Getting takeaway fish and chips, or more truthfully, chips and potato scallops, from the shop at Crescent Head is one of the enduring memories from my family holidays in the late eighties and early nineties. The nice old lady would always throw in an extra scallop or two, a gesture which at the time expressed a level of generosity so grand it was beyond the powers of my young mind to compute.
It closed sometime in the 90s, and such a shame. The beach holiday never seemed complete without that paper parcel gradually becoming transparent due to the oil soaked goodness it held together.
As noted by John K. Walton in his stand alone socio-historical study, Fish and Chips and the British Working Class, 1870-1930, fish and chips is “in many ways the pioneer fast food industry”. Like many other craft-based industries, fish and chips evolved from a “petty” hawker trade to something that existed on an industrial scale (246). The peak of their popularity was during the interwar years, where in industrial cities like Preston, “there must have been, quite literally, a fish and chop shop on every street” (247). For many working class families, they functioned as an affordable escape from the monotony of “bread, dripping, jam and tea”.
Fish and chips became part of the way British people described who they are. A kind of national symbol that to some degree transcended social class. Walton cites a wistful remark from a patriotic, right wing magazine published in 1927, lamenting that England used to stand for “statesmanship and stability, bowler hats and brollies, afternoon tea, cricket, old school ties, fish and chips, jellied eels and a week at Bognor”.
To some extent fish and chips in Australia also shares a connectedness to values associated with working class patriotism. Perhaps the most significant example of this in recent years is evident in the story of Pauline Hanson, who has often traded on her experience owning and working in a fish and chip in Ipswich.
A mood in a meal
While neither uniform nor complete, fish and chips have undergone a decline in Britain and Australia since the second World War. There are no doubt many reasons for this, key among them the increased presence and popularity of other, aggressively marketed, fast-food options from America.
To this extent, fish and chips have value as retro icon, which can be activated for both negative and positive purposes. In W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, for example, fish and chips are part of the broader, melancholic atmospherics of British seaside towns, such as Lowestoft and Southwald, which no longer cater to the same number of holiday goers they once saw in their heyday, before Ryanair allowed people to fly to Northern Spain for a pittance—although, other perspectives on the towns show them in a less lugubrious dimension than Sebald.
Sitting down to dinner in an otherwise deserted hotel restaurant in Lowestoft, the narrator is served “a fish that had doubtless lain entombed in the deep-freeze for years”. The amusing description which follows is without doubt the most elaborate piece of culinary criticism in Sebald’s oeuvre:
The breadcrumb amour plating of the fish had been partially singed by the grill, and the prongs of my fork bent on it. Indeed it was so difficult to penetrate what eventually proved to be nothing but an empty shell that my plate was a hideous mess once the operation was over. The tartare sauce that I had had to squeeze out of the plastic sachet was turned grey by the sooty breadcrumbs, and the fish itself, or what feigned to be fish, lay a sorry wreck among the grass-green peas and the remains of soggy chips that gleamed with fat.
There are few better ways to dramatise a sense of disappointment than through a bad meal. If, as Steven Connor suggests, eating is ‘the most conspicuous form of our bodily transactions with the world’ (2010: 332), then the descriptions of food can carry with them the sensory force of an insult or embrace. Sebald transfers some of the sensitivity he shows to buildings, atmospheres, people and objects to the delights and disappointments of the table. The battered fish is understood as the consequence of different, enduring events that occur over time (from its tomb in the deep freeze, to the grill, to the narrator’s plate) and a spatially interesting phenomena, composed of a distinct interior and exterior.
The presence of oil, such a crucial aspect of the fish and chip experience in general, gives further expressivity to the meal. Oil is unique as a substance in its paradoxical capacity to mediate and carry light between the interior and the surface. This no doubt partially explains its centrality to religious rites of unction, a power is which is backgrounded in favour of the restorative creaminess of contemporary cosmetics (Connor, 2004). When things gleam with oil, like the narrator’s chips, they suggest an oiliness that is more than just a surface phenomena. Things that gleam with oil are oily through and through. Oil soaked.
Leo Schofield is more sanguine in his account of the iconic Australian fish and chippie, Doyles, in the Avis Guide Eating Out in Sydney 1975. Writing of the now closed iteration of the restaurant at Rose Bay, Schofield describes the atmospherics as “rampant Aussie kitsch”, and, like the fish and chips in Britain, which represents something essentially British, is essentially Australian:
The menu with its news items about Granny Doyle’s secret recipe for Chilli Plum Sauce, the waitresses in their button-through dirndls, the nickel cubes of paper serviettes, the waxed paper buckets of tartare sauce, the massive helpings…could they happen anywhere else but Oz?
The meal is the battleground where Australia fights to transcend its Anglo heritage: “The British may have invented Fish and Chips but the Doyle’s perfected them. Made batter that’s crispier and crunchier than any Pommie fish chop could manage and wrapped it round fish that leaves plaice at the starting post in the flavour stakes”. Much hinges on the batter, which is the vehicle for delivering the allusive but all important crispness.
The late twentieth century cultural theorist Roland Barthes has perhaps had the best word on the culinary phenomenon of crispness, which he suggests “designates an almost magical quality, a certain briskness or sharpness, as opposed to the soft, soothing character of sweet foods.’’ In oily foods like fish and chips the task of generating crispness is all the more tenuous, but when it comes off, satisfying richness is covertly delivered as a kind of freshness. Richness as freshness, which the Krispy Cream franchise so unabashedly advertises, is the ultimate culinary trick.
The sensory impact of the dish and the experience at Doyles becomes the material for what, with contemporary eyes, seems to be one of the most unfortunate food related metaphors I’ve come across: “The fish, of course, is wonderful and the French would poach it exquisitely, veil it in some cloud-like sauce and gently seduce one’s taste buds. At Doyles they’re not French and Australians prefer rape to seduction any day”. And if that weren’t bad enough, he continues, “If it’s inevitable, relax and enjoy it.” Then, on the next page, the review for Doyles on the Beach, at Watson’s Bay, begins, “Rape as before, but this time on the beach.”
I’ve discussed the political and ethical implications of this language is some detail elsewhere. Sadly we haven’t moved on that far: the US president happily flouts the word when manufacturing a sense of indignation about the extent to which foreign countries feel an entitlement to America’s benevolence.
Passing over the chilling nature of Schofield’s metaphor, it’s evident that once again fish and chips provide the context for an Australian identity to be distinguished. This time the meal functions as a point of distinction between Aussies and the French, who are stereotyped as more delicate and seductive, in comparison with the brash, direct Australian experience on offer at Doyles. Schofield is no doubt letting his own writing drift into a kind of deliberate poor taste that matches the kitsch quality of Doyles. Whether or not it serves him well in this regard I’m unsure.
For Schofield, and perhaps for Sydney, Doyle’s has become a paradigm for Australian dining. When referring to the Paragon Seafood Restaurant in Malabar, he describes it as “the Southern Suburbs answer to Doyles” and muses that in the right weather when “the sun is high and the wind not too much so” that there is “no more perfect place to lunch” than at the concrete promenade at Watsons Bay (where the oldest iteration of Doyles Fish and Chip Restaurant still operates).
Detecting kitsch has become difficult now that irony is so pervasive and its manifestations so varied. Merivale’s growing portfolio of themed eating outlets toy with the limits of the stylish and the kitsch in this regard. The Fish Shop in Potts Point is a perfect example. A classic Sydney manifestation of the culinary postmodern, it’s a retro throwback to a pastiche of different histories and cultures, and to my knowledge the first, new, self consciously retro fish and chippie of its kind in the city. Terry Durack captures it well in his 2012 review: “Part English fish-and-chippy, part New York oyster bar and part Maryland crab shack, it’s also hysterically, crazily, absurdly, over-themed”. The least authentic thing about it is the $28 price tag for the fish and chips, a far cry from its working class origins. It’s an approach that makes use of history and culture as reference points, but the goal is atmosphere rather than accuracy—so, if he wants to remain free from hypocrisy, this writer can’t afford to be too cynical about the enterprise.
Once again, much is made of the consistency of the batter in Durack’s review:
“The four fingers [of flathead] are lightly battered and lightly cooked, which means the fish is cooked perfectly but the batter softens quickly. They’re going to have to toughen up and cook longer and harder, especially for takeaway orders. The accompanying chips, some of which are skin-on, are also quick to soften; as opposed to the golden triple-cooked chips you get when you order chips as a side order ($6.50).”
Softness is the death of crispness. Such is the importance of this mysterious “food spirit”, to use Barthes’ words, that it is worth risking over-cooked fish in order to achieve it.
The new Saint Peter fish butchery on Oxford Street is a further evolution in the fish and chip culture of Sydney. An absence of omnipresent fish shop ice, or the ice-water hybrid, slurry, will be among it’s key features. Transition to slurry, or more broadly, temperature control, is the reason why traditional fish and chippies often feature those distinctive plastic flaps at the entrance.
Fish in the Saint Peter butchery will “be displayed in static refrigeration rather than on ice”. A small scale approach will allow proprietors Josh and Julie Niland to focus on the product with a degree fastidiousness hitherto unheard of in fish retail. Part of this approach is informed by Niland’s knowledge that once caught, fish and water do not mix. It gets into sponge-like flesh and, you guessed it, prevents the flesh from staying crisp: “If there is excess moisture present, the skin will struggle to stay crisp or the flesh will be wet and potentially mushy if cooked through.”
The butchery will sell the takeaway fish and chips previously available at the nearby restaurant, which, in my opinion, is the best fish and chips in the city.
Gleaming with reviews
According to Google Maps there are a handful of fish and chip shops near where I live in Waterloo. The oldest is Alexandria Seafood, established in 1986. Thirty plus years is great going in a city like Sydney, particularly when persisting at the same thing without expanding or reimagining the enterprise.
Unlike many of the new eateries in the area, Alexandria Seafoods is not in a food precinct in a converted industrial warehouse. It’s not on a high street either. I must have come close to seeing it dozens of times, in the blur of a run or a car trip, before it became explicit: an isolated marine outpost in an unlikely suburban street. On the various drop down banners and the awning a distinctive fish icon swims amid bubbles. There’s another, different fish on a backlit sign above the awning, with a curious, bright green face and tail.
Worryingly, the only fish on display on my recent visit is already in batter and looking a long way from fresh. There’s a laminated page from the 2006 SMH Good Living (what Good Food used to be called), stuck to the wall, exact date November 28. It’s from section written up by Kate Duthie, titled ‘Feedback’. The reader-centred premise is made for a dish like fish and chips, which induces parochialisms usually reserved for mum’s cooking or regional preferences. Annie, Craig, Deez, Rach, Sunny, Polly, Crustacean lover, Weezy, Scott, Gill, Liz, J.S., Diane, Peter, CD, Tim, papertiger and Jason have all written in with their favoured fish and chippies. Jason’s comment is last, highlighted in pink:
Alexandria Seafoods on Mitchell Road is always busy, regardless of when you go there. And for good reasons. The fish and chips are lovely and crisp, and never too oily. Grab half a dozen oysters while you wait and your fish and chips down the road at Sydney Park.
Crispness, again! And maintaining that delicate balance of oily goodness without greasy saturation.
I can confirm with certainty that today the place is no longer “always busy”: it is sometimes not busy. On Sunday evening last week, for example, there wasn’t another customer in sight at 6pm. I wonder how they justified having four blokes behind the counter watching the league. Maybe turning a profit is only part of the story and it’s also an opportunity for the family to hangout. Maybe they do their trade a bit later, or earlier, when the footy is on at Erskinville Oval. Maybe Fishbone & Co, recently awarded “The Best Chips in NSW” (by who I’m not sure), just up the road on McEvoy Street is sucking away some of the trade.
The reader review from 2006 stuck to the wall is a quaint artefact from a time when such perspectives were harder to access. Search ‘Alexandria Seafoods’ in Google and you’re immediately supplied with 83 Google Reviews, plus 37 on Zomato, 11 on Trip Advisor and 10 on Facebook, each accompanied by the omnipresent scale of five stars.
My levels of doubt about quality increase as I read more reviews, despite the overall rating of 4.5 stars. All it takes is a couple of naysayers to introduce uncertainty (the same technique used by climate change deniers). This is the world of online rating systems, where the standard very quickly becomes ratcheted up to perfect, close to perfect or a no go zone. Soon it will make more sense to assume everything is between 4 and 5 stars and give the score as a fraction between 4 and 5. Then as a smaller fraction between 4.9 and 5 when that system is broken. And so on ad infinitum. The Zeno’s Paradox of online rating systems.
While there’s not a fish and chip shop on every corner these days, viewed through the prism of a smartphone, there seems like there’s enough to keep even a capricious foodie occupied. Catching the train from Penrith to Redfern with ‘fish and chips’ typed into Google Maps is an experience that is at once distressing and full of promise, as tens of unvisited, frequently reviewed, fish and chippies appear and disappear on the smartphone.
Maybe there’s something in Ben Evan’s idea of future shops trying to make themselves ungoogleable, catering to a loyal crowd of word-of-mouth customers, with the paradoxical collateral, no doubt, of appealing to hipsters and being discussed more than ever online. It’s easy to see how trying to opt out of the internet would become a full time occupation, there’d certainly be no time left to watch the rugby league on Sunday.
Barthes, Roland. ‘‘Toward a Psychosociology of Contemporary Food Consumption,’’ in Food and Culture: A Reader, ed. Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik (New York: Routledge, 1997), 31.
Connor, Steven. The Matter of Air (London: Reaktion, 2010).
Connor, Steven. The Book of Skin, (London: Reaktion, 2004).
Lee, Tom. “Contemporary Perspectives in Aesthetic Theory: Steven Connor, Sianne Ngai and the Edible World.” Journal of Aesthetics and Culture (2016): 8 (1).
Sebald, W. G. The Rings of Saturn. Trans. Michael Hulse. London: Harvill Press, 1998.
Walton, J.K., Fish and Chips, and the British Working Class, 1870-1940. (A&C Black, 1994).