Tuesday, 31 January 2012
Adventures during the Age Of Aquarius - Part III
Part I and Part II
Fish 'n' Chips is one of Great Britain's towering successes; 'chippies' are everywhere, not only in the UK but, by virtue of empire and tourism, in far-flung places all over the globe. The first fish-and-chip shop in London was opened in 1860. Nowadays there are chippies who sell you a curry or a 'Chinese', and always saveloys, a highly spiced, reddish brown sausage; the fried fish shop will probably be the last kind of eatery to go out of business. Fish has become expensive, the seas around the British Isles are overfished and supplies are shrinking, but if you want a cheap and nutritious meal, and lots of it, you can hardly do better than visit the chippy. The fish comes wrapped in a thick coating of batter, adding weight and a lot of calories to the dish. When it leaves its bath of sizzling oil the portions glisten with grease, the batter now mid-brown, crinkly and blistery. When you break the crust with your fork it comes away with a chunk of hard baked batter, while the fish inside remains pallid and soft. If you eat it quickly enough, before your portion cools, it's edible, even tasty, but once the batter has gone cold and soggy, each mouthful tastes of congealed grease. You need a lot of beer to neutralise the taste of cold fish-and-chips. The true aficionado adds a side of pickled onion or a 'wally' (a pickled gherkin), and always a generous sprinkling of salt and brown vinegar. Although I have not mentioned chips separately (a thicker kind of French fries), they are an integral part of the dish. The only vegetable allowed in the vicinity of fish-and-chips is a lump of mushy peas, bright green and squashed to a thick pulp, a kind of edible glue.
Take-away fish-and-chips were wrapped in a small sheet of greaseproof white paper and then newspaper. I believe, because I was told by knowledgeable and enthusiastic worshippers of the institution, that fried fish simply never tasted the same once white paper replaced plain newspaper. Apparently, newsprint on oil added the final, indispensable piquancy. These days newspaper has been done away with altogether.
I first came into contact with a fish-and-chip shop by working in one. When I was sacked from the laundry I urgently needed another job. My situation in England remained precarious, I only had permission to stay if I worked in one of the menial jobs foreigners were allowed to take away from the indigenous workers, who didn't want them. I even needed a permit to work in the laundry. My student status had expired and the immigration authorities were always on the look-out for those of us who outstayed our welcome. We made no contribution to the economy and paid no taxes. People were as paranoid about the menace of the foreign worker taking jobs away from the honest British labourer as they are now. Except that the fear of said foreigner scrounging off the Benefits System didn't exist then, because 'illegals' were not registered and therefore unable to make claims.
The laundry was situated off the Holloway Road in North London. The chippy was in Moorgate, in a dingy side street near the famous Moorfield's Eye Hospital in the City of London. It was owned by a Greek Cypriot couple. I had met their nephew, Lucas, in one of the many coffee bars in Soho; you could sit over coffee or a coke for an hour or more, talking to friends and listening to the music provided by some half-starved young man with a guitar. Lucas fancied me; I didn't particularly like him, but I was willing to consider the job he was offering with his uncle and aunt. He was helping them out himself, but keen to leave again. He'd squared it with them, he said; they weren't bothered about my illegal alien status and just wanted a waitress. "Start on Friday", they said, "that's when we are busiest. Come at 11 am and we'll show you the ropes". Apart from waitressing there were a few light duties like cleaning the tables and helping with the washing up.
I presented myself at 11 am. The place was a narrow rectangle, with three stainless steel deep fryers ranged along part of the wall opposite the entrance door, and three rows of tables, a dozen altogether, each table seating four. It was very basic, it had no washroom other than a little cubbyhole for the staff, the tables were formica topped and the chairs plain, a job lot from the cheapest catering furnishers."Nothing to it", I thought. I had never done any waitressing, but how difficult can it be to take an order, have it filled and carry the plate back to the customer.
Lucas, who spoke good English, explained the menu. Cod and chips, haddock and chips, plaice and chips, saveloys and chips or plain chips. Wallies and onions. Vinegar, salt and pepper stood on each table. No fancy extras like mushy peas, no tartare sauce, no ketchup; this was before the regular British palate went adventurous and began to trust such luxuries as beer batter or parsley garnishes. "You have to be quick", Lucas said, our customers work shifts and they have a thirty minute dinner break. Take their order as they come in, pass it on to me and uncle; we'll be ready with the first portions by the time they sit down."
"I can do that," I said; I knew that I was naturally quick on my feet and a fast learner to boot. "No problem."
At exactly four minutes past twelve the shop door sprang open and a tsunami of bodies swept into the cafe. "cod and chips, plaice and chips, chips twice, cod and chips . . . . . . . " Each of these bodies shouted at me on the way in, rushed past me to a table and sat down. A blur of men in grey or blue overalls, indistinguishable from each other. I stood by the counter, pad and pencil at the ready, and stared, my welcome smile a frozen grimace. Behind me, the counter was filling up with plates, Lucas and his uncle were shovelling fish and chips as fast as they could.The aunt was filling mugs with tea, several trays of them, and shouting at me too. "Come on, come on," she screeched. Her command of English was limited. I came out of my trance and moved.
Tea trays first, at least they had all demanded tea, there was no problem sorting out who wanted a mug. I simply plonked four of them on each table. The plates of food presented a problem; there was no chance that I'd serve the men in the order in which they had arrived or that they'd get what they wanted. I dithered for a second and then grabbed two plates at random, slapping them down on the nearest table. Back to the counter and the same again. And again. There was one chance in four or five that at least one customer at each table would be satisfied. "I ordered cod and chips and you've given me . . ". "Hey, we were first and you've already served that table . . . . ." "I want a double portion of chips.. " The plates on the counter were piling up and needed shifting. I had no time to worry about correct service etiquette. "Terribly sorry", I said, continuing to work my way back and forth along the two rows between the tables. "Sort it out, can't you." Some of them did, hindering my progress by handing plates to other tables, others switched them round at their own. Lucas came out from behind the counter to placate those most aggrieved. "She's new", he said, unnecessarily. The men settled down to eat fast and furiously, having to make up for the valuable minutes' eating time which my inefficiency had cost them.
Just before twelve thirty the first workers left and were quickly replaced by the next shift, equally undistinguished. We replayed the first sitting, except that Lucas stayed out with me to serve and auntie helped with the frying and shovelling. Had I thought at all what the job might entail, I would have expected concentrated work, a lot of grease and the smell of burning oil, steamed up windows and the odd linguistic misunderstanding; I would also have expected good-natured banter, maybe a flirtatious remark, and, above all, a tip. I got none of the latter but all of the former. By two o'clock "dinner time" was over, all the men were back at work and the cafe closed.
Lucas was counting the takings. "You would get used to it", he said, a question mark in his voice. "Do you feel like coming back on Tuesday? We could go and have a coffee when I'm finished here. Talk it over." He peeled off a couple of pound notes from the wad of cash in his hand. "Here you are, your pay for today," he said. "Enough to buy a fish dinner." He thought it was funny.
This job was worse than ironing shirts. At least there had been music-while-you-work at the laundry and I didn't reek of stale grease at the end of the day. The pay was lousy and Lucas might become a problem. Even if I learned to tell the robots who came to the cafe apart, would serving them fish and chips for half an hour several times a week enhance my knowledge of literary English? Hardly. No, this job was a dead end. But waitressing itself could be fun, couldn't it? Perhaps in one of the coffee bars I spent so much time in? I could always ask.