Thursday, 20 August 2009

Rooted cosmopolitanism: staple foods

More historical pedantry proving that cosmopolitanism (rooted, rather than rootless) can give us what we think of as most uniquely our own (more here and here).

First, fish and chips. Couldn't be more British? True - now, anyway. But it began life as the mixed race (or dual heritage, if you prefer) Whitechapel-born child of the potato-loving Irish and the piscaphilic Jewish.

Once the Irish could be persuaded to try their favourite staple French-style, the two were deep-fried together, a method of cooking fish introduced by the Jews. It made a tasty, nourishing and convenient meal that happily meant some religious dietary requirements could be observed, especially on a Friday, when a fish supper appealed to both Jewish and Catholic traditions. Adapted further - spoilt really - in the more barbarous parts of the country through the addition of mushy peas (wrong, just wrong).

Secondly, the ice cream van: as exotic as Macdonalds. Its origin is to be found in the back streets of Clerkenwell, a home for nineteenth century Italian immigrants (whose descendants still run some excellent delis and cafes in the area).

Some of these Italians entertained the London public with organ music accompanied by a capering monkey. Others, from different regions of the home country, made ice cream, selling it from stalls. An obvious synergy there.

Following some intense merger and acquisition activity a new food and leisure conglomerate emerged: the organ-grinding ice cream seller, horse-drawn or hand-pulled. Watch my monkey caper whilst sucking on a delicious ice! No wonder it caught on.

Like all good entrepreneurs, the Italians kept an eye on technological innovation. Motorising the barrel organ was only a matter of time: the modern-day ice cream van, complete with whippy cones and 'o sole mio' chimes arrived in the 1950s, a clarion call to ices. Shame about the monkey.

Motorised Italian barrel organ, with ice cream, without monkey


worm said...

I mentioned it before in one of your previous posts about 'rooted cosmopolitanism' - it would seem that what you are trying to encapsulate is something that errs towards what the french already have a word for - 'terroir', (or in spanish called 'terruno' or 'pago')

The main question is, why have we brits not got a nice one syllable word of our own? 'rootedness' just doesn't seem poetic enough, and 'sense of place' and 'provenance' don't cut it either.

I think the time has come for a word to be invented, a word that in a few short letters explains in an utterly intangible way why pasties eaten in Cornwall taste better than pasties eaten anywhere else

Gaw said...

We certainly don't appreciate what we've got. Pies for instance. When they're good, they're world-beaters. Pies. I love them. I do, you know.

Perhaps a website should be set up to encourage connoisseurship of humble local foods? Reviewers would be encouraged to talk in highly pretentious terms about things like pasties.

Sean said...

are you stalking me?

That very ice cream van probably is the very one i used to run too on a Sunday afternoon to fill the family bowl up.

If you look closely at the picture it says "Sheffield 2"

Granellis are on a par with willy wonkas chocolate factory in my childhood dreams.

The old guy is now in his 80s and still flogs 99s to the kids in Hillsborough park.

Gaw said...

Sean, the picture was pulled off the web pretty randomly. Nice to hear the van's still in use. Hope there's a next generation. The business used to be nicely profitable and a cash business to boot. Accounting for the gangland 'ice cream wars' in Glasgow in the '80s.

Sean said...

The next generation is the grand daughter, very nice too, granddad (who was standing behind) winked and nodded to me as i bought a 99 the other day, the future is bright despite my gloom.

Gaw said...

Nothing like a 99 to cheer you up (Willie McBride's version as well as the ice-cream!).