Working-class Food Goes Upscale

April 10, 1995|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- The way Chris and Fred Cooke figure it, they can beat the nearby Kentucky Fried Chicken on variety and the McDonald's down the road on taste.

What do they serve that the giants don't?

Eels, pie and mash.

At the F. Cooke shop in London's working-class East End, the Cooke family has been serving up this Victorian fast food for generations. The recipes have never changed. The eels are served stewed or in a jelly. The pie is made of chopped beef and kidney wrapped in a pastry. The mash is a glob of mashed potatoes, no butter, no salt. And the whole concoction swims in what locals call a liquor, which is basically a flour, butter and water sauce flavored with salt and parsley.

"You get a good, stable, balanced diet here," Chris Cooke says. "No artificial preservatives. Just plain wholesome ingredients."

This is fast food that can be consumed in under 10 minutes, keeps a belly full for hours and costs about $5 a plate -- a notable bargain in London.

Originally, the eel, pie and mash shops fed the working poor of the 19th century. But the workingman's lunch has gone upscale. At Cooke's -- dubbed the Buckingham Palace of pie shops because of its marble tables, porcelain tiles and engraved glass -- yuppies from the City of London financial district rub elbows with carpenters.

"What Madame Tussaud's is to museums, these shops are to food," says Mick Boutall, 37, an auto mechanic. "You walk into a place like this, and you see London as it once was."

Once there were some 130 eel, pie and mash shops in London. Only 45 are left. But they are in the midst of a revival, courtesy of an exhibition at the Museum of London and an accompanying book of photographs by Chris Clunn.

Mr. Clunn earns his living by photographing rock stars and jazz musicians. But during the last five years he has attempted to capture on film the look and the atmosphere of the remaining pie shops. His black-and-white photographs hark back to an era of physical work and simple food.

"The shops," says Mr. Clunn, "get into your blood."

The industry, such as it is, is dominated by three families: The Cookes and Kellys shared the East End; the Manzes, who got their start in the ice-cream trade, concentrated on southeast London. There are assorted parents, children and cousins running the shops, with very few independents lasting for more than a few years. Go into almost any shop, and there is likely to be a third, or fourth generation eel, pie and mash man in the kitchen.

"Basically, it's the survival of the fittest," Fred Cooke says. "And we survived."

At the M. Manze shop, south of Tower Bridge, Geoff Poole, a gregarious 36-year-old, operates the oldest pie shop still standing. His great-grandfather was a Cooke and his grandfather a Manze. The shop was built in 1892. It's nothing fancy -- just 10 marble tables,wooden benches and a counter. The liquor is pulled up from the kitchen in buckets, and the pies are baked 500 at a time. On Saturdays, expect to wait in line up to 30 minutes to get into the place.

"There is no rivalry among the shops," Mr. Poole says. "The thing about this business is that nearly everyone is family."

Operating a shop requires a steady eye on the register. This is strictly a cash business.

"In a week, we go through three-quarters of a ton of potatoes, a half-ton of flour, 500 pounds of meat and 250 pounds of margarine," Mr. Poole says. "But we don't do much with eels anymore. Maybe 40 pounds."

You want eels? You go to the F. Cooke shop.

Behind the shop, the Cookes have an eel farm. Inside 66 metal drawers and 10 tanks, they store up to seven tons of the slimy, snake-like creatures that are imported from Northern Europe.

Chris Cooke can talk for hours about the life cycle of the eel. He can also serve one up for the stew pot in seconds.

"Quick as a flash, off comes the head," he says. "And then, they're cut across the tummy. One-two-three-four. As quick as that. I can do it faster than I can say it."

Fred, 55, and Chris, 51, are big, bluff men with hearty laughs and firm handshakes. They have lived, eaten and breathed the business all their lives, cleaning tables as kids, working behind the counter as teen-agers, finally running the shop when their father began having heart problems in the mid-1960s.

Chris lives above the shop. Fred lives just out back.

Their wives work behind the counter. But the future of the Cooke dynasty is uncertain. The two brothers have four children who have decided to pursue other careers.

"We're not immortal," Fred says. "We cannot go on forever."

But Chris says that somehow, some way, the business will survive.

"It's tradition, really," he says. "The neighborhood may change. Tastes may change. But when you specialize in something like this, people keep coming back."

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