The east end: an area that has been tucked away from the pumping heart of London. Secluded in a area of it’s own, a distinct identity and traditions have been able to manifest itself as a culture. There are traditions here that other parts of fast paced London have since long forgotten. However, it seems even the deep corners of the east end can no longer shield these antiquated ornaments, as they are slowly being taken away, and it’s historical and cultural coat being shed like a snake in order to keep up with the pace of economic and social change.
A rainy Tuesday afternoon; I exited the tube station and found myself walking through the new, clean, ready rejuvenation area of Canning Town. Having waded through the new strip and having passed the cross roads, I found myself in the old, forgotten highstreet that was once the hub of Canning Town and it’s commerce. Whilst walking along the old strip, I saw many chicken shops and kebab houses, but amongst all of them, one that really stood out was a pie and mash shop. Thinking I would get the full east end experience I went in. In there was a man called Nathan, an east end man through and through, he asked me what I wanted, “pie, mash and steamed eels”. When he served me my food he gave me my pie, mash, stewed eels, liquor and a fork and spoon….yes a fork and spoon. He looked at me, saw I was baffled and said “shall I bring yah a knife?” thinking this was a mistake I shrugged it off; little did I know that even something as ordinary as a pie shop has a plethora of cultural and historic weight in East London.
These pie and mash shops once littered the whole east end. “Eel Pie Houses”, as they were originally known, have been around since the 1700’s. Originally, the pies were filled with the cheap and abundant eels that once swam abundantly in the Thames. Having spiced and and stewed the eels to make the filling; The piemen would bake, and then carry their pies in trays or small ovens to sell them on the streets of London (N.p.,2012). By the Victorian era, more successful piemen were then able to establish shops to increase their custom and capabilities. Very soon the pie and mash shops became the meal of London’s working class, being able to get a quick, filling and home-made meal for cheap (Web, 2016).
Ever since then, they have been a symbol of the working class; being present alongside the working class of London every step of the way, capturing the traditions that echo London’s and England’s History within them. Like the tradition of eating your pie with a spoon and a fork, has it’s history dating back to WW1; when the pieshops, in order to help with the war effort, gave all their knives for munitions manufacturing (Web, 2016). These are just some of the many cultural traditions that a pie and mash store holds within its walls.
Their simplistic elegance, history and quaint charm has captured the interests of many voyeurs such as photographer Chris Clunn, who dedicated a whole photography series on pie and mash shops after he visited one and fell in love with the tradition and culture that they capture of east London. His works are now on permanent display in the national portrait gallery, as a glimpse into the working class of London. However, these quaint and charming buildings that once used to litter the whole of London, have slowly been reclining due to the change in the economic and cultural make up of London.
Nathan, the owner of BJ’s Pie & Mash, has owned this pie shop in canning town for 35 years.
Nathan states that pie and mash is unique as everything he sells is hand made, even the mince he makes himself. Claiming that pie and mash stores are not only unique in their tradition and culture, but you are buying a home cooked meal for £5, where as a McDonald’s would be the same price, but for something that has just been defrosted and put in a fryer.
“Where else can you get a home cooked meal for £5?”.
However, tighter regulations are calling for even independent stores like pie & mash to get official weighings of their nutritional and calorie amount. But as Nathan stated “everything I make here is home made..Each pie, mash, liquor I make is different from the last; maybe it might be that I use a cm less dough on one batch of pies, or put a little more salt in the liquor; so how am I meant to calorie count when everything can be different”.
These tighter regulations and more established food chains are making traditional, independent business like Nathan’s pie shop hard to do business, and as a result, many pie and mash stores have been closing down or conform to a chain styled shop.
A few years ago, Nathan was approached by a Pie & Mash store owner, claiming that some of the stores had joined together in a conglomerate, acting so that they would all follow a certain recipe, same prices and share the profit. With the offerer claiming “you need to get with the 21st century, Pie and mash stores aren’t what they used to be”.
Though Nathan states. “it’s not going to work! pie and mash isn’t like a thing like Mcdonalds where you can go and get the same thing at every resturant. Pie shops are individual because they are home made. So you could go to one place and think, oh that liquor was shit, and to another and thing those pies were jank! People find a pie place they like and keep going back there. My mum used to travel 3 miles just to go to this particular pie shop because it was the best one!”.
With these times of firm regulations and with gentrification leaving less people choosing the traditional London meal as there food outlet, what will happen to these quaint shops that echos London’s past? will they keep up with the times and band together as a franchise? But in doing so will they lose the unique personality and traditions that they have? Making them just another faceless food chain.
“Lunch In A Traditional London Pie And Mash Shop By Andrew Webb”. Lovefood.com. N.p., 2016. Web. 9 May 2016.
Us, About et al. “About Pie & Mash”. Goddards at Greenwich. N.p., 2012. Web. 16 Mar. 2016.