Chapter Three: Pie, Mash, and Eels in 1862 – 1913
Fish and chips were not the only national dish that has its origins in the east end of London. The national dish of pie, mash and eels also follows a similar story of being made from the innovations of aspiring food businesses, primarily from migrant communities. While each of the three main ingredients for this dish has had a long history with England, with different variables situated in different parts of Britain. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the first usage of the word ‘pie’ back to 1303, but the oldest recipes go back to the ancient world. The northern Europeans took the initial idea and added variations such as lard, suet, and beef to it and made it their own. English recipes of pies have been recorded in seminal cookbooks such as Richard’s Briggs’ The English Art of Cookery, according to the Present Practise. . .  and, more prominently, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management published in 1860. However, like fish and chips, it took some time before all three were ‘married’ together into one seamless meal.
Of the three, eels have been the most significant. Because of their tough skin, eels were one of the few animals that could survive the harsh polluting London river, the Thames, which famously became full of them, they rapidly became a reliable and almost inexhaustible supply of food. Consequently, they were in complete abundance to be cooked. The opening of Billingsgate Market gave these eel sellers a place to establish themselves, which helped the trade in and around East London, which might explain why they suddenly exploded in popularity. As a result, most East Londoners of this period were eating cheap to buy and easy to produce eels. Such was their popularity that ‘hot eel houses’ had begun to spring up around 1850 in East London, The name of the first recorded shop hasn’t survived but was based in Southwark. (Which during this period would be considered far more south-east London than central.)
These early sellers have not been documented much, save for some advertisements and anecdotal records. However, we can infer that these must have been popular enough for expansions as they would advertise for jobs in the local London papers. And the meal would explode in popularity later. So as pie, mash, and eels were a prominent dish in Britain at this time anyway, it could be argued that they were waiting for the ideal time to expand commercially like the trade contingencies that allowed the market to flourish. Just like with Joseph Malin’s combining the separate foodstuffs of fried potatoes and battered cod into one meal, it took some innovation to combine the three of pie, mash, and eels into a sellable meal. This would also simultaneously occur around the same time as cod and chips were expanding.
These eel houses were the nascent start of the pie, mash, and eel trade. Using what stock they could buy from the surrounding area, these eels would be caught fresh and kept in water tanks, to be killed and cooked at leisure when a customer asked. Typically, this would involve gutting the fish and picking the flesh off the bone, serving the eels would be chopped up and fried. Salt, but especially vinegar would be used as seasoning. To preserve leftover eels that were not sold from the day’s sales, cooks in these stores realised that they could use stock from eels, with parsley and to create a liquor sauce, poured over the three main ingredients. Soyer would recommend that more salt would be placed on again to keep the flavour ‘fresh’, also recommending this approach to other fish. In Zangwill’s documentation, ‘the batter absorbs the oil which is in them.’ This was a stock sauce of water, vinegar, nutmeg, and lemon juice that had been allowed to cool and congeal, putting the eels in a preserve like hold and selling them as ‘jellied’ or stewed eels. If there was a large number, leftover eels would be boiled into a stew to be marinated and sold the following day.
However, there were variants, and there was no fixed roster of what was available. Supply and demand fluctuations would cause some stock to be more in request than others. Because of this, sometimes cooks would double up and simply use beef and potato – discarding the mash – and serve steak and potato pie. Sometimes these cooks, using what was available to them would also add vegetables – such as onion, carrot, or leek – for filling. But shops also sold variants like steak and kidney or steak and mushroom. As time went on, these shops would branch out into other meats such as chicken with mushroom, game, or even things like cheese and onion pies.
In some respects, the story of pie, mash and eels has a similar formula as previously discussed food staples. Most of the shops were families of immigrants from Europe and settled in the cheaper dwellings of London for political or economic reasons. Those that are initially credited are one Frederic Cooke, an Irishman, whose shop opened in Clerkenwell in 1862. But the pie and mash shop trend differentiate from other foodstuffs previously discussed in one major aspect; rather than cooking traditional food from their indigenous cultures, families like Manze’s were immigrants who integrated themselves into already established British culture. The one exception is the second oldest pie, mash, and eels’ shop, Goddard’s, which opened in 1890. The owner, Alfred Goddard, an east London native, opened his shop in Evelyn Street, Deptford. The third, and one of the more significant shops, was opened by the Manze family, who migrated from Ravello, southern Italy, to Bermondsey in 1872. Initially, the family sold ice cream, while their son Michele grew up. However, when Michele grew up, he seized the opportunity to start his own pie, mash, and eels’ shop, which opened in 1902 on 87 Tower Bridge Road. These shops became hugely popular throughout the area. Starting around the mid-1860s, newspapers began to print many advertisements for numerous pie shops to let in the east end of London as an almost daily occurrence. Carrying on from their success, and making the most of what stock was available, these eel houses would soon begin to sell other pies and variants. There are several reasons for this.
Firstly, from 1850, trade, particularly in meats, expanded. As the prices of certain foodstuffs such as beef or mutton dropped, they could afford a larger menu. This ‘trickled down’ into the lower classes of society, meaning that consumption of meat would increase for the common person. For pie shops, this meant the wholesale buying of meat was much more plausible. As these eel houses needed to compete against the other food shops in the area, combined with the popularity of pie and mash amongst the common people, it was a safe bet meal to sell to the local population. Their success and popularity of pie, mash, and eels grew exponentially, becoming an ongoing tradition in the area. By 1860, there were around twenty eel pie houses in East London, and by 1900 there was over well over 100.
From there, the complexity of the food increased. Starting by using common recipes such as the ones featured in Soyer’s A Shilling Cookery for the People replicated in the daily newspapers, before innovating through their own experience, and eel pies, while remaining popular, gave way to fillings such as mutton or veal, as this became the most economic staple to cook and sell en masse. Or they specialised in mincemeat on Sundays. To fill up the innards, chefs could use stock vegetables such as carrots, celery, onion, or potato, and typically with plenty of pepper and in the style and fashion of the day, inspired by Mrs Beeton, ‘water browned’ gravy with salt, dripping innards and ale would be used to flavour the filling. All these pies would be prepped and cooked fresh daily but placed in a heated oven to keep them hot to be sold. Most of the time these pie makers made their very own pastry for the crust, but some shops preferred to buy pastry from what patisseries were around, like Godwin’s or Mernick’s in Bethnal Green, adopting classic French recipes.
In a similar turn of events, since the potato was introduced into Britain it prospered into a basic of traditional cuisine. Britain’s mild weather is ripe for potatoes to grow, making it easy to produce and sell. So easy to grow that one writer called it ‘the lazy root’. Given its filling and nutritional properties – such as its 19 grams of carbohydrates per 100 grams average – its cheapness and versatility, for labourers, it was a frequent meal, domestically as well as commercially. Considering the ubiquity of ‘chipped’ slices of potatoes with cod, hot eel pie shops needed to use another variation to sell with the pie. Mash was easy to make and mass-produce and hence became a popular side dish to the pie. Each shop would have a preference for how they would cook their mash, some would alternate, or serve it more solid or runny. One such recipe, first published in 1857, Mrs Beeton’s recommended way of making mash potato was a simple direction of boiling them, then mashing them with butter and cream.’ Comparably, recipes later in the era, like at the end of the 19th century; the method was comparably more complex as time moved on, suggesting salt and pepper, cream, or other variations such as mustard or garlic.’ These little variations appealed to different customers, ensuring that there was diversity between each shop, some customers would prefer one to another. Mashing potato was one of the easiest ways to prepare and cook them, as so they became popular. It served the purpose of being hot and filling and was a double carbohydrate, and perfectly absorbed the accompanying liquor sauce. This gravy was variable between each shop but was based on meat stock and certain spices: Beeton has even a recipe for gravy that doubtless would have been used, consisting of beef, onion, carrot, parsley, butter, cayenne, and mace mixed into water.
The pie and mash shops also benefited from previous innovations from the cod and chips and bakeries, as by this time cooking utilities such as ovens had become more sophisticated. Because of this, pies were made more efficiently and at a larger number, to the point where Victorians became famous for their pie ovens. The success of these shops guaranteed that soon after the likes of Cooke’s and Manze opened, more and more started to sprout. Most of these were family ran, and hence the trade became something of an East London practice. These shops would then go on to expand into a traditional East London meal in the inter-war years. As with the fish and chips store, these houses focused more on takeaway before branching into a dine-in experience, before using open spaces to capitalise on the chance the customers had to socialise, as well as dine out.
After the success of these waves of migration took place amongst the Eastern Europeans, other ethnic groups started to follow suit. George Dodd makes the distinction of these ‘odds and ends’, of different ethnic groups selling their homeland’s foods and meals. With the successes of these properties, other, more niche shops began. These followed the same pattern of immigrants coming to London to sell food they cooked for the local population. There was plenty of other little shops, that may not have been ‘scenes’ onto themselves but contributed towards the food mise en place in East London. The most predominant of those amongst them. One of the more niche groups was Germans. This mini-boon reached its peak around 1890, and several of these opened ‘butcher-meat houses’ in East London. These shops focus on sold sausages or dishes that were bread and meat predominant, such as liver and onion or tripe (and onion). With journalist James Greenwood remarked that some of them were nearly as regular as ‘penny pie shops in London’. Some of these also became bierkellers, with working kitchens. A lot of these later became entangled into different shops or became pub kitchen staples later into the 20th century. George R. Sims, another Victorian writer that documented food in London’s Light Refreshments (1901), comments how many European migrants opened delicatessens, sometimes focusing on lighter refreshments. He remarked upon one popular seller in Mile End trading freshly made sandwiches with sausage or smoked salmon. Clams and oysters, long before they were considered high-class food, had their own shops, like an offshoot from eel houses, however, due to the rarity these shops were in a fewer number. This smaller number is important to note, as there were many little different shops that were no were near the prominence of Jewish bakeries or fish and chips, but also make the case that there was a sprawling, fluid number of businesses that contributes to the argument that there was the flexibility to what food was available and what the demographic of East London was.
Through the prism of these three main enterprises, Jewish bakeries, fish and chips and pie and mash and eels, we can see a clear evolution in how commercial ‘food shop’ was formed in this area. From walk-in places in the 1850s to full-on dining experience by 1913, the commercial food “scene” had exploded into a thriving market. This pushed food to innovate and over the course of the era, we can see that the food became more complex and sophisticated such as recipes for mash potatoes or how to fry cod. However, there were a few other key aspects to commercial food in east London that ran along concurrently: piemen.