Food

A Brief History of the Humble Chip Butty

An evolution from the chip barms of the 19th century to an £8.95 Michelin-starred sandwich with aged Parmesan.
16 March 2020, 3:31am
Where Does the Chip Butty Come From?
Photos: VICE

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

“First thing’s first, you should be calling it a chip barm because the pillow-like barm cake is crucial,” one chip shop owner tells me.

“You need thick white bread, salted butter that’s even thicker than that and lashings of table salt and vinegar,” says another. A third – unsurprisingly from the south – adds: “I love cheesy chips, so we’ve added grated Parmesan to ours and serve it on sourdough.”

They are, of course, each explaining how they make the perfect chip butty.

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Last month, when Burger King announced that it was launching a Chip Burger (“a patty-less sandwich with French fries, mayo and ketchup wedged in between two buns”, as the fast food chain described it in a statement), social media erupted. “So, it’s a chip sandwich,” one American Twitter user wrote, before adding: “Burger King is guilty of cultural misappropriation.” Another user, originally from Birmingham but now living in the US, said: “Lived in America for nearly four months and when Burger King develops a burger with just chips on it, people lose their minds. It’s a chip butty ffs.”

The creators of the Whopper aren’t the first brand to be heckled over chip butties, either. When Food Insider appeared to claim it had discovered the carby snack in 2018, a now much-memed tweet went viral in minutes. “That’s just a chip butty hun,” read one British response, alongside an image of a chip shop sandwich. Clearly the world is in agreement: the chip butty is ours. But where did it originate? And, seeing as how we claim it so fiercely, can the humble chip butty tell us anything about British identity?

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The official line on the chip butty’s emergence is that it was born in Lancashire at Britain’s second-ever fish and chip shop. Mr Lees, according to the National Federation of Fish Fryers, opened in 1863 as a market stall in Oldham, and quickly became known for its generously sized “chip barms,” though the term itself didn’t start appearing in dictionaries, books, or even newspapers until well into the 20th century. This, says Professor Rebecca Earle, historian and author of Potato (Object Lessons), is likely a result of “the fish and chip shop and café boom that the 1900s saw” (a boom that has since seen over 10,500 chip shops open around the UK).

“Going back hundreds of years, the north had access to fuel that London and the south simply didn’t, which meant home cooking was far better, and of course it is closer to Ireland so had access to its potato supply,” Earle explains. There are recipes for chips and “potatoes fried” from as early as the 18th century, she says, “but what set apart the north from the south was its ability to produce chips on a consumer-wide scale, making them – literally – cheap as chips”.

Dr Neil Buttery, a chef and food historian from Yorkshire, says there’s also a lot of regional politics when it comes to the chip butty, though it’s hard to pinpoint minute details about its inception. This is a direct result, he tells me, of the fact that the very people who were making it first – “working class communities in the north of England” – “could not, and did not, write things down.”

Though Lancashire is the sandwich’s official home, there are other places with prominent working class communities that lay claim to it, too. Liverpool and Ireland have both been posited as its point of origin in the past, and it’s also a big part of Yorkshire life. The word "butty", after all, originates from Yorkshire (as slang for "butter"), and aside from Buttery’s insistence that “kids were fed them every day at school”, Yorkshire’s deep-rooted adoration for chip butties is prevalent in popular culture. “The Greasy Chip Butty Song”, which became Sheffield United’s official football chant in 1985, glorifies life in South Yorkshire and cites everything the county has supposedly created, from the eponymous “greasy chip butty” to “a gallon of Magnet” and “a packet of Woodbines.”

Debates aside, however, the butty’s actual birthplace is less important, Buttery says, than what it means to the places where it’s a staple: “the memories, the comfort, the joy of its simplicity”. It’s a proudly working class dish – and indeed the idea of class comes up time and again when chip butties are mentioned, so protective are the communities who originated it. John Molnar, whose Nottingham shop The Cod’s Scallops was voted best chippy at the National Fish and Chip Awards 2020, tells me: “I'm from a council estate in Nottingham, and I will always remember my mum going out, buying an uncut loaf and a large bag of chips for tea. For us, that was a real treat and that’s what I want to create for my customers.”

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The opinions many hold about working class dishes like the chip butty being gentrified are similar to opinions about working class areas being gentrified: it’s unnecessary and invasive. Michelin star chef Paul Ainsworth, originally from Southampton, however, doesn’t see it that way. Ainsworth has added a very modern chip butty to the menu at his restaurant in Padstow, Cornwall. Dubbed Cornwall’s food capital, Padstow is home to the likes of Rick Stein’s flagship venue The Seafood Restaurant and, needless to say, it is worlds away from the chippies of the north where the butty was first created and tasted.

Ainsworth’s "elevated" sandwich – which quickly becomes the butt of many a joke by Molnar about the shortcomings of “poncey Cornish salt” compared with the “table salt, always table salt” that he uses – is made with triple cooked chips on toasted sourdough, has an extra eggy mayonnaise and is topped with aged parmesan. Traditionalists, eat your heart out. The difference shows in more than just ingredients too: while Ainsworth charges £8.95 for his “Granny Ainsworth” creation, Molnar’s chip butty sits pretty at just £3.20.

Molnar’s distaste for the nouveau chip butty – that is, the southern one – raises questions about the need to associate the sandwich with its northern roots. This probably emerges from the simple fact that the humble chip butty is a symbol of just that: humble beginnings.

“It’s no coincidence that much of the UK’s rich tradition of double carb snacks originate in the north – think chip butties, Hull patties and pie barms,” the food writer Jonathan Nunn tells me. “Obviously these things get co-opted by the middle classes – and yes, more chippies in London sell chip butties now, but I personally don’t see it ever being properly boujie-fied.”

Earle tells me that “food allows us to connect with the very abstract idea of national identity”. So whether it’s thick white bread and salted butter, calling it a chip barm instead of a chip butty, or having beef dripping fries with aioli on hand crafted tiger bread, the chip butty’s journey tells us more about British people’s relationship to class, gentrification and even cultural appropriation than it does about food. It could even be viewed as a symbol of the longstanding tension between the working and middle classes in the UK.

Ultimately, says Earle, this is the crux of the matter. “You're acting out your Britishness even by having an opinion about the chip butty.” She’s right of course – after all what could be more British than exploring what it means to be northern or southern through the history of the chip butty? Maybe writing a 1,000-word article on it?

@SamHancock95