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Hard times for fish and chips - The Codfather tells his tale

By Dieter Ebeling     Jan 27, 2001 in Lifestyle
London (dpa) - Jack the Kipper was the name Doug Reed chose originally for his fish and chips shop in the shadow of the Tower of London.
Denizens of the East End, far from the tourist masses to the west, would have recognized instantly the reference to Jack the Ripper, who murdered and mutilated at least seven women in the area in the 1880s.
And they would have had no difficulty in grasping that the name was that of a "chippie", where battered cod and large potato chips with optional salt and vinegar was the staple fare.
But because this was the home of the most English of English dishes, and because he liked the sound of the Godfather with its criminal connotations, Reed, 64, settled for The Codfather.
Reed does not lack an English sense of humour - and he needs it to survive in his business in London today.
"You can do a full day's work here," he says as he slaps down the next portion of fish and chips on the counter.
The days of newspaper wrapping are long gone - now an insulating polystyrene box suitable for takeaways contains a mountain of freshly fried chips on top of which lies a large piece of cod, encased in a simple batter and fried in hot oil.
This is the small portion and costs four pounds (six dollars). The large can be had for 4.70 pounds and is only for the ravenously hungry.
Reed is facing a truly existential question. Have so many chippies gone out of business down the years because this dish, laden as it is with calories and carbohydrates, has become a relic of times past, when most performed physically demanding labour and had to feed themselves on as little money as possible?
Perhaps the chic new set moving into the new flats, which have risen where the run-down wharves and workshops of London's old port once stood, have taken over with their predilection for sushi. A kind of culinary revenge on the working class?
"Hot summer days are a bad time for business. When it's hot, no one wants fish and chips," Reed says.
But there are other reasons. In the immediate neighbourhood there are two Indian restaurants and three sandwich bars, according to Reed who holds up five work-worn fingers to make his point.
The competition is making itself felt at the Codfather, and it is the curry houses in particular that are making inroads. There are said to be around 9,000 chippies left, and the number is in decline. There are at least as many curry houses, and they are increasing.
Chicken Tikka Masala, a curiously Anglo-Indian dish that few Indians would recognize, is the most often consumed dish in English eateries - and not fish and chips, according to the statistics.
And researchers at Nottingham University say they have discovered that a Briton's heart beats 4.4 times a minute faster at the sight of the aromatic chicken dish and 6.7 beats faster in the case of the spicier lamb dish Rogan Gosht.
The prospect of a hearty meal of fish and chips could only manage to push the rate up by 3.2 beats, although the fact that the research was commissioned by a producer of curries and Indian spices could have had something to do with the result.
If you can't fight them, join them, is the way Reed sees things. He has added beef and mutton curries to his menu, alongside Chicken Tikka Masala. He also offers potato cakes.
Fish and Chips make up only half of his turnover these days.
Asked whether the shop still pays, he says: "Yes but only if you work hard." Reed's day starts with peeling the potatoes at 6 a.m. - he goes through 100 kilograms on a cold day.
"I close at around midnight," he says, casting a weary involuntary glance at his watch.
Although dismissed by one culinary author as "tasting like old socks", fish and chips has had something of a revival among the island's gourmets.
Current favourite among the cookery writers Nigella Lawson - How to be a Domestic Goddess - recently described preparing a fish and chips meal as the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the Japanese Tea Ceremony.
The confidence to prepare the dish - which requires coordination and timing if both are to arrive on the table piping hot and freshly fried - had for her come only at the age of 40, she said recently.
Novices could not manage it alone. The key was to ensure that the fish was fried through but still juicy, the batter had not gone soft and that the chips were not hard, she said.
But another more serious threat is looming over the chippies that used to cover Britain. Cod is now under serious threat as a result of years of overfishing. Once a dish for everyman, the white fish is becoming a delicacy that only the well-to-do can afford.
Reed gets his cod from Iceland, but the fish are becoming ever more expensive and smaller. As a result he increasingly offers other species, like halibut.
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