You say eels and mash, I ask if you’re ready for lunch. We better hurry because this once-ubiquitous meal is disappearing faster than you can say ‘coals and coke’.
It’s understandable. A monochrome plate of stewed eels and mashed potatoes swimming in parsley liquor the color of hospital walls can hardly compete with photos fluffy bagels oozing bright orange cheese. No, stewed eels just melt-in-your-mouth, leaving you with a thorny spine to dispose of. They taste of porridge overcooked in the microwave and cross lunch ladies and drafty boarding school canteens
Shops serving eels once dotted the streets in London’s cockney communities and offered a cheaper alternative to meat pie. The few that remain each present a distinct vision of the past. M. Manze in Southwark—a new location, the original is in Peckham—caters to gastro-tourists from nearby Borough and Maltby Markets. You order at the counter before lugging your plate to a distressed wood booth and perhaps buying a souvenir mug after you finish. It’s an Experience. You eat at Manzes to not-order from the old school menu and to admire the tiled walls and wood fixtures while chewing through your single-textured food. By denying the tropes and symbols of the contemporary dining experience, Manze’s defends tradition.
Other pie and mash shops twist their history to appeal to eaters looking for an affirming nostalgia. Stop by Goddard’s at Greenwich or G. Kelly and you’ll have to order eels as a side. This separation defines eels as a taste and pie as a food. By guiding the diner away from a meal entirely of eels and potatoes, the restaurants imply that eels are a product not fit for eating. Meat pies and potatoes are the foods that nourish us. These restaurants play the parent directing us to make smarter food choices—only in this case, the smart food choice is the modern one.
Although it’s unlikely that eels and mash will ever recapture its central point in the British diet, the dish’s changing fortunes offers valuable lessons about contemporary dining culture. Eels and mash remind us that society constructs our expectations of a meal. Marketers have taught us to demand certain textures, cookbook authors urge us to beg for diversity and restauranteurs push us to crave story-filled dining rooms. Eels and mash negate these forces. With a uniform texture, boring color and standard presentation, eels and mash defies our expectations. And we should keep eating them.