The Piece of Cod that Passes All Understanding

It’s said that fish and chips originated in northern England during the mid-1800s, when Spanish Jews first brought fried fish to the British Isles and, coincidentally, deep-fried potato became an established food item.

As for the first fish and chip shop: that appears to be the creation of a man named Joseph Malin, who opened his establishment in London in 1860, advertising “fish fried in the Jewish fashion.” He was aided by the development of Britain’s railways, which enabled the safe, speedy transport of fish from the north to the south – places like London, Liverpool, and Birmingham, where fish and chips’ low price made it a favorite of the working class as well as a lunchtime staple for bankers, etc.

Nearly forty years later, in 1896, the dish’s popularity prompted a fish wholesaler named Samuel Isaacs to open a chain of actual sit-down fish and chip restaurants. And these places have been putting butts in seats ever since.

The fish restaurants’ names can be clever – Cod Father, O My Cod, Frying Scotsman, Cod Bless. And practically every pub also serves its rendition of fish and chips. Some versions are greasy and soggy, made with dirty fry oil and yesterday’s fish; others are good.

And some are really, REALLY GOOD. Here are a few of my favorites:

GEALES. This is a neighborhood restaurant in Notting Hill, established in 1939. It’s known for fresh fish, with no frills. Try to sit at table # 20….it’s a window seat. But if it’s a nice day, grab a table outside if you can, and allot some time for shopping, because Notting Hill has plenty of it.

POPPIE’s. There are two locations in Spitalfields, plus a few others. Poppie is Pat “Pop” Newland, the man who founded the chain in 1952. Today, Poppie’s is known for its commitment to sustainability and freshness. All fish comes from day boats, and it always comes wrapped in Daily Mirror newsprint.

SWEETINGS. Located near St. Paul’s in “the City,” this place is well over a century old. It’s only open for lunch, and reservations aren’t accepted, so arrive early – around 11:45AM – in order to be seated right away. Save room for some Spotted Dick…yeah, you heard me right…spotted dick – a quintessentially British dessert.

J. SHEEKEY. Situated in the heart of Covent Garden near the theater district, this iconic restaurant has been around at least as long as Sweetings, and it’s always packed. I’d tell you to get there early, but it does such a robust pre-theater business that the best time to arrive is actually about 7:30 PM, right after the early diners head for the show. If you happen to be a party of two, ask for table #34. The fish and chips are superb here, but J. Sheekey serves all kinds of pristine fresh fish, as well as bivalves from a killer oyster bar. For dessert? Ask your server to show you his Spotted Dick.

Other notable spots include FISH CAFÉ, HIX, and TOM’S KITCHEN (created by rock star chef, Tom Aiken). NOBU also serves fish and chips – a tricked-up version that has no reason for being. Skip it.

Speaking of rock star chefs, even Pierre Gagnaire in Paris can’t help himself. At his Michelin three-star restaurant, he serves his own version of fish and chips – very composed and tightly wound. It’s great, but it’s not really fish and chips. I suggest you spend about 1/10 of what he charges and find yourself a more classic rendition.

I’m not exactly sure how or when fish and chips landed in the New World. Irish immigrants probably brought the dish and no doubt the Catholic church’s “fish on Friday” played a big role in it’s success. Today, of course, it’s ubiquitous from coast to coast. Some of my favorite fish and chip spots: A SALT AND BATTERY in New York, the ATLANTA FISH COMPANY, IVAR’S in Seattle, and the over-the-top BARTON G restaurant in Miami (where it comes in a life saver ring). And yes, PITTSBURGH BLUE is on the act as well.

It isn’t a huge leap to go from British fish and chips to America’s versions of this venerable dish. Just stop into an American Legion for Friday night Fish Fry. My experience as a Midwesterner with a lifetime of fish fry under my belt (and spilling over it) is that these Friday night Legion Hall fish fries can go from pretty good to not-so-pretty-good if the fish isn’t cooked to order. Heat lamps kill it fast. Fortunately, you can compensate for lower quality by ordering beer in higher quantities.

While fish and chips is usually cod, haddock or pollock, that’s not always the case. Growing up in southern Illinois, not far from the Mississippi, I ate a lot of beer batter-fried catfish, too.

Flash forward to another iconic institution: The WISCONSIN SUPPER CLUB– especially in and around Milwaukee, with its large Catholic population. Remember, “No meat on Friday!” How does supper club fish fry differ from the Legion hall version? Not much.

Oh yes, the RELISH TRAY. And sometimes dancing…

But that’s about it. Just like the British pubs and the Legion halls, the quality at supper clubs can vary, especially if the cod comes in big plastic bags full of scraps and pieces instead of fresh, uniform filets. It also makes a huge difference if the fish is cooked to order instead of “batch fried” and set out on a buffet line.

By now, it’s clear that none of this is fine dining. But you know, I grew up in a small blue collar town, and to me, even though we couldn’t afford to go very often, Friday night fish fries were pretty friggin’ special – and pretty friggin’ fine.

So I ask myself, “Just what is the difference between fish and chips in England and the Legion Hall / Wisconsin supper clubs’ fish fries? After all, the fish is always battered. And it’s always deep-fried. The only thing I can think of is MUSHY PEAS.


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