Once, in any given week, and usually on a Friday.
For many readers of a certain vintage, this is akin to constitutional law. I’m referring here to the regularity of chip consumption. The unwritten code has a surprising tenacity which creeps across generations, class and culture. My somewhat less than comprehensive survey revealed that it has been permanently installed, perhaps at a very young age, into the subconscious thinking of many an innocent chip eater. I, for one, have unwittingly accepted the once-a-week-chip-law as a core value with complete and utter resignation.
For the benefit of non-northern natives, and for the avoidance of doubt, the chips mentioned here are proper chip shop chips. They are the peeled and thickly sliced wedges of raw potato deep fried in a huge vat of sizzling animal fat or vegetable oil until they are soft on the inside and slightly crisp and golden on the outside. A clunkier, slower version of the French Fry if you will. That indigenous finger-licking treat is lovingly known, in Britain, as the chip. When accompanied with a portion of fresh fish dipped in white flour batter, also deep-fried, and a possible side portion of mushy peas, the humble chip is part of a filling meal which is affectionately referred to by many in the north as the ‘chippy tea’.
For many folks across the mining and mill towns of the industrial north, Friday was the end of an arduous, physically intensive, working week. And in an era when workers were paid weekly, Friday was also pay day. As the exhausting demands of the working week were temporarily abated, rest and recreation beckoned, and as you queued up to leave your place of work a little brown envelope of carefully counted cash would be placed directly into your waiting hand. A doubly exciting highlight.
I understand that eating fish instead of meat on Friday forms part of the Catholic faith tradition. So for some it was integral to their religious practice too. Weary and physically drained from a week’s work, and perhaps with a little spare cash in the pocket, the chippy tea was, and still is, a favourite Friday meal for many households. And perhaps, in the days when folks worked physically hard, the high protein, high carbohydrate meal served to refuel their depleted reserves, giving a much needed boost to energy levels and mood.
The chippy tea has the added benefit of giving the family cook a night off from cooking the evening meal (known as ‘tea’ in many northern regions of Britain). No decisions to make, nothing to prepare, no trying to please everyone, no answering hungry cries of ‘what’s for tea?’. The chippy tea is often served in a tray and/or paper wrapping, often with disposable forks, giving a night off from washing pots and a further feel-good factor.
Depending on the timing of your arrival, waiting in the chip shop is an exercise in endurance. Watching customers receive their food laden parcels is torturous. A ravenously hungry diner will rip open the paper before they exit and snaffle a burning hot chip. Immediately their eyes water and wince as the hot fat scalds the delicate pink lining of their open mouth. The burning chip dances from side to side. The red-faced eater pants rapidly like a pregnant woman in the final stages of child birth. Attempts to cool the white heat released from the scorching epicentre of the chip fail. One hand fans the mouth wildly. The other hand grips the parcel. Panic furrows the brow. Nevertheless, the eater refuses to spit the precious morsel out. Such is the powerful pull of the chip. Hot food face is not attractive, but we’ve all done it. We’re not proud. But we have.
Frying up a new batch of fish and chips can take as long as fifteen minutes but the staff will cheerfully tell you it will be ready in five. When the fast food is not fast enough, the anxious, hungry wait is on. Five minutes pass and the order still isn’t ready. It’s getting late but you’ve committed. You’re past the point of no return. In all my years of queuing for chips I’ve never seen anyone just give up and walk away. The sight and scent of sizzling chips holds us firmly in its primal grip. Chip shop owners fully understand the sheer magnitude of this invisible power and harness the mystery of it to make an honest living.
As the tempting aroma fills the nostrils, the brain concludes that the time to eat must be now. Saliva is generated. Raging hunger kicks in. Survival mode is activated. Customers twitch, clock the time, and each other. Front runners in pole position will stretch up tall and broaden their stance, hands on hips, they discreetly eyeball any contenders who might inch sneakily forward. Stragglers at the back of the queue play around with a recalibration. Giving up their place is weighed against the alternatives. Could I run home and fry some eggs before my chips are ready? Could I ask someone to keep my place, nip to the shop just a few doors down, buy/eat a chocolate bar and leg it back here before my chips have finished cooking? But moving forward by just one place seals the deal, the ranks close behind you, there can be no going back.
Sometimes there is a friendly, but nervous, camaraderie between members of the chip shop queue. Staff will crack jokes and enter into light hearted banter or local gossip in an attempt to diffuse tension and entertain their waiting customers. That’s when Chip Shops can temporarily become a community where valuable information is exchanged by the process of human osmosis. During several of these enforced limbos I became acquainted, episode by pleasant episode, with the entire medical history and horticultural planting schemes of a local gardener. And as a rookie reporter, I once wrote a favourable review of a local chippy. Perhaps I should add ‘chip reviewer’ to my CV. Some claim that the mood of the parents sets the mood for the whole family; that children are like little sponges, able to absorb the emotions of tired grumpy adults. They say the atmosphere of the household can change accordingly. When I was growing up my Mum and Dad worked long hours; they both experienced more than their fair share of exhaustion and hardship. But when chippy tea night came around I felt the household breathe a collective sigh of relief, the burdens of the week seemed to temporarily evaporate, and on Fridays we ate like lords!