The smell of a chippy is intoxicating in its familiarity. A greasy mixture of bubbling fat, fresh fish, vinegar and the starchy smell of batter in constant motion. Every second Wednesday was chippy night in my family. That's when the chip van stopped in our neighborhood in Coatbridge, filling the streets with wafts of this heady perfume, teasing us to try and resist. I was always sent out to collect the order—half fish supper with two pickles for me please, extra salt and vinegar—and I remember my glee as I ran home with the paper-wrapped bounty.
Everything about chippy night felt decadent: the greasy food, the lack of vegetables, the fact that we didn't have to wash dishes after dinner, being allowed to sit on the living room floor to eat, never mind being encouraged to eat it with our fingers. It was the gustatory highlight of a childhood punctuated by stovies, various freezer-to-oven delicacies and—my mum's favourite—soup and pudding night, where a tin of Heinz soup followed by semolina was fair game.
Now, however, I can't count the last five times I ate a chippy supper. When I try to enumerate them, I can only think of the moments I have acted as tour guide to visiting American friends. Like many other Scots, I oscillate between playing up the stereotypes of the terrible, deep-fried diet, and seeking recognition for the more acclaimed parts of the Scottish dinner table. Why make a fuss about black pudding, haggis, or (my favourite as a teenager) pizza crunch suppers, when we have Speyside salmon, Arbroath smokies, Highland venison, regional cheeses, seasonal strawberries and raspberries, traditional confectionary, and did I mention the whisky?
The cheap and cheerful, deep-fried supper is paired with the caricature of the Scots as an overweight, working-class bunch, while the venison-eating, whisky connoisseur is a Frankenstein mash-up of highland fantasy and a growing population of savvy eaters in Scotland.
The reality is that most people don't eat these things regularly either, but when you break down this dichotomy, the deep-fried arteries and the locavore bobo, it's a difference in class perception. The cheap and cheerful, deep-fried supper is paired with the caricature of the Scots as an overweight, working class bunch, while the venison-eating, whisky connoisseur is a Frankenstein mash-up of highland fantasy and a growing population of savvy eaters in Scotland. Like many other places in the world, we have our own local food movement, capitalising on the cornucopia of word-class, Scottish produce (see Mike Small's Scotland's Local Food Revolution), but this lifestyle choice isn't yet accessible to everyone.
The main difference between these two sides of a schizophrenic Scottish palate is that while neither of them are adequately representative, the idea of the working class nation is historically pervasive. From media representations to political statistics, Scotland's present and past identity is overwhelmingly more working class than the rest of the UK. This is reflected in the prevailing, deep-fried institution. And sometimes, we're OK with this stereotype. A lot of Scotland does have a strong connection to its working class culture and history, and to reject the deep-fried part of that would be to discard what for many of us is a source of nostalgia, if not regular nutrition.
This is not to discount the negative impact a fast food diet has had in Scotland, but to state what is perhaps the obvious: It is not the norm, but it's funny to pretend it is to unknowing visitors. I revel in the looks of surprise on my friends' faces as they find out about black pudding and watch as its milky liquid batter turns into a crispy, fat-filled treat. It's funny. It feels like my own inside joke with other Scots. This is what Michael Herzfeld calls cultural intimacy: a nation's collective self-recognition of their own stereotypes, and their speedy deployment if and when needed. Because when we are tourists, we necessarily reduce the places we're visiting to bite-sized chunks we can understand. And in Scotland's case, these chunks come battered and fried.
I don't eat deep-fried suppers anymore, partly because I'm a vegetarian, but mainly because it doesn't cross my mind to go for a chippy when I want some fast food. I'm lucky to live in Glasgow, where there's a diversity of eateries to choose from. Chippies belong to childhood, and teenage, post-pub munchy hunts.
But in writing this piece, I wanted to learn about the outsider, tourist experience of deep-fried Scotland. The Fringe is in full swing, which makes it the perfect season for tourist watching in Edinburgh. I Googled "best chippie in Edinburgh" to best mimic the tourist's behavior (and to find out that I didn't know how to spell "chippy"). I even checked the shop's reviews, and since only one of around 30 was from a Scot, I knew I was in for the authentic, tourist experience of deep-fried Scotland. I ordered a single pizza crunch with a pickle, and a can of Irn-Bru to wash it down. The golden batter was shiny with fat, and was adequately soggy from being doused with vinegar.
Bloody delicious, like it always has been to me.