Thursday, 15 November 2012

Let them eat chips!


I was in Ireland the other week when I saw a sign outside a restaurant, proudly advertising ‘No chips here!’

It took me aback. I love chips. Everyone loves chips, don’t they? Why would you boast of not having them? Isn't that like saying: 'None of that horrible chocolate stuff here', or 'No booze!'?

But maybe that chalked notice wasn't really about food. Maybe it was about class. Perhaps in Ireland, 'No chips' translates as 'Don't worry, no plebs in here.'

That's certainly how things used to be in England. 

Once upon a time, middle-class mayonnaise wouldn't be seen dead with chips

In the 1980s in my home county of Worcestershire, the owners of a successful food-pub (we didn't have 'gastropubs' back then) sold up and bought a new place.

When devotees of the old place turned up at the fancy new gaff, all excited, they found a curious thing about the menu: no chips. (The old place had done famously good chips.) 

If you asked for chips, the manager would proudly, and slightly condescendingly, inform you that “I’m sorry, we don’t do chips here.”

They’d gone ‘upmarket’, you see. And back in 1980s Worcestershire, chips were still seen as downmarket. 

As I remember, the new place didn't last long.

Until recently, no English food has been such an instant delineator of class than chips. Back in the 1930s, if the notorious tinned salmon on a Sunday placed you firmly in the lower-middle class, then 'cheap as' chips marked you as among the great unwashed.

The upper classes have always had their chips, too, in the form of game chips, though they're really more like crisps and, besides, the upper classes have always had the good sense to grab the best of everything and not worry about the consequences.

When Arnold Wesker wrote his 1962 play about class attitudes in Britain, using the army as his microcosm of life, he called it Chips with Everything (that was the privates, see?). And in the brilliant Eighties heyday of the satirical comic Viz, the ever-classy Fat Slags ate nothing else. 

The Eighties, with the Big Bang and all that, was a great social-climbing era. Chips even managed to sneak into Michelin-starred restaurants. But they'd have to be smuggled incognito as 'Jenga potatoes' or 'fried potato Kerplunk' or some other novelty.

In general, though, the chip has known its place in the potato pecking order. And that place has been in the pub or the chip shop, tugging its forelock toward the boulangère, the gratin, the duchess, the purée, even the mash (which must have been galling – what is it about mash that makes it classier than chips?!)

Thing is though, and I hate to tell you this, Mr Irish restaurateur, this is the 21st century, and things have changed. The chip's time has come. 

In England, chips are no longer prole food, dole food. Way back in the Nineties they were 'rediscovered' by middle-class foodies in the era's new-found passion for everything 'authentically British'. (Remember Gary Rhodes making all those things with beetroot?)

And today, chips have reached the highest echelons. They are served as canapés at posh events in artfully reproduced ‘newspaper’ cones, and in upwardly mobile restaurants in dinky mini fryer baskets. Even Heston Blumenthal does them, albeit ‘triple-fried' in his trademark fiendishly complicated fashion. 

Chips hob-nob with the titled, the rich, the powerful. Chip eaters don't have a chip on their shoulder any more. They're likely, in fact, to be the type of people who call other people plebs. Chips have joined the Chip-ping Norton set. 

Walk into the latest 'authentic' American diner or barbecue joint in London's East End, usually owned by a pair of Old Etonians/Harrovians/[insert public school alumni here], and you'll find burgers, hot dogs, grits, barbecue – and lots and lots of chips.

They'll unashamedly call them chips too (unless they're French fries, which is fair enough, because French fries aren't chips). They'll boast about how they've cooked them, whether it's the Heston way, the 'aren't I dangerously risqué?' drenched in beef dripping or the New Labour-esque roasted in a wood-fired oven with bits of rosemary chucked on top.

Chips are everywhere, from Starburger to Byron Burger, from greasy spoons to private dining rooms. The class battle has been fought and won. Chips may not be with everything, but they're for everyone, from plebs to debs. And we're all comfortable with that.