Chips with everything

There is a way to serve pasta and potatoes — with garlic

Eating In

This article is taken from the July 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Who recalls the Great Spaghetti-and-chips Revolution? The jours de mai of ’68 were over. The student movement had talked itself into stupor. While I dodged the barricades at Salamanca, my friend Perkers, back at Magdalen, was keeping the Left alive, like all the other public-school lefties: drifting between demos, self-mutilating his designer jeans, accumulating party-cards like boy-scout badges and brandishing a feeble beard against bourgeois civilisation.

By the time that I got back to Blighty, he was practising for a future role in some Supreme Soviet by serving as Food Representative — or kommissar, as we liked to say — on the Junior Common Room Committee, where, formerly, the most serious issue had been over the shade of brown for the re-upholstery, or whether to replace The Morning Post with The Daily Telegraph.

I still cannot bring myself to tolerate chips and spaghetti in proximity

Perkers was a Marxist, a Maoist, a Bakhuninite, an anarcho-syndicalist and whatever else was fashionably heretical. He was also a snob. He resolved to strike a blow for revolution by persuading the chef to take spaghetti and chips off the menu.

I fear I encouraged his folly. “Quite right, Perkers! What man of sensibility would eat such a combination? Slime with grease! Uncomplementary starches! An offence against dietetics and good taste! Too dyspeptic for progress! Too unscientific for socialism!” The result was disastrous. Who can have suspected, in the most fey and fantastic of Oxford colleges, that vast masses of Lumpenproletariat lurked?

Common Man watched, unseen, in the shadows, behind the stately stones of New Building. Who saw him hover, sinister and spectral, among the fawns in the Grove, or lie in wait, silent and savage, amid the fritillaries? Perkers was purged for bourgeois revisionism and your British worker’s right to Chips With Everything triumphed. If you empower the Common Man, prepare to peer into the tumbril.

The experience was humbling. I still cannot bring myself to tolerate chips and spaghetti in proximity. But I came to realise that, in recoiling from other people’s weird food-pairings, tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner. Some partnerships — baked beans with tartare sauce, anchovies with bananas — are pardonable in pregnancy.

Others are excused on grounds of culture, such as the Belgian proclivity for mayonnaise with pommes frîtes or Mexicans’ for fried eggs with frijoles, as if in an effort to palliate viscosity with grit. According to a rumour, no doubt of malign EU origin, English people eat roast lamb with mint sauce. The imperatives of ostentation may permit the rich to wreck caviar with onions or fresh oysters with Tabasco.

There are some combinations — such as kippers with marmalade or kimchi with corned beef or cocoa with Cambridge sausages — at which one can only wonder non-judgmentally. Unpalatable pairings of carbohydrates, like chip butties, beans on toast and other such abominations in working-class England, have historical justifications: attempts to shovel cheap fuel into the exploited and oppressed metabolisms of the victims of early industrialisation. As with other monuments of vanished supremacy, the wise tolerate them as historical relics, and avert their eyes.

On the other hand, the idea of trying untasted combinations — dishes yet unattempted in prose or rhyme — is a good game and a stimulus to culinary imagination.

What made spaghetti and chips repellent was texture rather than essential incompatibility. Italian cucina povera flings bits of potato, along with any other leftovers, into a dressing for pasta mista. In the spirit of ’68, however, and in deference to the memory of Perkers’s political career, I have been longing to devise a dish in which pasta and potatoes are equipollent and exclusive ingredients.

As with other monuments of vanished supremacy, the wise tolerate them as historical relics, and avert their eyes

Simplicity is the key to success. In war, as Napoleon said, “as in everything that is beautiful and simple, the simplest moves are the best.” He may have slipped up strategically, but he knew his pasta and potatoes.

When spuds are boiled to the point of incipient tenderness, tip noodles unceremoniously into the pan. Penne are ideal, because the aim is not to fill cavities and striations with rivulets of liquorous sauce, but rather to get fragments of fragrant, garlic-sodden potato to cling to the curves. Depending on the types of pasta and potatoes, the former should be ready to drain as the latter begin to dissolve.

Return to the pan with generous amounts of garlic, crushed with abundant salt and a pinch of brown sugar, infused in olive oil. The mixture should blend perfectly at the touch of a wooden spoon. Finely chopped tomatoes and parmesan can be stirred into the mixture au choix, but are really only there to satisfy bourgeois revisionists.

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