On my first evening after emigrating to the UK I ate some bad fish and chips at a pub in Wheelton, Lancashire and spent New Year’s Eve 2003 being profoundly sick. I’d ordered them in a hopeful fervour of assimilation, despite my well-documented loathing of breaded seafood dating all the way back to fish sticks and tartar sauce at elementary school. That pub in Wheelton put me and fish and chips back by several years. But slowly, over the next decade, progress was made. As my vowels softened from New England into something incrementally more Lancastrian, I learned that placing the fish between the slices of a bun put it into a context I was more comfortable with, and that, when hot and liberally doused with malt vinegar and salt, even the limp, mealy fries the British inexplicably prefer can make for fine eating.
A decade on, I have definite preferences: a haddock fillet with light and non-soggy batter, mahogany edges protruding from the soft embrace of a scantly buttered bap. Fried in dripping, not sunflower oil. Always with scraps, those delectable leftover fragments, the pain perdu of the fryer. I was delighted when my husband first told me about them, including the offhand information that in the chippy near his school in Batley, West Yorkshire you could get a bag of scraps for nothing. Whenever I order at the counter I have a spectral vision of my husband, spindly legs protruding from his short trousers, cradling a warm paper bag of scraps lovingly in his small hands.
I still have to mind my nomenclature. At our regular chippy in Ramsbottom, outside Bury, I ask for a fish muffin with scraps, but further into Lancashire’s interior it’d be a fish barm with scratchings.
Even if I get it right, someone will always look up at hearing those unlikely words in my accent, and I will have to engage in that bit of banter about me being a local girl.
No matter how many times I’ve heard the words “you’re not from around here, are you?” it is always a new observation for the person speaking them. More than that, it is a friendly overture, an expression of honest curiosity that should be met with kindness. I have to remind myself of this sometimes. My young daughters, however, have impressively robust Bury accents, and are devoted to fish cake. People in the chippy who hear us talking sometimes look from them to me with confusion, as if a cow had given birth to a pair of lambs.
The truth is, I like knowing about scraps and scratchings, and by this point I don’t really care how odd these words might sound coming out of my mouth to an actual British person, who probably has more important things to worry about. I’m a writer. I love words, and for ten years I have been swimming in a broth of British slang that is just too delicious for me to resist. I started out with a tentative ‘ta’ at the bus driver (you have to salute a country where everyone habitually thanks the bus driver on disembarking). Ta seemed to go over okay, so I branched out. Words like ‘wittering’ ‘knackered’ and ‘pillock’ entered the rotation a few years ago. But there are limits. Cockney rhyming slang remains firmly out of bounds, and you ever hear me say ‘What ho!’ please take me out behind the garden shed and slap some sense into me. Or have Jeeves do it.
There are parts of being British I will never get, because I didn’t grow up here. I’ve made my peace with the fact that I will always be lousy at pub quizzes and cryptic crossword puzzles, and I will always find the Match of The Day theme amusing. I understand that I will always stick out a little. Yet there is one kind of comfort in being an outsider. And there is a different kind of comfort in being an outsider who knows some of the right words, and possesses strong fish and chip preferences.
There are large territories of the plastic-lettered chippy menu board that I have yet to personally experience, including curry sauce, breaded burgers and something called a pineapple fritter.
I wonder about them sometimes as I walk home, a thin plastic bag filled with dampening paper parcels of fish and starch and grease twisting in my hand all the way up Bolton Road. But I will probably never do more than wonder. I have found my plaice, and I’m stopping here.