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In Good Company: Chips And Everything

"Being seen in the fish shop queues in the early days of married life made me feel as guilty as a baths attendant caught smiling,'' says Enid Blackburn.

Now she unashamedly extols the delight of fish and chips on Fridays.

One of the most pleasurable habits to develop from my dilatoriness is our Friday lunch ritual of fish and chips.

I didn’t slip into this easy living without a fight, of course, as being seen in the fish shop queues in the early days of married life made me feel as guilty as a baths attendant caught smiling.

I made up all sorts of fictitious excuses, ‘the cooker’s collapsed,’ or ‘our kitchen’s full of workmen,’ to anyone who saw through my disguise.

Now, blatantly and without shame, I confess to all. My dinner is cooked most Fridays either by a besmocked lady or, if I am in the mood, not to mention funds, an Oriental gent does the honour.

I was promoted to Friday fish-and-chip carrier in my teens while working for a printing firm. Although tedious it had its perks. I could spend a jolly half hour away from workaday strife among the wits in the composing department. Here my girlish outlook on life was considerably broadened, and if I was quick enough my queuing coincided with that of another apprentice fish fetcher whom I fancied nearly as much as the fish and chips.

A change from my usual pop star impersonating boy friends, this lad was the image of Jesus. His hair, beard and blue eyes looked exactly like the Sunday school pictures I remembered. From my lowly nose-on-counter position I worshipped him religiously for about four Fridays.

Then one day he wasn’t there and the assistant dropped the bombshell, ‘He committed suicide.’ The smell of fish and chips lost its allure for months after that. I spent a long time pondering on the sad-eyed youth.

Earlier recollections were all connected with the cinema. A gang of evacuees and myself used to spend an evening watching Tarzan and Jane until we were eventually turned out into the misty musty air for the trolley-bus. The lure of salt and vinegar perfume from the wooden hut by the bus stop had us weighing up the choice between a ride home or a three-hayporth bag of chips and a long walk through dark fields.

‘To eat now, or wrapped up?’ had us fighting for a turn with the vinegar bottle, then out into the cold to face the walk home. When I think of the evenings we walked through those lonely fields and never had any nasty encounters, it truly amazes me.

Today I dare not let our children cross the street alone after dark. But during my youth the most able-bodied were busy attacking Germans.

I don’t know whether the secret of bought fish and chips is in the ensuing soak of salt and vinegar or the esoteric ‘Examiner’ wrapping, but I have never yet been able to capture the same delicious flavour with my frying pan.

I can manage the chips, but my battered fish look exactly that. Instead of the tongue-tickling smell of golden crispy fish lumps, our kitchen is filled with a deathly blue haze, which hangs about for hours. And, of course, there are no bits. At today’s prices I always ask for my share of these crunch-ups and I give the condiments a good shake-up.

I shall never forget the fish shop an aunt sent me to one suppertime. All the way there I practised the fascinating French accent I was playing around with at that time. It worked wonders with strange assistants and was always worth a few extras. At that time foreigners were a bit of a novelty.

The fish lady was really impressed. I was just getting warmed up to allowing her a sentence or two more ‘Thankeeng you er vairry much, sil-vous-plais’ when my aunt’s neighbour, a workmate of my father walked in and spoiled everything. ‘Ello lass, ‘ow’s yer dad?’

It made me wish I had stuck to my broken leg act. This was guaranteed to soften any chipper’s heart, as long as I didn’t get too cocky and forget which leg was injured.

Watching the crispy chips pile up only to be shovelled on someone else’s order can have a malevolent effect on the appetite, which can be embarrassing. Watching for fallen chips, I once darted my hand forward, but the treasure was snapped up by a lady in front. We exchanged guilty smiles.

The old-fashioned noises have disappeared along with the ornamental enamelled ranges. The white tops on vinegar bottles which had a sort of delayed splurt when you shook them, the crunch of naked potato being executed as the guillotine handle was brought down on it and the chips fell into the bucket underneath.

Our chipper was such a gasbag it’s a miracle we didn’t have chip fingers. He always left his hand holding the potato until the very last second, a terrifying sight.

Our Friday lunches were especially enjoyable when we had a baby, and even had me waxing poetic. I used to sing this song to the children as we prepared for our shopping trip. Catching my excitement they used to join in:
‘My best day is Friday, shall I tell you why?
We all have chippy charlies, and the baby doesn’t cry!’

And she didn’t. Friday was her day for a tin of strained food and, it says a lot for my cooking, she was especially contented. My euphoria evoked by the thought of someone else preparing dinner and no washing up, infected us all. Except the dog. Left-overs were in short supply on Fridays.

Good batterers are in danger of becoming extinct. But there are one or two still frying. We have a favourite eating place in York. A certain square over-shadowed by the ancient Minster has two excellent fish and chip takeaways.

Wooden seats and strategically placed baskets are thoughtfully provided all around the square. Shoppers can sample our national dish in the open air. It’s quite matey and cosmopolitan.

In my opinion outdoor fish and chips eaten from paper are unbeatable. It takes a while to master the feeling you are doing something faintly illegal, a hangover from a school rule, ‘No eating in the street,’ but worth it when you do.

Health experts have voted them the top take away meal, safer than curries or Chinese delicacies while re-heated foods like kebabs and hamburgers are considered the most dangerous foods on the market. In an annual report restaurants and take-away food shops were blamed for the increase in food poisoning last year, so fish and chips are actually one of the safest foods, health-wise.

I consider them more expensive than they ought to be. No one has yet given me a creditable explanation why they always increase early season, but never decrease when potatoes come down in price.

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