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Dec 01

Fish and chips: an old-new tradition for Chanukah?

This week, guest blogger Libi Astaire joins me to share another interesting glimpse into Jewish culinary history—just in time for Chanukah. Ms. Astaire is the author of the popular Ezra Melamed mystery series, set in Jewish Regency England, as well as a series of Chassidic tales for the Jewish holidays, and other literary delights. Visit Ms. Astaire’s author page on Amazon.com.

Chanukah lights

The Kindling of the Hanukkah Lights, Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Every once in a while I’m contacted by an aspiring author of historical fiction who wants to know how she (or he) can make the historical research faster and easier. Fortunately, the contact is usually made by email or phone; that way they can’t see me silently shake my head in dismay. Yes, we’d all like to be more efficient. But if I were to try to save time, I’d cut back on the time I spend on Facebook and Twitter. The time I spend doing historical research—even when it seems like I’m getting nowhere—usually turns out to be pure gold.

An example: A few weeks before Chanukah, I decided to research how Jews living in Regency England celebrated the holiday. Did they have any special customs or foods? Although my primary goal was to come up with a nice blog post, I figured I could also use the information in my Ezra Melamed Mystery Series, which is about—you guessed it—Jews living in Regency England.

Several fruitless hours later, my research seemed to suggest that either Regency Jews didn’t celebrate Chanukah or that they fasted for the entire eight days. In other words, I couldn’t find a single thing. Even my usual trustworthy source, Lady Judith Montefiore, author of the first kosher cookbook published in English, The Jewish Manual, let me down. While she lists recipes for other Jewish holidays—such as Passover and Purim—there’s not a word about Chanukah, let alone a recipe for potato latkes (pancakes).

Lindo Hanukah Lamp, John Ruslen, London Jewish Museum

Lindo Hanukah Lamp, John Ruslen, London Jewish Museum

It was already late at night when I finally discovered my first clue that Jews living in Regency England—or, to be more precise, Georgian England—did indeed celebrate Chanukah. A stunning Chanukah Lamp, called the Lindo Chanukah Lamp, was made in 1709 by English silversmith John Ruslen for a young Jewish couple who had been newly married in London’s Bevis Marks Synagogue, Elias Lindo and Rachel Lopes Ferreira. And as I gazed at the photo of this Chanukah lamp, I realized where I had gone wrong with my research.

Chanukah, which commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem during the time of the Maccabees, is a minor holiday in the Jewish tradition. We celebrate it by lighting candles for eight nights, singing traditional songs such as Ma’oz Tzur (Rock of Ages), playing dreidel (a spinning top with letters written on each side), and giving Chanukah gelt (money) to the kids. We also eat foods fried in oil, such as potato pancakes or jelly doughnuts, which symbolize the miracle of the one small cruse of pure oil that miraculously was enough to last for eight days, until a new batch of pure oil could be made to light the Temple’s Menorah. It’s a holiday that’s mostly celebrated quietly in the home with family and a few friends—a scene similar to the one depicted in a painting by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim of a Jewish family celebrating Chanukah in 1880s Germany.

Because of these two factors—Chanukah is a minor holiday and is celebrated primarily in the home—it is perhaps not surprising that there’s very little information about how it was observed in Regency England. Still, people do have to eat. So I continued to search, and that’s when I struck oil.

A Fishy Turn of Events

As their names suggest, Elias Lindo and his bride were Sephardic Jews—Jews whose ancestors came from either Spain or Portugal. I therefore refined my search and asked the “Googler Rebbe” to tell me about what kinds of foods the Sephardic Jews living in England ate. The answer was surprising: fried fish. Not only did they eat fish fried in batter, but they were the ones who first brought this delicacy to English shores way back in the 1500s!

Malin’s - “The World’s Oldest Fish and Chip Business,” 1972

Malin’s – “The World’s Oldest Fish and Chip Business,” 1972

These Sephardic Jews were members of the small crypto-Jewish community who lived in London during the Tudor period. Manuel Brudo, a member of that secret community, recorded in 1544 details about how the crypto-Jews prepared the dish: They first sprinkled the fish with flour and then they dipped the fish in eggs and bread crumbs.

Even during the Regency era fried fish was associated with Jews. Thomas Jefferson, who spent time in London before he became president of the United States, wrote home about eating some “fried fish in the Jewish fashion.” He enjoyed the dish so much that he brought the recipe back with him when he returned to Virginia.

Lady Judith Montefiore, whose husband was the famous Sephardic philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore, includes two recipes for fried fish in her cookbook, The Jewish Manual: “Fish Fried in Oil,” which is in the Sephardic tradition, and a recipe for “Fried Soles in the English Way.” (See below for the recipes.)

Okay, I can hear some of you thinking, maybe the “fish” in fish and chips, that quintessential British food, is more Jewish than British. But what about the chips?

Some food historians credit the Belgians with being the first to deep-fry potatoes. The French, naturally, object, claiming that there is a reason why they are called “French fried potatoes.” Indeed, Thomas Jefferson is once again our culinary source; in 1802 he hosted a White House dinner which included “potatoes served in the French manner.”

Apparently, though, Jefferson didn’t serve his “French” potatoes with his “Jewish” fish. That mouth-watering combo didn’t come about until the early 1860s, when a 13-year-old Jewish boy named Joseph Malin came up with an idea to help supplement his family’s income. He fried chipped potatoes in the basement of his family’s East End home, bought some fried fish from a shop, put the fish and chips on a large tray, and then proceeded to hawk his wares in the crowded streets of London.

Malin’s Plaque from the Archives of the National Federation of Fish Friers

Malin’s Plaque from the Archives of the National Federation of Fish Friers

Another version of the story says that Malin had a fishmonger store and the chips came from a nearby shop owned by an Irishman. But lest you think this twice-told tale is just a bubbe meise (grandmother’s tale/old wives’ tale ), it’s recorded in sources as diverse as the BBC and Gil Marks’s authoritative Encyclopedia of Jewish Food (although the non-Jewish eatery Lees’ of Mossley, located in Lancashire, claims they were the first fish and chips shop). The Malin family continued to sell fish and chips for a century or so, and in 1968 the National Federation of Fish Friers even presented a commemorative plaque to “Malin’s of Bow,” which also had the distinction of being the first London eatery to wrap the fried fish in newspapers so the customers could “carry out” the meal.

What does all this have to do with Chanukah? Absolutely nothing. But I never would have discovered this fascinating bit of Jewish culinary history if I hadn’t asked the question about Chanukah during the Regency era. And this year maybe we can start a new Chanukah tradition: Have fish and chips for dinner on one of the eight nights.

Lady Judith Montefiore’s Fried Fish and Potato Recipes

These timeless recipe are from Lady Judith Cohen Montefiore’s The Jewish Manual / Practical Information in Jewish and Modern Cookery with a Collection / of Valuable Recipes & Hints Relating to the Toilette.

PRELIMINARY REMARKS

Fish to be fried should be rubbed in with salt, dried, rolled in a cloth, and placed for a few minutes before the fire previous to being put in the pan.

FISH FRIED IN OIL
Soles, plaice, or salmon, are the best kinds of fish to dress in this manner, although various other sorts are frequently used. When prepared by salting or drying, as above directed, have a dish ready with beaten eggs, turn the fish well over in them, and sprinkle it freely with flour, so that the fish may be covered entirely with it, then place it in a pan with a good quantity of the best frying oil at boiling heat; fry the fish in it gently, till of a fine equal brown colour, when done, it should be placed on a cloth before the fire for the oil to drain off; great care should be observed that the oil should have ceased to bubble when the fish is put in, otherwise it will be greasy; the oil will serve for two or three times if strained off and poured into a jar. Fish prepared in this way is usually served cold.fish and chips

FRIED SOLES IN THE ENGLISH WAY

Prepare the soles as directed in the last receipt, brush them over with egg, dredge them with stale bread crumbs, and fry in boiling butter; this method is preferable when required to be served hot.

POTATOE SHAVINGS

Take four fine large potatoes, and having peeled them, continue to cut them up as if peeling them in ribbons of equal width; then throw the shavings into a frying-pan, and fry of a fine brown; they must be constantly moved with a silver fork to keep the pieces separate. They should be laid on a cloth to drain, and placed in the dish lightly.