Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
If this sounds trivial to you, you don’t know Britain.
At last some genuinely good news – London’s Olympic chip wars have been declared over. Britain’s press got in a lather yesterday when a document was leaked revealing that McDonald's had banned all other Olympic caterers from selling chips, the UK’s version of French fries. The only condition under which Olympic visitors or staff could buy chips was on condition that they came with battered fish, to make up Britain’s national dish. If this sounds trivial to you, you don’t know Britain.
This country, you see, is only just growing out of the habit of serving fried potatoes with everything. They’re such a central part of everyday living that saying someone has “had her chips” is another way of saying she’s dead. Banning chips outside McDonald's or the classic fish combo would thus be like banning oxygen from the atmosphere except on Sundays.
What makes things even worse is that McDonald's doesn’t even sell proper chips. British chips are much chunkier than what McDonalds offers – somewhere between a French and a Home Fry. They have irregular shapes, and are usually slightly greasy (in a good way, we think). They also come in much larger portions, wrapped in paper rather than shoveled into those cigarette-style McDonald’s cartons, with a dousing of malt vinegar in England or sweet, vinegary brown sauce in Scotland. They aren’t to everyone’s taste – foreigners sometimes yearn for a properly dry, crispy fry in Britain – but even a Martian could tell the difference between them and the dry, joyless uniformity of what you get in America or France. Or in McDonald's.
Catering workers in the Olympic Park clearly knew all this. So sympathetic were they to chip-less staff that they pinned up this disclaimer making clear that the fried potato ban wasn’t their evil work. When the note leaked out yesterday morning, the press and public furor came loud and swift. The London Olympic Committee has stepped in to calm things down, having a word with McDonald's, and now staff can have chips with anything they fancy – even ice cream if they must. With McDonalds’s sponsorship already receiving a bit of a kicking in some quarters, the chain was quite right to soften its ban. No one, after all, likes the image of Ronald McDonald running amok in the Olympic Park hoicking potato out of people’s mouths with his yellow-gloved finger. It’s a face-saving victory for, well, people being allowed to eat what they want.
Or is it? Look closely at reports and you’ll see that the chips-only-with-fish-rule has been relaxed only for Olympic staff and not for spectators. As things stand, visitors outside of McDonald's will be able to buy fish and chips, but not chips with their other classic pairings, pies, fried eggs or saveloys (not such a bad thing – visitors should remember the name of this pseudo-sausage and avoid it at all costs). This means Olympic crowds will still be forced to buy battered fish they may not even want whenever they fancy a proper British chip, or make do with some skinny impostors from McDonald's. I suppose having something to complain about and not getting what you want are essential parts of any authentic British experience, but couldn’t we make a brief exception when the tourists are here?
Top image: Flickr user Malias.