Nov 20, 2008, 04:30AM

Down the Chippie

Every culture has its own brand of acceptable-only-when-drunk behaviors. When in England, expect to eat the blandest chips imaginable.

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Photo by psd.

People do all sorts of things they shouldn’t when they’ve been drinking, and illicit sex is probably the most mundane. It is certainly the most expected; in the course of our young lives, how many times do we stumble upon, during or after a party, the hastily closed door, the slow muffled voices, the horror movie thumping? I’m really not interested in trawling Guttmacher Institute statistics because after a few years of dorm life, encounters with alcohol-fueled sex get dull. Hungover Sunday brunch conversations become even more droopy and listless—after a while your friends don’t seem to invest much in the performance when they hold their heads in their hands, moaning, “What was I thinking?”

It’s the mundaneness of our alcohol-fueled transgressions that bothers me. The hook-up, the cheap flavored cigar, and in Britain, the chip shop. To be sure, cities the world over have cheap, greasy food to satisfy the drunk. I hazily remember awful nachos purchased near an El stop in Chicago and later consumed on a three a.m. street corner. When my Canadian friend accidently pulled out a loonie to pay, a wobbly kid with a Scarface accent yelled at her: “Dude, is that a euro?” But the chippie is a uniquely British institution, and I swear I’ve seen that same guy all over York, my university town in northern England. He comes up the street, jacket inevitably lined with fake fur, his stride a little too long and his cheeks all pantomime red, always with the same plastic two-tined fork midway between his mouth and the Styrofoam box. The British can be depended upon to make a better show of civility than we Americans do—no matter how inebriated the eater, chips would no sooner be eaten with one’s fingers than be called “fries.”

That may be overstating it. At my pub, The Charles XII, both chips and “curly fries” are on the menu. This is aggravating—one wants consistency from cultural differences. But a few pints dull the aggravation, as does dousing the curly fries in mayonnaise, just like my friend from Surrey showed me. But pub grub chips are chips all gussied up; it’s the chips you get when you leave the pub that can call your character into question.

There seems to be a chippie for every inebriate, the swaggering punters and the packs of young women who inexplicably go clubbing in heels and short shorts, whose giggles seem to rattle in the cold. There are at least 20 chip shops in the mile between the university and the town center. I haven’t been able to come up with an American parallel for the chippie; McDonald’s just isn’t the same thing. My favorite is Efe’s, ideally situated in a scruffy neighborhood populated mostly by students. Efe’s serves all manner of chips, not to mention pizza and doner kebabs. Their expanded menu and small fleet of delivery cars, one usually parked haphazardly on the sidewalk and others in narrow side streets, show a likeable entrepreneurial spirit. But your first is often your most memorable, and that was Jenny’s Chips.

That night, Jenny’s was conveniently mid-way between the pub we were leaving and the pub we were headed for. It is right across the street from the town’s medieval walls, and lit despairingly bright, like Nighthawks. Inside is much more inviting: a clean counter, an expectant server, the BBC mumbling on the TV next to the menu. And the menu! The invention is endless: chips with cheese, with gravy, with curry, with baked beans, with tuna salad, with mushy peas, with a wedge of lemon. I love the idea of a chip butty—chips sandwiched between two buttered slices of white bread—but I haven’t been brave enough to try. In spite of an English friend’s assurance that the lemon wedge was the only way to go, I opted for chips and cheese. Perhaps memories of Chicago were bubbling up, because I was expecting melted nacho cheese over what looked like a full pound of chips. I momentarily forgot the British fondness for grated white cheese on sandwiches and everything else. Slicing is something private, best kept in the home.

We talked intermittently as we walked up the street, our cheeks flush and our mouths full. As the mound of white cheese slowly melted into the chips that were barely a shade darker, something that had been gnawing at my stomach since my third pint was satisfied. But I wasn’t. The chips were crisp but incredibly bland, and the cheese didn’t help a thing. Pepper would help, salt or hot sauce even more, and when I said so to a friend he replied, “No, man, the grease is the important thing.” As I think about chips here, nachos in Chicago, and other rubbish in other towns, I wonder: this is what alcohol frees us up to do? Time and again, when our inhibitions are laid low? What my friend said about the grease being important wasn’t enough, but he got it right when he followed it up by theatrically flinging his empty Styrofoam box into the street.

It’s the waste that’s important.


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