Everyone says that travel is broadening – and it is – but often the things that stick the longest are the littlest things experienced along the way. You can spend the afternoon wandering through the Tate Modern then scurry over for a browse through Camden Market but what you recall is the ice-cold “fresh from the oven” corner shop pizza. You can lounge for two weeks on the golden sands of the second largest island in the Mediterranean perfecting a tan but wonder why you never heard of Nutella before. And you can set off for an evening of Shakespeare Near the Sea and finish the evening eating a French fry sandwich.
When I was a student teacher in the north of England, one night a group of us drove to the outskirts of Whitby, an historic market town in North Yorkshire, to watch an outdoor production of The Tempest. The night was clear and balmy and the production was wonderful. After the play finished someone suggested we drive into town to walk on the seaside, admire the ruins of St. Hilda’s Abbey on the hill, and get some local fish and chips. We piled in the car.
After parking near the waterfront and wandering the hilly streets for a bit, we chose a small chippie. As fish and chips aren’t included in the menu of New York City street food, I allowed one of the local teachers to order for me. I received my portion of battered, deep-fried fish nestled with wide cut fries in greaseproof paper patterned in old-time newsprint. The girl behind the counter also directed me to take a plastic-wrapped roll from a basket. I did as I was told but wondered why.
After we had all been served and wandered outside to sit on a stone wall and eat, I opened my roll and noticed that it was buttered inside. Seeing my quizzical expression, Iris gestured toward my fish and chips packet, and said, “You put it in.”
I separated the roll halves and inserted the hefty chunk of cod. The bun was so small that the fish hung out all around. Shrugging, I nibbled part of the edge of the drooping fish. My action was greeted by shrieks of laughter.
I looked up. “What?” I asked innocently.
“What you doing?” demanded Iris with her mouth full and her eyes huge.
“Um, I’m making a fish sandwich, but the fish is too big,” I responded.
“Not like that, love!” exclaimed Terrianne.
“Oh. Am I supposed to break the fish in half?” I asked. “It won’t fit in my mouth then.”
“No!” they both howled simultaneously at me, aghast. I stared back at them, baffled.
“It’s for the chips, love,” said Terrianne. “See?” I watched as she demonstrated what she had done with her portion; she opened the lid of the bun so I could see that the chips rested on the lower half. “You put the chips in, not the fish.”
“Wait, what?” I asked tentatively.
“Oi, it’s a chip butty,” answered Iris taking a large bite of hers.
“Then what do you do with the fish?”
They both stared at me as though I had lost my mind.
“Er, you just eat it,” offered Terrianne confusedly.
“I eat the fish from the wrapping but shove the chips into the buttered roll?”
They both nodded, their cheeks puffed out with their meal.
“I am making a French fry sandwich?” I asked.
They looked at each other. Terrianne swallowed. “I guess so if you want to look at it that way, but . . . it’s a chip butty.”
“It’s very good,” Iris assured me almost defensively.
‘When in Rome,’ I thought as I slid the fish slab back into the newsprint paper; gently I built a little pile of French fries in the vacancy and pushed down the lid of the bun. I took a bite. It was just as horrible and greasy as I had feared. But then I am sure that tourists to New York are appalled by the hot dogs sold by the corner food carts. (Truthfully, so am I; Jamie and I call them dirty water dogs and never go near them.)
We continued moseying along the pier eating our battered fish and chip butties. Afterward we drove back to Hartlepool.
It’s funny that all these years later I still remember the night I experienced the highest and lowest forms of British culture simultaneously, William Shakespeare and French fry sandwiches.