The Godfather: Peter Corris on fish ‘n’ chips
Fish ’n’ chips (aka fish and chips in polite circles) represent, according to Wikipedia, an example of fusion cuisine. Apparently in 19th-century England fried potatoes were much eaten in the north of the county and fried fish was popular in the south. With greater human mobility due to better transport, the two foods were melded in the 1880s. The concoction we now know was created and taken up commercially in villages, towns and cities throughout Britain.
Thousands of Britishers immigrated to Australia at that time (and for decades later) and fish ’n’ chip shops sprouted wherever there was a need for quickly prepared, cheap food, in particular where Irish Catholics, enjoined to eat fish on Fridays, were in numbers.
I spent about seven years in the inner-west Melbourne suburb of Yarraville. At the nodal point where Somerville and Williamstown Roads met was a collection of shops including a fish shop. Whether it sold fresh fish I can’t remember but it certainly sold fish ’n’ chips.
The deep-fried, battered (none of your Yuppie cholesterol-conscious grilling then) fish and chips were spilled out either onto white butchers’ paper or directly onto newspaper – my memory is hazy at this point. Also fresh from the hot fat (the composition of which I don’t care to think about) came potato cakes – slices of potato heavily battered and delicious – which we called ‘fritters’. Vinegar and salt were liberally sprinkled and the food was wrapped in such a way that it was possible to tear the paper at the top and delve for the greasy delights while keeping the package secure.
From memory, a piece of fish (called ‘flake’ and derived from gummy sharks, a species I’ve not heard of since) cost about a shilling; sixpence secured a decent quantity of chips and potato cakes cost a penny each. We kids saved our meagre pocket money for these treats, or perhaps had enough after going to the pictures by tram to Footscray to stop at the fish shop. Unless we were flush from some largesse from an adult, we usually had to content ourselves with the chips and ‘fritters’, which we ate while walking home, enjoying the taste and the warmth of the wrapping on cold Melbourne days. Cherished memories, if a bit imprecise.
If there was a fish shop in the dreary south-eastern suburb we moved to, I don’t remember it. My next memory of the delights of fish ’n’ chips encapsulates a vast personal and social change. From time to time, after moving to Sydney in the mid-1970s, I would go, either as part of a family group or with friends, to Watson’s Bay. Here, with magnificent harbour views, we’d eat fish ’n’ chips from the takeaway part of Doyle’s restaurant and drink wine or beer sitting the lawn.
The fish could be had grilled and tartare sauce, vinegar, lemon and salt were provided separately. The food was served in shallow cardboard boxes along with napkins and plastic cutlery. With the scent of Norfolk Island pines, the view of the wharf, the boats and the companionship it was a long way from Yarraville. I missed the ‘fritters’ – they were known in Sydney as potato scallops – but I was by then too diet-aware to indulge.