Fish & Chips
by Jeff Lewis

Growing up, fish & chips was a meal that was heated on a baking pan.  The fish cutlet came from a box, the french fries from a plastic bag.  A hearty mix of mayonnaise, mustard and pickle relish accompanied them.  On occasion, tater tots could be substituted for the french fries, but usually the tater tots merited their own night and were matched with ketchup.  We also ate the odd plate of fish & chips at Long John Silver’s or an English-themed pub, but it wasn’t a meal that excited the Lewis boys like a trip to Wendy’s or the all-you-can-eat tostada counter at The Sizzler.

When I moved to England for a year in late 1994, my views on fish & chips changed.  I was living in a university house of residence, subject to the whims of the hall’s catering staff, which usually took this form:

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Shot glass of grapefruit juice
or
Cup of watery leek soup

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White roll
or
Slice of white bread

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Boiled meat with boiled vegetables
or
Boiled fish with boiled vegetables
or
Boiled vegetable casserole

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Rhubarb pie in yellow sauce
or
Mummified apple

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If the meat dish happened to be something inedible—like if boiled fat was substituted for boiled meat—I was out of luck because the vegetarian option was solely for vegetarians or—on boiled pork night—for practicing Muslims or Jews.

I hope I don’t sound like a privileged, ungrateful lout.  I ate all the food I received, but I was playing for a water polo team and needed a higher caloric intake than a small portion of boiled meat and veggies provided.  After dinner, I often would hoof it to one of the many take-out restaurants that catered to the still hungry students.  The near-by options were limited to cardboard pizza, a chippie (serving fish & chips), KFC and Pakistani food.  The Pakistani food was outstanding, but due to high demand, it took a very long time to get served.  I was resolved not to eat at KFC, so in the first few weeks in England, I usually chose between the chippie and the pizza stand.

The chippie was cheap.  Three pounds—about five dollars—bought a mountain of fries and what seemed to be an entire cod.  The fish & chips tasted good, but were so greasy that the paper holding them leaked oil like a '79 Pinto.  After eating, my face and hands glistened and my stomach rumbled.  It took three or four of these meals for me to vow that, for the sake of my angry stomach, my fish & chips days were over.

After about five years, I lifted the ban, in part because of the book The Basque History of the World, by Mark Kurlansky.  It’s a history of the Basque people, whose culture thrived, in part, because of their intimacy with cod.  I decided that what’s good for the beret-wearing, jai-alai-playing, bull-fleeing, New-World-exploring, whale-harpooning, O-blood-circulating, Guggenheim-building, cod-salting Basques is good enough for me.  Kurlansky also wrote Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, but a read through that book would have been preaching to the choir.  I’d already vowed to eat the pale flesh of the cod family more regularly.

I began my new life respectably enough.  At restaurants, I swapped steaks or rack of lamb for grilled halibut, cod or sole.  Occasionally, though, when grilled fish wasn’t available, I settled for fish & chips.  At some point in the late 90s, I dropped fast food from my diet and fish & chips became a ruse to trick my newly health-conscious mind into accepting french fries.  Even worse, I’d always lap up all of the tartar sauce in the metal cup-thingy.  I convinced myself that the benefits of those omega threes outweighed the grease, the mayo in the tartar sauce and the mercury in the fish.  I knew better, but soon I wasn’t “settling for” fish & chips, I was craving them.  It came down to this:  Me Want Fries.  And also this:  Tartar Sauce…Good.

I fight a pitched battle with this desire for french fries.  Our trip through the Pacific Northwest presented a challenge because seafood is the region’s culinary strength.  Our friends from the area and our travel literature were unified in their cry to eat fish.  I took this as a call to eat fish & chips.

After two days in Washington, I concluded that there is not a substantial difference between a portion of fish & chips in the Pacific Northwest and, say, a batch of fish & chips at a Denny’s in Albuquerque, particularly if your palette focuses on the fries and tartar sauce.  Feeling sheepish because I wasn’t making the most out of my dining experience, I ordered halibut at expensive restaurants on back-to-back nights.  This created a new layer of guilt because the $100 meals didn’t really fit into our vaguely-defined trip budget.

The second halibut meal—which included a side of fries and mayo—prompted me to reevaluate my life and the role of the cod family in it, or at the very least, in our trip.  Fish & chips were out, as was halibut if it cost over $12 a plate.  In other words, no more greasy foods and expensive restaurants.  On the way home from the second halibut meal, I broached the subject with my wife, Lynn:

“We should cut back on the number of times we go to restaurants.  We should eat more vegetables and I think we’re spending too much money on food.  How about if we stop by the organic market on Robeson St. and get some more groceries?”

This was not a bold statement, since I was basically reiterating her opinion on the matter from an earlier conversation, when we decided to eat out only once a day.  Her response this time was obliging, but lukewarm, “OK, but we’ve only been eating out once a day.  Do you really want to eat two meals a day in our room?”

I hadn’t crunched the numbers.  Two meals a day of crackers, cheese and carrot sticks didn’t sound too good, especially if breakfast consisted of bread, cheese and plums.  Still, the memory of dipping fries into mayonnaise, followed by paying a large tab, made me zealous.  I wanted Lynn to genuinely agree with me.  “Don’t you think it would be a good idea?!”, I said, and then delivered what I thought would be the coup de gras:  “We could buy a crudités platter!”

Humoring me, Lynn said without conviction, “That’s fine with me.”

I needed validation through enthusiastic support, so I decided that now was the time to make my french fry problem public:  “Also, I’m going to stop eating french fries.  I’ve been eating too much fish & chips.  I’m going to stop ordering fish & chips.  Instead, we can eat meat and cheese and figs and nice bread.”  (I couldn’t think of the word charcuterie.)  “And celery.  We could buy pre-cut celery.”

At the organic market we purchased various charcuterie-type items, fruit and a few snackable vegetables.  We didn’t buy figs, but to assuage the fish & chips guilt, I bought Rye-Crisps and three pounds of non-fat organic fig bars.  Yum.

The next day, I ordered fries at a restaurant in Whistler.  That’s just plain sad.  For dinner, my penance was rye-crisps.

The day after that, we took a ferry that hopscotched between the Gulf Islands—the Canadian equivalent of Washington’s San Juans.  Our destination was Saturna Island, a secluded artists’ colony off the coast of Vancouver.  We choose it because it was the least touristy of the Gulf Islands, but it was perhaps a little too far off the beaten track for a day trip.  When we got off the ferry, either a relative or friend greeted each of the dozen or so fellow travelers who disembarked with us.  They drove their separate ways, leaving us standing alone in the tiny street with four hours to kill.

We planned to have a light lunch at the Saturna General Store, which doubles as a café, and then take a walk to a sheltered cove near the ferry dock.  Our leisurely one and a half mile walk from the dock to the café took about a half an hour, including time spent photographing the yucca plants that belonged in Southern California rather than Southern Canada.  We had a nice, healthy lunch.  I ate a delicate Dungeness crab sandwich and Lynn had spanikopita with a green salad.  We split blueberry pie and the bill came in under $30 Canadian.  Factor in the walk and we had a guilt-free lunch.

We still had two and a half hours to kill, though.  Saturna, according to brochures, has plenty of sights to see, but it’s not conducive to a short walking tour.  Therefore, we stuck with our plan to visit the sheltered cove near the dock.  After about a forty-five minute walk, we reached the cove, traipsed around in the mud a bit, snapped a few pictures and considered our options for the next hour and a half.

We probably could have explored on foot some more or bribed a local into giving us a kayak tour, but I have a deeply-ingrained need to be early for public transportation, whether it’s a plane, bus or ferry.  If we missed the ferry, we would be stranded for the night and probably would have to beg to spend the night in the lobby of one of the B & Bs that we saw with “No Vacancy” signs.  Catching the ferry, therefore, was our top priority, so we headed back to the dock, where we hoped to wait out the remaining time while sipping on iced tea at the dockside pub.

I’ve never felt comfortable in the café culture that allows you to buy one drink and sit for hours at a table.  I start feeling bad for the proprietor or worry that another patron may sit down at my table and demand to discuss Derrida or make me listen to Yo La Tengo on her iPod.  In the past, when serving as a designated driver, this unease led me to order one soda after another—with a pint of orange juice now and then for variety—because I need a glass in my hand to prevent feeling like a loiterer.  Also, I could avoid uncomfortable small talk with strangers by staring at the ice, seemingly contemplating its “iceness.”

Anyway, this mindset afflicted me at the dockside pub.  When I ordered our drinks, the bartender was gruff, which reinforced my need to order something else after I finished my syrupy iced tea.  After half an hour of swirling the straw in the dregs, I felt compelled to buy the $3.00 cup of minestrone soup.  At a bar, nothing fulfills my need to be a customer better than ordering food, even if it’s just a cup of soup.

It is pointless, though, to attempt to order minestrone soup in an understaffed bar on a secluded island in a country founded by the English.  A pub with beer-themed lights over its pool table and one food preparer generally serves one type of soup:  canned.  Minestrone is a solid, sometimes spectacular soup when prepared with inspiration.  From a can, it is a slap in the face of Botticelli, Garibaldi, Ferragamo and the rest of Italian culture.

As I waited my turn to order, I began having second thoughts about the minestrone and searched the photocopied menu stapled to a nearby post for a better option.  Clam chowder certainly wasn’t better.  Nor was chicken salad.  A retiree jabbered on to the barmaid about how she’d heard “great things” about the pub’s fish & chips.  The barmaid merely grunted, which I should have taken as a sign of caution, and turned to take my order.  The barmaid raised her eyebrows expectantly while I searched the menu vainly one last time, trying to push the thought of “great things” out of my mind.  I wilted under the pressure.

When I returned to the table and couldn’t look my wife in the eye, she knew.

Copyright Jeff Lewis, 2004