The Old Chelsea

It’s all downhill for the next millennium

Like a car salesman who won’t shut up about his college football career, Britain has never gotten over 1940, its moment of glory. Denmark and Norway had fallen to the Nazis, then Belgium, Holland, and France. America and Russia were still sitting on their hands. And one tiny, plucky island nation stood alone against global fascism—and faced down a campaign of terrorism that dwarfs the wildest fears of the present. Imagine fifteen September 11s stretched out over eight months; that’s what the Germans did to British cities.

“Let us ... so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour,’” Churchill urged his compatriots on the eve of the Blitz. And the British people, the nation of shopkeepers, pulled together and saved the world. They lived up to Churchill’s stirring request, and that was their triumph and their curse: it’s all downhill for the next millennium.

At the beginning of 1940, in response to the German navy’s attacks on shipping routes, Churchill’s government imposed food rationing. It lasted for almost a decade after Hitler’s defeat. While Americans livened up dinnertime with Jell-O and Spam, the British accepted hunger and austerity and culinary monotony as the price of rebuilding the devastated economies of liberated Europe.

Their noble sacrifice may have saved Europe, but it delivered a killing blow to their national cuisine. The conventional gripes against British food are outdated and parochial: every urban streetcorner boasts a decent curry house, and the millennial economic boom has had a salutary effect on the high-end restaurant world. But the terrible fact remains: for half a century, the British associated culinary deprivation with heroism and glory and their finest hour. They started to take a quiet pride in the awfulness of their food, and to associate gustatory pleasure with the weak sensualism that led the French to collapse so quickly in the face of the German tanks.

Almost every kitchen staple was subject to rationing: meat, milk, butter, sugar, cheese, lard, eggs, canned food. The shining exception was fish and chips, which Brits were allowed in unlimited quantities. This budget delicacy must have done much to dull the sting of wartime austerity. The oceans around Britain are full of barely distinguishable white-fleshed fish; her rain-battered climate encourages the growth of root vegetables. Deep-fry the fish and the tubers in beef dripping or vegetable oil and you’ve got a meal that can pleasurably be eaten several times a week.

Fish and chips was the first fast food, the original cheeseburger and fries to go. The ascent of the fish and chip shops, or “chippies,” mirrors the growth of modern London in the nineteenth century, with its teeming masses yearning for a quick bite to eat before returning to work in the factories. (“Confined as the limits of Field Lane are,” Dickens wrote in Oliver Twist in 1838, “it has its barber, its coffee-shop, its beer-shop, and its fried-fish warehouse.”) The dominance of fish and chips has been shaken in recent decades by the hamburger and the doner kebab. But unlike scones and crumpets and the other Masterpiece Theatre dishes, it’s still integral to everyday British culinary experience.

You can get fish and chips at any number of Bay Area pubs, where it sits on the menu alongside chicken strips and burgers, but the full chippy experience can only be obtained at an establishment whose cooking area consists of one huge vat of grease in which various objects are dunked and battered. The most authentic of these is the Old Chelsea in the Tenderloin.

In its total dinginess and lack of any prettifying décor, the Old Chelsea feels genuinely British. (The British are deeply suspicious of aesthetic enhancements to commercial transactions.) Very few people actually eat there, though; the Old Chelsea’s true function is as a sort of outsourced kitchen for the Edinburgh Castle pub, around the corner. You order fish and chips from the bar staff and they’ll bring it to you, along with the necessary condiments: corporate synergy at work.

An English chippy might serve a variety of North Sea white fish, for customers with palates sufficiently educated that they can differentiate between cod, haddock, plaice, and skate. The first time I ordered food at the Edinburgh, I asked the English waiter what kind of fish they had. He rolled his eyes and said, in a tired voice, “Fish that swim in the sea, mate”—a remark that gets right to the essence of the dish, and of British notions of customer service. Whatever its species, the Old Chelsea’s fish is robustly flavored and pleasantly flaky. Frying cod (or whatever) in fatty oil lends it the fat content of much more expensive fish like king salmon, making it all chubby and tasty.

As an alternative or supplement to the cod, you can get shrimp or oysters, both also deep-fried in batter. The shrimp are rubbery and dense with flavor. The oysters have that musky taste where you’d think there was something wrong with it if you didn’t know that was what oysters were supposed to taste like. All should properly be doused in vinegar, then dunked in tartare sauce. The flavors—fish, vinegar, tangy relish—achieve a kind of savory rightness; they seem to express one another in different registers. The chips are fat and chunky, with soft exteriors that allow the vinegar to soak directly through to the mealiness within.

When packaging food for the Edinburgh Castle, the Old Chelsea wraps it in newspaper pages, a practice that was outlawed in Britain in the mid-1980s for hygenic reasons. (Don’t worry—there’s a layer of butcher paper between the food and the newsprint.) Wrapping the fish in paper rather than, say, styrofoam keeps it moist, and generates the distinctive scent of Britain’s finest contribution to world cuisine, the smell of steam from warm fish rising up through yesterday’s headlines and achieving something close to glory.