One of the things that I miss about New Zealand is fish and chips, or fush un chups in our delightful accent. I do presently live in a tourist town by the sea and can eat very fresh and delicious fish and chips if I take a short walk out to the cliff, but to my mind, that is not real, pukka fish and chips – not that of my memories, at least.
I don’t know if every Kiwi has a fish and chips memory that romantically sticks in the mind, but I certainly do. It was one of those great, hope-filled Friday evenings of childhood – with a whole weekend of sun and bikes and whatever you wanted ahead – and I was about six or seven. The whole family was still living at home in Tokoroa. My oldest brother Ed told me that somehow I had more pocket money saved than anyone else in the family had disposable income, so the bill for this week’s jaunt to the local takeaway was on me. This was a cause for great excitement. I could provide for the whole family! (How the mighty have fallen.)
I went down with Ed and maybe my mum or my dad, I can’t quite remember. Mrs Ransley greeted us as we entered. She taught at the school I had went to but owned our local fish and chip shop and worked it – overalls, apron and all – in the evenings. After we placed the order, I watched my brother play spacies (coin-operated video games) until it was ready. I paid, full of pride, and we took it home.
Unwrapping the newspaper, we met with an unfamiliar sight. Fish and chips are usually jumbled together – a bed of chips with pieces of fish, hot dogs, donuts etc arranged around/on top of it – but Mrs Ransley knew us all personally and had added a personal touch: she’d organized the whole meal into five little parcels, one for each of us, all labelled by first name. I eagerly grabbed mine and took it to the living room to watch TV, ripping a corner off the parcel through which to extract steaming pieces of potato, soggy and delicious.
Much to my embarrassment, I didn’t actually enjoy fish in really any form until I left NZ just three and a half years ago – first Japan opened my mind to sushi, then Kerala to meen curry and meen fry – so my little parcel probably contained a hot dog and chips. Never mind.
As I say, these were not great chips. They were not crispy, golden, perfect jacket wedges like you would get at some expensive boutique fish and chip shop nowadays. They came from a frozen packet, as did the fish fillets, and were deep fried to hell and back. They constituted the kind of grease-heavy meal that, upon finishing, you would think, “I’m never eating that again”. But it was so exciting – that Friday night reward at the end of a week of school, or a special treat whenever we went to the beach. The fish, if I had it, was generally pretty tasteless and improved vastly by a vat of tomato sauce.
It’s not the taste of the food that I remember, though – it’s the feeling of unwrapping that parcel in the living room or by the sand, tapping into the thrill of opening a gift at the same time as being allowed to eat food that is bad for you. Maybe that’s what I miss – that nostalgia-tinted memory of a simple childhood joy – and not the fish and chips themselves. That feeling never quite dies away completely, though. As those boutique shops replace the Mrs Ransleys of this world, it’s harder to recapture, but if I get to return to NZ this summer, I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to find it.