Thursday, September 26, 2019. London, England.
Soundtrack: Primus – Fish On
I just finished re-reading a masterpiece of anti-agricultural thought called Against the Grain, and the sordid history of the potato? Absolutely bonkers.
Nothing is more British than fish and chips, except maybe atavistic royalty and losing control of colonies. The question is, why is fish and chips so British?
Potatoes are and always have been poor person food. That sounds classist, but it’s a fact. You can grow potatoes on a 5-foot square plot, they’re calorically dense, and you don’t even need an oven to cook them. You just throw them into a fire and then eat them after. Bone apple teeth.
England hated potatoes and loved bread. Their devotion to tradition ensured it was the mainstay of their meals for most of their history.
So Ireland would make the wheat, and the British would take the wheat, and kick Ireland in the ribs for good measure. Trendsetters as they were back in the 19th century, most of Europe considered the potato food fit only for livestock and the Irish. The French thought it was poisonous.
It got so bad that this zany reverse-correlation developed where it was popularly believed that eating potatoes made you poor, sick, and dirty. The people eating the potato were the ones who couldn’t afford anything else, so of course they were poor, sick, and dirty.
Another reason Ireland leaned so heavy on potatoes was England clear-cut all of Ireland’s forests, and they had no fuel left. To make bread, in addition to wheat, you need a place to mill it and a place to bake it. The Irish poor had neither. They didn’t even have coal; they were burning peat. That narrowed it down.
Here’s how narrow. The Irish had a saying: “The sauce of a poor man is a little potato eating with a big one.”
In the beginning of the 19th century, populations were booming everywhere and England had more poor to contend with than they ever had before. Not even just in Ireland, either! Domestic poor. There wasn’t enough bread to go around, so they gradually began adopting potatoes, though nobody was happy about it.
And now enters the colorful little edict of “enclosure”. In the early 1800s, subsistence farmers in Ireland and England were booted off of farmlands taken for the aristocracy. It bankrupted Ireland, inasmuch as Ireland could be more bankrupted, and almost certainly played a role in the potato famine.
So these peasants aren’t peasants any more, because they lost all their fields. They had become wage workers for the nobles who scooped up their farms. No place to grow your food, and not enough money to buy it… what’s a boy to do, Jean Valjean?
The English poor started growing potatoes in what was left of their backyards. The “lazy root” was back on the table.
In industrial English tenements, there were no cooking facilities whatsoever. Industrialization sucked up all the land, and a package of calories that could be speed-cooked on the literal street became very attractive.
Now, here’s where it gets interesting.
Factories in England didn’t have anything resembling a concept of “worker’s rights”, and so paid their expendable machine fodder underclass in one lump sum. “Split it amongst yourselves. Shoo.”
The workers would take the wages down to the public house to split it up. The pubs did a decent business with drinks as it stood, and now everybody was coming in at least once a week with all of their money.
Well, all the people had was potatoes and occasional fish. So that’s what they cooked up and sold, on the spot, every payday and throughout the week.
And thus, fast food was born.
Appetizing, isn’t it?
I’m going to level with you; the fish was so greasy I barely made it through, and I am an insatiable human vortex. I didn’t eat any of the potatoes. They make you poor and dirty.
Another proud, closely held tradition.