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  • William Tyler

Francolin, Jewish Fish, Bedford Clangers: Fast Food History

Almost every society has had a history of fast food. In Europe we can go back to the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Fast food is usually an urban phenomenon and associated with the poorer members of society, that is those who lacked the means to cook their own food. Those who have visited Pompeii may well remember seeing what the Romans called 'Thermopolia', lit. the place where hot food is sold. These were counters facing the street with earthenware pots set into the counters' surface. Archaeology tells us that few houses in the city had dining areas and kitchens. Only the rich could afford such luxury of space and therefore limit the dangers of fire.


If I fast forward through the Dark Ages in England to Norman times we get our first written reference to fast food in William FitzStephen's essay on London, written in about 1180. In it he tells us, '... there is in London upon the river's bank.......a public cook-shop. There daily, according to the season, you may find meats, dishes roast, fried and boiled, fish great and small, the coarser flesh for the poor, the more delicate for the rich, such as venison.....Those who desire to fare delicately, need not search to find sturgeon or guinea fowl or Ionian francolin.' Francolin is a Greek and Mediterranean delicacy and more properly here probably refers to a partridge, or perhaps a pheasant.


As said above most fast food was urban in nature, but that is not to say there were not equivalents for agricultural workers in the past who took 'fast food' out into the fields with them; to be eaten cold or heated over a brazier. Most of our references in England come from the 19th century and these meals are difficult to date as to origin. They acquired names, such as Cornish pasty (the most well known today) - although this was first developed in all likelihood for the tin miners as the crimped top could be held by dirty hands and then tossed away, like a paper wrapping today. Others included the Bedford Clanger, my favourite, which had meat at one end and a sweet jam or fruit filling the other. Clanger, incidentally, is derived from 'clung' meaning heavy; that tells you everything! Other names were Bacon Badger from Buckinghamshire, Dog in a Blanket from Derbyshire, and down where I live the Sussex Bacon Pudding. The authority on Sussex Dialect, Rev Parish, writing in 1875, says, 'Roll out some chopped suet and spread bacon slices, a chopped onion, and some herbs, then tie up in a floured cloth and boil for two hours. Serve with thickened gravy. Well they did have to work hard in those days! Today we 'enjoy' 'The Meat Pie' (unspecified) in football grounds.


The great English contribution to world fast food is, of course, fish and chips. No one knows exactly when deep fried fish was first sold as a takeaway or when potato chips were invented, let alone when they were served together. The first written reference to modern style chips comes from Dickens' 'Tale of Two Cities' (1859) where he refers to 'husky chips of potato, fried with some reluctant drop of oil'. Clearly Dickens was not a fan.


Having lived in The North of England, I would advise you never to raise this as a question in a gathering of Lancashire and Yorkshire folk. However the generally agreed date of the arrival of fish and chips is somewhere around 1860. It is thought that maybe it was Sephardi Jews who introduced fried fish to Britain. In 1845 the great chef Alexis Soyer, in his 'A Shilling Cookery Book for The People', refers in a recipe to 'Fried Fish, Jewish fashion'. For Londoners and all Southerners, it just maybe that the first fish and chip shop was opened by Joseph Malin, sometime in the 1860s. Joseph was himself a Jewish immigrant. Mossley, near Oldham claims one, John Lees, was the first; whereas Oldham itself claims the first genuine fish and chip shop opened in the town's market.


What is far clearer is that the first fish and chip restaurant, with carpeted floors no less, opened in Brighton in 1896. It served fish and chips, bread and butter, and tea all for 9/-. Its owner was wholesale and retail fishmonger Samuel Isaacs. In the end Isaacs opened 30 such restaurants including in the seaside towns of Clacton, Margate, and Ramsgate. His empire was later exceeded by that of northerner Harry Ramsden from Guiseley. Today, as a franchise, Harry Ramsdens are everywhere, but as to quality........ My favourite fish and chip restaurant is on the pier in Brighton. It is like taking a step back in time.


The heyday of Fish and Chip shops was just before the Second World War when it is estimated there were over 35 thousand. Today, competition comes from doner kebabs, curries (with chips), pizzas, Chinese and a load more. Today too, we can have this fast food delivered to our door without having to get up out of our chair.


PLEASE IGNORE LAST PARAGRAPH IF RELATED TO Mrs WHITEHOUSE:


Paul Daniels: 'Sex can be great in your seventies - no viagra needed - and it certainly beats fish and chips'. And, as I often say in class: Discuss in no fewer than 4 thousand words!



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