Your Plaice Or Mine
photo credit: jovike
I’ve no love lost for chips. I hate how the grease sits on your fingers, and lolls around on your tongue and gums like a layer of scum you can only tolerate when pissed. But contrary to personal taste, and a year away in Toronto where Caribbean roti shops and proper pizza dominated the diets of hungered commuters, a rabid curiosity around the chip shops back home arose.
It led me on a journey into take-away culture – something of a half assed archaeology of those little bombs of obesity that sat at the top of our city’s culinary apex until the Spar deli counter came along and liberated us with rip off tuna wraps and whole wheat bagels.
You see, sail through Dublin and you’ll find a fast food outlet of Italian ownership every couple of hundred yards. And when you think about it: somewhere in that, there’s an untold social history of a simple culinary practice and set of immigration patterns that form a hugely silent role in feeding this dirty old town.
There’s actually not a lot written on the history of fish and chips, in the UK there’s one academic tome on the British romance with batter. It weighs in at a couple of hundred pages and costs over one hundred euro online – industrial Oldham in the UK claims possession of the first fish and chip shop, and apparently Charles Dickens mentions a “fried fish warehouse” in Oliver Twist. So there.
And somewhere along the way, through streams of half digested articles and internet tid bits, I’m lead to believe it’s all linked to a mid 19th century intensification of trawl fishing in the North Sea, and the creation of a market in working class districts that fed labour into the emerging factories of the new industrial age .
One London sanitary inspector described it as a “petty trade” in the 1870s, one that caused a “considerable” smell from the cotton-seed oil – an odious nuisance that drifted from the poor streets in which the friers lived to better-class housing nearby, generating furious complaints.
But how does such a food culture become infused with Italian immigration to Ireland and monopolise so much of our food culture? After moving here in 1999, Carla De Tona, a Trinity based social researcher honed in on Italian migration to Ireland often found herself stuck with the same question.
The journey into chip continues after the jump…
“I was constantly confronted with this same heritage, and trying to understand why some Irish people were asking me how we cooked fish and chips in my place in Italy, I wondered whether their surprise at learning that we don’t cook fish and chips in Italy, was as sincere as mine when hearing such a question.”
In her research, she identified an early 20th Century a chain migration from the Frosinone province, between Naples and Rome, that literally colonized the niche of fish and chips catering in Ireland. She mentions how the Dubliner poet of Italian descendant, Vincenzo Caprani, recounted growing up in 1940′s Dublin, with no homeland connections, apart from fish and chip shops; places the over stretched imagination of poet Michael O’Loughlin, later called “the forgotten consulates of obscure Appenine villages.”
With these bare sketches in mind, I hunted out people to talk to but phone calls for interviews got me nowhere. As I scanned through the yellow pages for some of the more popular Dublin family names like Borza, Forte and Mizzoni, a huge feeling of internal ridiculousness sat heavy on me as counter staff struggled to wrangle a delivery out of me as I implored them to hand me over to the boss man.
“I don’t suppose Mr Mizzoni’s knocking around is he? I want to talk to him about the history of the chipper.”
He and the others were always on permanent holiday, are you surprised?
Taking a more forceful approach, one drenched under the curse of God and his summer deluge, a three day rat run began around the city on a bike, from chipper to chipper in search of origin myths and in refutation of recycled urban lore about why an early wave of Italian immigration to Ireland brought us that distinctly English practice of fish and chips.
I started on the Northside, where not a chipper would chat to me: all of them were preparing for the avalanche of appetite and quest for beer soakage that was due to pour out of Croke Park after the Cork and Kilkenny semi final. It was down on Capel St, where Guido Fusciardi was the first to entertain an increasingly intrusive set of questions about why his family came over with fish and chips in tow.
“Well, there just was no jobs. My grandfather came over from Italy in the early thirties, he went to Belfast first and then he came down south, he came to Dublin. And opened the shop here. He was from Casalattico, just outside Rome, thats were most of the Italians in Dublin are from. They all went there because that was the place to go, it was where the boat came to, it didn’t come down south, maybe went to Scotland, England or Northen Ireland and then down south.”
Usually I’m the sort that wrecks the head of chip loving friends, groping around their take away bag for those shards of truly crisped chips at the bottom and always taking a skivers pleasure by gleefully pointing to the scoop of free chips thrown in alongside the one battered sausage I order; a very knowing abuse of an old Dublin tradition of chip shop genourisity and one I quiz Guido on.
“We always throw some on top, it’s just always been a way that its been done. You get a bag of chips and you throw some on top of it. It’s always been known as the poor man’s food – fish and chips as they call it. And back in those days, like my grandfather didn’t speak very good English, so that’s why it was called a ‘one and one.’ So they could understand a ‘one and one’ they knew was a fish and chip. That’s how the name came about for a ‘one and one’, and a ‘single.’ All these things came from years ago.”
As one of the only immigrant communities coming into the country for decades and with clear language barriers, you start to wonder if there was much experience of racism among the older generations like his grand father.
“No see he died six months after I was born, so I never really knew him. From all I can remember, from my father and the like – yeah, but sure I did when I was in school. When the football was on and Ireland were playing you were Italian, and then if Italy won you went back to being Irish again. Name calling but there would never have been racism like there is today.”
It was a migration that ran counter to Ireland’s own outward journey into diaspora, forming itself amidst the building sites of the UK and the North where savvy workers would hold onto enough capital to take themselves out of the labour market and into running small businesses.
As Mussolini entered the second world war, the internment of Italians in the UK led to a flight into the North and down South. With famine and the exportation of so many of our food resources, there was clearly a gaping hole that Italians could fill with their experience of fish shops elsewhere.
Guido’s take away has been in the one location on Capel St since 1936, the oldest in the city to remain within one family. It’s seen the city change around it.
“We’ve taken a hit over the years, with fish and chips and burgers. And we do healty options food like we’ve diversified away from solely fish and chips. But there’s a lot that’s gone on in the city centre that’s caused things to go quiet like the LUAS; drove a lot of our customers away. Customers we used to see maybe twice a week might only be twice a year now. Just because they won’t walk around the corner.”
Even the traditional items that dwell on those back lit white boards in chip shops are facing dangerous erasure by the thrawling that made the trade possible.
“It’s over fishing and the stocks are too low, they’ve plundered the sea for too long. If they don’t do something soon I’d say in ten years there mightn’t be cod on the menu in any chipper, we’ll have to diversify and go to some different type of fish. Which is not a bad thing, if it’s not sustainable then they shouldn’t be doing it.”
Fillipio Fusco’s father opened their sit down chipper in the heart of the Liberties in 1963.
“We’re forty five years and two weeks here. We’re down from the South of Italy. We know everyone in the area and seen everything change. It’s not what it used to be. It’s all foreigners now, all the locals are gone, sold out or gone down the country. ”
Desperate to talk to his father as one of the more famous chip shop owners in the city, I’m wracked with disappointment that he’s out of the country as Filipio tells me of a solid relationship with the homeland.
“Yeah, my parents are over there and I’m going tomorrow.”
He’s not too enlightening on why fish and chip shops opened up either, simply letting me know with a weird grin on his face that “one started it up and then they all copied him.”
People to talk to had really started to dry up, most of the owners were far from friendly and looked like they have, as my compadre in the furious cycle around chippers, the bold Dr Groove put it: “been getting high on their own supply for some years.” And really why should anyone have entertained my volley of questions as a I waved a soaked and ragged old copy of this magazine at them to drag down their shield of suspicions?
I tried a place called Italia Una out near Terenure, the outside was mustard yellow with Chinese writing blending in with images of Italian villages and Chinese religious iconography. The Chinese guys inside had just took it over and it looked a bizarre clash of two very diverse takeaway cultures.
“Can’t you talk to me for even a moment?”
“No no ,we have to get the orders out.”
A brisk paced delivery boy, gathered around for a moment and stared at me before dashing in and out of his car with order after order under their arm, chips and burgers sweating themselves silly in plastic bags.
“Come back next year when we are running properly. We are so busy.”
Two days in and friends had started to get in on the quest, taking pity on the obsession and firing off bits of advice, prompting me with their own favourite chippers and too many musings on why take-aways mushroomed all over the pale and beyond: “I suppose people really just like chips.”
One friend mentions Dino’s Bar and Grill out in Terenure, it’s in Thin Lizzy’s The Boy’s Are Back In Town, as in they’re “down at Dino’s bar and grill / The drink will flow and the blood will spill.”
Dino proves elusive. He is, his wife tells me, off across the road eating in the Terenure Inn. I haven’t spent two days, rampaging around Dublin on the trail of half baked oral histories not to talk to him. So I dip into a pub across the road, with eyes glued to the door of the chipper for any sign of him entering.
Suddenly he’s there, and I give it ten minutes for this immortalized legend of chippy culture to settle. He speaks with a deep Italian accent and starts to fill me in as I push him away from the notion that this is an advertorial piece. Unlike all of the other’s I’d met his family weren’t from Casalattico but Sora.
Enamoured as we are with our humble spud, it’s probably a surprise to many that many better chippers don’t use native crops. Dino knows and he should – his chips won the All Ireland, something he greatly impresses on me.
“We pay dear for a certain type of potato, the chippie. You won’t get Irish potato for chipping, you have to import the one for chipping. The Irish potato is not substantially good flavour for chipping. It’s okay for boiling, it’s okay for mash but not for chipping.”
I turn the topic over to the Thin Lizzy song. The restaurants changed since the seventies, having expanded into more traditional Italian foods – but he remembers well.
“The Lizzy song is 1971, we had these four friends they used to come up from the nightclub, the Hitchy Fit down the road here. And they used to come out here every Friday and Saturday and the four of them used to eat here all the time. We established in 1970′s and a lot of famous people come in here like foot ball teams, like what’s his name, that new guy?”
The guy that owns Forte’s in Terenure had quipped at me earlier in the day “quite simply Irish people don’t understand Italian food.”
“So you punished us with fish and chips instead?” I thought to myself.
With no names or dates, Dino’s myth of origin proves to be the most specific despite being stripped of detail and names.
“They were four friends and there were two arrived that arrived in Ireland and two that arrived in Scotland. Of the two that arrived in Ireland, one started an icecream business and the other in fish and chips. But the icecream business didn’t go because the country is too cold and it just doesn’t go, so he went in the fish and chip business as well. And then the people in Scotland started fish and chips, one of them came into Northern Ireland the other stayed in Scotland and then the family expanded in England.”
That’ll do me then.
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