The Weasel

I have long thought that the romance of fish - a wild food pursued in an alien and dangerous element - has been underestimated
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Scarcely a day goes by without some long-standing record being smashed or a new superlative (in the curious parlance of the Guinness Book of Records) being attained, so it may have passed your attention that the world record for sales of fish and chips was sundered recently when a single outlet dished up more than 12,100 portions in one day. At times, the queue stretched for half a mile. Inevitably, this oleaginous feat took place at Harry Ramsden's, but it wasn't at the company's chandelier-decked flagship at Guiseley, near Leeds, nor at its Glasgow branch, responsible for the previous record of 11,900 portions in 1992. Sad to say, the Blue Riband for batter biting has passed from these shores entirely. It is the gourmands of Melbourne, Victoria, who can clap themselves on the back - or, more likely, tummy - for this belt-straining accomplishment.

Considering the depopulated nature of UK waters, it is somewhat peculiar that the two tonnes of haddock they consumed was imported from Britain. I was under the impression that fish were hardly a rarity in the South Pacific, though perhaps local exotica such as blue warehou or oreo dory are no substitute for the honest haddock. Obviously Melbournians can't get enough of them - and here was me blaming the Spanish for our empty seas.

I have long thought that the romance of fish - after all, a wild food pursued in an alien and dangerous element - has been underestimated. As John K Walton notes in his seminal work Fish and Chips and the British Working Classes 1870-1940: "The sea fisheries, whether in near or distant waters, have always lacked the glamour and political clout associated with stately homes and landed gentry. And potatoes have never shared the charisma of the waving wheatfields."

Harry Ramsden's brainwave was to create an establishment which, if a touch nouveau riche, ran counter to these prejudices. It was, however, not the only Yorkshire fish and chip shop which aimed to please the eye while supplying a rich harmony of flavours to the palate. The humble outlet which I once patronised for some time in the North went by the imaginative name of the Vesuvius Fisheries. A brilliantly-coloured plaque at the back of the shop showed the volcano in full eruption, an effect enhanced by the clouds of steam rising from the vats of bubbling fat.

Though the queues were never of record-breaking length, sometimes the wait to be served compared with Melbourne's premier chippy. The delay was usually caused by one of the smallest customers, who, on reaching the counter, would pull a scrap of paper from the pocket of his blue boiler suit. It listed the lunchtime requests of everyone in a nearby factory - a virtually infinite permutation of fish, fish cakes, mushy peas and chips. Fresh supplies had to be cooked, then each portion anointed with the requisite condiments, before being wrapped and carefully stowed in a cardboard box. Meanwhile, the other customers salivated with a Pavlovian vigour while enduring torments of hunger. But this was all years ago. The small factory must be long gone, probably replaced by a software house. I imagine they all eat sushi.

Recently I've been reading one of the two publications entitled Zipper. Unlike the gay beefcake mag of the same name, this is a comprehensive history of the zip fastener by Robert Friedel, who teaches the history of technology and science at the University of Maryland. The book is entertaining, authoritative, all those sort of things, but unfortunately inaccurate when it mentions Sticky Fingers by the Rolling Stones, which, when first issued, incorporated a real zipper in the Andy-Warhol-designed cover. Mr Friedel says that the zipper "opened to reveal Mick Jagger's underwear".

In fact, the elderly wailer graciously acknowledged a few years ago that: "It wasn't me - I wish it was." The well-filled garment was actually occupied by an habitue of Warhol's Factory named Glenn O'Brien. None of this would matter much, except for Andy's renowned aphorism: "In the future, everybody will be world famous for 15 minutes." It would be a shame if Mr O'Brien's contribution to the lore of the zip fastener were to be overlooked altogether.

Though the farcical beef scare is dying down, a story I heard recently from a couple of friends may make you think twice before eating steak au poivre. They were invited for Sunday lunch at a house in one of London's poshest areas. Their hostess provided a nice vegetarian starter, while their host, a man in his mid-fifties and a senior figure in his professional field, was responsible for the main course - fist-sized lumps of fillet in a pepper-and-cream sauce. After the last morsel of meat had been consumed, he made an embarrassed announcement: "I think I should say that I put an eighth of an ounce of dope in the sauce."

At first my friends found this impossible to believe, but after sampling a smear of sauce remaining on one of the plates, the spicy tang of marijuana was quite unmistakable. Their host admitted that he'd been planning the dish for weeks. It turned out to be impressively intoxicating. Within an hour, my friends were utterly zonko, out of their trees, dead gone guys from gonesville.

Unlike most metropolitan Sunday lunches, which often tend to drift on until the evening, this one was wrapped up in little over two hours. Falling out of the house, the apologies of their hostess still ringing in their ears, my pals managed to get home somehow or other. Ingested in this manner, the drug is considerably more potent than when smoked and it was 24 hours before the dull, but welcome, mundaneness of everyday existence returned.

Now I know that there is a respectable tradition for using Cannabis indica as a culinary ingredient. No less an authority than Alice B Toklas includes a recipe for Haschich Fudge in her famous Cook Book ("it might provide an entertaining refreshment for a Ladies' Bridge Club," she suggests). But I think people should be given the option of leaving the doors of perception firmly closed. Slipping one's guests a Mickey Finn might have been considered acceptable by Ken Kesey during his Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test phase, but it is definitely not deemed proper in any of the etiquette guides currently available. I dread to think what Drusilla Beyfus, our leading arbiter of politesse, would have to say on the matter. Anyway, the lesson to be gained from this bizarre incident is: the meat's OK, but watch the sauce.

The most interesting item in the Spectator for some time was a short letter remarking on a recent cover which featured The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca, a work that can be seen in Sansepolcro, Tuscany. Though the painting dates from around 1458, the writer noted that one of the figures portrayed dozing at the foot of the risen Christ appeared to be following the current craze for wearing baseball caps back to front. Sure enough, there it is, a green job, possibly in the livery of the Oakland Athletics, with peak defiantly astern.

It seems that Piero made a habit of anachronism. Earlier this century, the wit and belletrist Geoffrey Madan noted that the artist's rendition of The Nativity (painted in 1470-75) included St Joseph smoking a cigar. Some might say that the object in question is in fact the belt of a character standing behind the seated saint. But you can see for yourself, in the National Gallery, that it is obviously the traditional celebrative stogy of a new father

Comments