the beef dripping or lard used in traditional frying, even if it has long gone, replaced by vegetable oils, such as peanut oil, which has a relatively high smoke-point.
Or the batter. Chippies traditionally used a water and flour batter, adding a little baking soda and vinegar to lighten and create bubbles, or beer, or milk.
It could have been the newspaper. In Commonwealth countries fish’n'chip shops wrapped the meal in greaseproof paper for hygiene, covered by newspaper to keep the heat in and absorb grease (and to keep small boys’ hands warm on a Wellington night). Some official busybody said the newspaper ink was poisonous and would kill us; newspaper wrapping was outlawed.
Maybe it was the arrival of flashier, better advertised, sexier, happier meals like Big Macs and KFC. Or even just the cost of fish.
Whatever. In 2005 curries and sushi edged ahead of fish’n'chips as New Zealanders’ favourite takeaway. A NZ Herald-DigiPoll survey reported that 31.6 per cent picked Asian food as their most common choice of takeaway; 28.7 per cent ordered fish’n'chips. Pizza tempted 10.9 per cent, hamburgers 8.9 per cent and KFC 5.8 per cent.
So Kiwi fish’n'chip shops have changed to serve a new market, one that spends $21 of every $100 of its food budget on eating-out or takeaways. They offer panko-crumbed squid and blackened snapper. If not changed, evolved to catch a new generation: in the seaside town of Whangamata at New Year, chippie owner Merv Jackison told the NZ Herald his staff was working 14-hour days to fill orders. Folk were happy to wait up to 90 minutes for their shark’n'taties.
SO WHAT about the little kid who used to run down the hill to Bay Road Fisheries on Friday nights? He has a theory about fish’n'chips that has grown stronger with the decades, and now that the ultimate fish cook, Rick Stein, is coming to New Zealand with his stage show, I feel the need to share it. It’s this:
I always want fish’n'chips. See the sign above a chippie, pick up the faintest sniff of frying while the scooter’s waiting at the lights, and I’m gone.
It’s the childish thrill. The naughtiness. The “I know it’s bad for me but I’ll take the dogs for a really long walk tomorrow and work it off, honestly” promise that I have not very much intention of keeping.
I cajole Jude into meeting me at Mt Eden / Maungawhau with a parcel of beer-battered snapper and chunky chips. The cheap, working-class meal runs out around $25 these days, several tads more than my mother paid – and yes, I am tempted by the Moet-battered snapper and chips, $38.50 a head (or fillet) from our local chippy. The Domain is just around the corner … These days Hush Puppy, the 18-year-old whippet, and Bianca, the Maltese, sniff around the fries that were once too much for a Mum, Dad, four brothers and a sister.
Rick and Chalkie, were he still around, would understand the need for us and the dogs to pig out once a year, to keep alive those memories of the Ultimate Kiwi Dish. And chips.
- Rick Stein’s Food Odyssey, ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre, Auckland, 4-5 August; St James Theatre, Wellington, 7-8 August. Tickets: 0800 BUY TICKETS or (09) 357 3355. Details: www.lunchbox-productions.com
Politically and Gastronomically Correct Fish’n'Chips
Fish’n'chips? The package, the picnic, the plonk … that’s a kind of magic that can’t be truly replicated at home. However, Jude ran a fish’n’chippery in an Auckland seaside summer one long hot summer and this is her 2010 dinnertime take on the Ultimate Kiwi Meal:
Pan Fried Fish
1-2 skinned and boned fillets of some sustainable catch per person. Wash and dry with a paper towel. Roll the fish in flour seasoned with salt and pepper or with dried herbs. Melt butter in a frypan. When starting to sizzle add the fish and cook for 3-4 minutes each side.
Peel 1 large potato – organic, natch – per person. Boil in salted water for about 5 minutes. Drain and cool, then grate on the coarse side of a grater. Heat some butter or oil in a frypan to hot but not smoking, season potatoes and knead them into loose fritters (no more than 1.5 cm / half-inch thick). Press them into the pan, cook for 5 minutes until golden brown, flip and cook the other side.
Braised Leeks …
Pour a small amount of chicken or vegetable stock into a frypan, add some rinsed and sliced leeks, cover and gently cook for 10-15 minutes. They can be dusted with fennel or mustard seeds.
… with Easy Hollandaise
2 egg yolks (free range, of course)
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup very cold butter
Stir egg yolks and lemon juice with a wooden spoon in a small heavy saucepan. Keep heat low and stir briskly all the time. Add half the butter and stir until it has melted. Then add remaining butter, stir again until it has melted and the sauce has thickened. Serve at once.