British American usually refers to Americans whose ancestral heritage originated in the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). In the 2017 American Community Survey 1,891,234 individuals or 0.6% of the responses self-identified as British. It is primarily a demographic or historical research category for people who have at least partial descent from the peoples of Great Britain and the modern United Kingdom. The first English settlers were males drawn from social classes with little experience of hunting, fishing, or cooking. Although much of their food did not survive the sea journeys, they brought cattle, swine, poultry, and honeybees with them and introduced wheat, barley, rye, and fruit trees to America.
When the colonists came to Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, or any of the other English colonies on the eastern seaboard of North America, their initial attempts at survival included planting crops and farming animals familiar to them from back home in England. Their manner of cooking also followed along the lines of British cookery up until the American Revolution.
The diet of New Englanders was plain, featuring cod and corned (preserved) meat. Popular dishes included succotash (a mixture of beans and corn) and baked beans prepared with salt pork and maple syrup. The English also learned from Native Americans to combine lobsters, shellfish, and vegetables in communal clambakes. They drank beer, often brewed from corn, and cider made from apples and pears. In time, rum made from West Indian sugarcane and tea from China became popular. As women joined the settlements, they were expected to take over the cooking, most of which was done over open fires.
Wheat, however, the grain used to bake bread in England, was almost impossible to grow in the eastern colonies, and imports of wheat were costly. Substitutes like cornmeal became standard for baking bread. Many of the northern colonists depended upon their ability to hunt, or upon others from whom they could purchase the game. The commonly hunted game included deer, bear, buffalo, and wild turkey. The larger muscles of the animals were roasted and served with currant sauce, while the other smaller portions went into soups, stews, sausages, pies, and pastries. Scrapple, a traditional dish of the Delaware Valley region, is still eaten today.
A number of fats and oils made from animals served to cook much of the colonial foods. Many homes had a sack made of deerskin filled with bear oil or rendered pork fat. Pork fat was used more in the southern colonies than the northern colonies as the Spanish introduced pigs earlier to the South. The colonists enjoyed butter in cooking as well, but it was rare prior to the American Revolution, as cattle were not yet plentiful.
In comparison to the northern colonies, the southern colonies were more diverse in their agricultural diet. The Piedmont uplands and the coastal lowlands made up the two main parts of the southern colonies. The diet of the uplands often included wild game, cabbage, string beans, corn, squashes, and white potatoes. Colonists ate biscuits as part of their breakfast, along with pork. The lowlands, especially in Louisiana, included a varied diet heavily influenced by the French, Spanish, Acadians, Germans, Native Americans, Africans and Caribbeans. Rice and peppers were a large part of their diet. In addition, unlike the uplands, the lowlands main source of protein came mostly from coastal seafood.
As the colonies grew so did travel and that of taverns and pubs. The availability of meat and game exemplified America’s bounty, so that venison, pigeon, turkey, duck, bear and other game were usually on the tavern’s menu, both in the country and in the city. Vegetables were not often eaten in those days. Fish was popular and breakfast usually consisted of several eggs, game birds, pancakes, and coffee or tea.
Back in the UK the tradition of fish battered and fried in oil may have come from Jewish immigrants from Spain and Portugal. Western Sephardic Jews settled in England as early as the 16th century and would have prepared fried fish in a manner similar to “pescado frito”, which is coated in flour then fried in oil. Charles Dickens mentions “fried fish warehouses” in Oliver Twist (1838), and in 1845 Alexis Soyer in his first edition of A Shilling Cookery for the People, gives a recipe for “Fried fish, Jewish fashion”, which is dipped in a batter of flour and water.
As time passed fish and chips, served in a paper wrapper became popular. The exact location of the first fish and chip shop is unclear. The earliest known shops were opened in the 1860s, in London by Joseph Malin and in Mossley, near Oldham, Lancashire, by John Lees. However, fried fish, as well as chips, had existed independently for at least fifty years, so the possibility that they had been combined at an earlier time cannot be ruled out.
Fish and chips became a stock meal among the working classes in England as a consequence of the rapid development of trawl fishing in the North Sea, and the development of railways which connected the ports to major industrial cities during the second half of the 19th century, so that fresh fish could be rapidly transported to the heavily populated areas.
Deep-fried chips (slices or pieces of potato) as a dish may have first appeared in England in about the same period. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that its earliest usage of “chips” is mentioned in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (1859): “Husky chips of potatoes, fried with some reluctant drops of oil”. This British favorite crossed the Atlantic before long. You can make this updated version at home for a real treat.
British Fish & Chips
For 4 servings
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon kosher salt
2/3 cup beer
1 1/2 pounds skinless, boneless wild Alaskan cod(because of its quality and sustainability)
Vegetable oil, for frying
Good-quality malt vinegar, for serving
2 russet potatoes, peeled
Vegetable oil, for frying
In a medium shallow bowl combine the seasoned flour ingredients and set aside.
In a large deep bowl place the batter ingredients. Using a fork mix the ingredients until a thick, smooth batter forms. Place the batter in the refrigerator to rest for between 30 minutes and an hour.
Cut the potatoes into 1-inch slices, then slice these into chips, however wide you would like them. Place the chips into a colander and rinse under cold running water.
Place the washed chips into a pan of cold water, bring to a gentle boil and simmer for 3 to 4 minutes.
Drain carefully in a colander and then dry with paper towels. Place the potatoes on a tray and refrigerate covered with paper towels until ready to fry.
In a high-sided heavy pan, add oil to a depth 1/3 full and bring up to a temperature of 375°F.
Dry the fish fillets with paper towels. Dredge each fish fillet in the seasoned flour and shake off any excess.
Dip into the batter.
Then carefully lower each fillet into the hot oil. Fry for approximately 4-5 minutes, or until the batter is crisp and golden, turning the fillets from time to time with a large slotted spoon.
Using the slotted spoon, remove the fillets from the hot oil, drain on paper towels, and season with salt. Cover with greaseproof paper and keep hot.
Bring the oil in the same pan to 350 degrees F and cook the chips until golden and crisp about 5-6 minutes. You may have to do this in two batches depending on how wide your pan is.
Serve immediately with the fish accompanied by malt vinegar.
May 13, 2019 at 11:17 am
Thanks, Jovina – I’ve been waiting for a good fish and chips recipe.
I’m still waiting for a recipe that will use Maldon Salt, Marmite, Bovril, Salad Cream, and a Branston Pickle.
May 13, 2019 at 11:22 am
A tall order for an Italian.
For the Love of Cooking
May 13, 2019 at 11:23 am
Yum! I love fish and chips.
May 13, 2019 at 12:32 pm
One of my favourite things but sadly not the most healthy thing 😉
May 13, 2019 at 12:34 pm
No, it is not – just for a special treat.
May 13, 2019 at 5:28 pm
This was a thoroughly interesting read. Fish and chips is classically British – in most towns there is a ‘chippy’ on almost every corner!
May 13, 2019 at 9:03 pm
There is nothing so good as malt vinegar on fish and chips!
Pingback: America’s Food – British — jovina cooks | My Meals are on Wheels
May 15, 2019 at 11:21 am
A thorough and informative article. Thank you! As a New Englander, many of the original staples you named are still the backbone of many a kitchen. I love fish and chips, and when I visited England I really looked forward to trying the dish there, and I did at several recommended places. I was actually a little disappointed that the English fried fish was no better than what I get here in New England! What I did love was the malt vinegar readily available there to sprinkle on the fish.
May 15, 2019 at 12:07 pm
Thank you so much for sharing your experience.