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Stan: The OG fast food, Fish & Chips

Food & Drink

As I said in my last post, I was reluctant to become the ‘Food Historian’ because I thought that it would be difficult for the younger end of the readership – i.e. the under 50s – to appreciate the way the world was before things we take for granted nowadays were in existence. This article calls for you to suspend all knowledge of life as it is today and come back with me to a Leeds alien from the ubercool city we know and love.

Until the 1960s take-away outlets were extremely limited; no pizza, no curry, no burgers, no Pret A Manger, no KFC not even Chinese take-aways. There were cafes that would put an inverted plate on top of the one on which the food was served so you could eat it elsewhere, but that was about it, other than to ask them to put a bacon butty in a bag. There was the odd pork pie and pea shop but they were a dying breed, which meant that your choice was limited to fish and chips.

There were fried fish shops at the beginning of the 19th Century, even Charles Dickens referred to a ‘fried fish warehouse’ in Oliver Twist, which was written in 1839. There is a bit of controversy about who first decided to sell chips along with fried fish but the date would have been around 1860. One school of thought is that it was a Mr Lees who, in 1863, began selling the combination in Mossley Market near Oldham before opening a shop across the road which bore the legend ’This is the first fish and chip shop in the world’.  Joseph Malin, a Jewish immigrant would take exception to that as he had also opened a fish and chip shop in the early 1860s in the East End of London. History is peppered with multiple claimants of inventions, from the telephone to television, but the main thing is that someone did it and we should be forever grateful to them, even if we are not totally sure who they were.

‘What has this to do with Leeds?’ I hear you ask. Obviously, I don’t as technology has not come that far, but when it does, someone will not appreciate that there was a time when you couldn’t hear the reaction of one’s readers. The answer to the anticipated question is that, as with the clothing industry, we have taken an idea and given it to the world. There were outfitters before Marks and Spencers, tailors before Burtons and cool clothiers before Next, which was a rebrand of the mass tailoring company, Hepworth, who had the foresight to associate itself with a designer, in their case, Hardy Amis, to appeal to the younger clothes buyer. When it came to fish and chips it was Harry Ramsden.

The irony is that one of the the reasons Harry Ramsden’s has become a Leeds legend is that it wasn’t actually in Leeds, but, until the Local Government Reorganisation in 1974, it was in the West Riding of Yorkshire. The relevance of this is that, according to by-laws, fish and chip shops weren’t allowed to open in the Leeds City Council area on Sundays, whereas in the West Riding they were. With the advent of the mass production of motor vehicles in the 1930s, more people could make the most of their weekends by taking a drive to the Dales. We would regularly go to Burley-in-Wharfedale or Malham Tarn in the 1950s because, although there were cars, the roads had not caught up with demand, and the vehicles themselves were not the most reliable in the world, so a long-distance trip was too much of a risk. One of my early memories of a drive to Bridlington was that, after the inevitable question from my mother to ascertain if either me or my dad wanted to use the toilet before we set off, she would collect all the money we had in the house in case our jalopy failed to make the ascent of Garrowby Hill, or, even more scary, the descent on the way home, and assistance was needed. Fortunately we survived to tell the tale. I did, obviously! 

One look at the map will show that White Cross, Guiseley, the location of Harry Ramsden’s, is perfectly situated at the fork in the road where traffic from the Dales splits up to go either to Leeds or Bradford meaning that for those going to Leeds (Bradford was in the West Riding) this was the last place you could get a take-away to save mum cooking, or, should you be a bit more flush, eat in the large restaurant next to the chip shop. Over time, it became a destination in its own right meaning it could survive long after the proliferation of other forms of Sunday sustenance. In 1954 Harry Ramsden sold his share to his business partner, Eddie Stokes for £37,500 and in 1965 it was bought by Associated Fisheries. There have been several changes of ownership since then which has resulted in branches being opened in Hong Kong Airport and the Epcot Centre in Florida as well as other world-wide sites. The original restaurant in Guiseley is now under the ownership of the Wetherby Whaler Group under whose name it trades, although, as a nod to its past, the original clock has remained in tact with the letters HARRYRAMSDEN where the numerals would normally be.  

Normal people would send their kids, like me, to the local chip shop whilst mum would get the kettle on for the tea, whip out the salt and vinegar, butter the bread, warm the plates and lay the table. Every couple of weeks or so I had to take the old newspapers with me to give to the owner. This was an early form of up-cycling as the food would first be wrapped in a sheet of greaseproof paper, then a sheet of pristine white paper followed by a couple of pages of the Daily Mirror or some other rag which helped keep the fish and chips warm on the journey home. The downside was that the newsprint would come off on your hands, which would be black by the time you got back. The upside was that it was free for the chippy and it gave you something to read if you had chosen to eat them in the street after a night at the pictures or a beer or two. 

 I was fortunate in that the queue would normally be fairly short when I was a lad but the youngsters about ten years older than I, were not so lucky. Fish and chips was one of the very few meals not put on ration in either of the World Wars. This didn’t mean that they were available on demand as the trawlers and drifters were at risk from the enemy’s warships, although they were more focussed on sinking the convoys bringing supplies from the USA so mainly stationed in the Atlantic rather than the North Sea or Arctic Ocean. On the days when fish had been delivered the chippy would hang a sign on the door which read ‘Frying Tonight’. Word would get round far more efficiently than social media could dream of and queues would form outside, usually consisting of the offspring, hours before opening time. Frying Tonight also became a euphemism for sex, in that if one of the blokes in the pub said that he had to get home a bit earlier than normal, there would be knowing winks and nods between his mates who would ask ’Frying tonight?’.

Although I have been referring to Fish and Chips, the composition of the meal varies from region to region, and even shop to shop. In Leeds we would automatically be served haddock whereas most of the country would get cod. You could order other battered fish such as plaice, and in London and the South there would be options such as rock salmon, which was not salmon at all but dogfish. In 2003 legislation was introduced to compel the use of the correct species of fish to be stated on the menu. 

To complicate matters even further, even if you got haddock or cod, the way it would be presented varied from place to place – I am finding it increasingly difficult to refrain from adding an ‘i’ in place. Should you come from the Midlands, and I am sure other regions are the same, you will be served fish with the skin left on, whereas we prefer it removed. There is also the language problem. My favourite order is fish, chips and mushy peas with scraps, a fortnight’s calories on a plate, but outside of Leeds, scraps (the small pieces of surplus batter) are known as ‘bits’. There is a chippy in Huddersfield which wins my Fish and Chip Shop Name of the Century – for which there is no prize apart from my undying admiration – named Wibits. You need to know the dialect for it to work. In Scotland fish and chips is known as a Fish Supper and in East Leeds where I grew up you just asked for once, twice, three-times etc. Then there are scallops. When you order scallops in a fish and chip shop you don’t get asked if you want king or queen, as they are not shellfish but slices, rather than oblong chips, of deep fried potato. 

Finally we come to the fish itself. The authentic way to deep fry fish and chips is in beef dripping or, at a push, lard. There are two reasons for this; the first is that it makes the food taste better, but second, and more important, the smoke point is higher than oil meaning that the fish can cook properly. The one thing you don’t want is fried fish, what you want is for the batter to instantly seal when it hits the fat, and continue to fry for a few minutes. This sealing prevents the fat from coming into contact with the fish itself, in effect forming a batter parcel enabling the fish inside to steam in its natural moisture. It also makes the chips crispy on the outside and doesn’t let the fat permeate through to make them soggy. A lot of fish and chip shops use oil nowadays, but you won’t catch me in one.

There is a school of thought which says that fish and chips always taste better when eaten al fresco from the paper. The reason is simple in that, when the food parcel is tightly wrapped, the steam from the hot food is trapped making the batter and chips soggier than if the contents are exposed to the fresh air when it can evaporate into the ether. Don’t try this at the seaside as you will probably be dive bombed by the gulls and have your dinner nicked.

So, there you have it. A potted history of the humble dish of fish and chips with a Leeds twist, the only thing left to decide now is will it be salt and vinegar, tomato ketchup, brown sauce, curry sauce, pickled onions, gherkins…………

Footnote. Harry Ramsden’s at Guiseley was once in the Guinness Book of Records as being the largest fish and chip shop in the world, with 250 seats, serving nearly a million people in a year. It also popped up in the same publication when, on one day in 1952, it served 10,000 portions! I pity the kid at the back of that queue!