The snack that's fishy and so very old-fashioned
A brief history of kippers
Welcome back to Snack Stack, the newsletter that explores the history, origins, and cultural significance of snacks. It’s Wednesday (yay!) so this snack is free for everyone (double yay!); paid subscribers get additional snacks on Monday and Friday. Check out the list of past snacks here or travel by map.
A specific preparation of herring. Split it in half, gut it, salt it, smoke it, eat it. Often found on a British breakfast plate, near the overcooked tomato, the undercooked egg, and the cold toast. (Hello, British friends! You know I’m right! Love you!)
About 530 million years ago, during the Cambrian Explosion, the very first fish emerged into the world; it took another 528 million years, give or take, for humans to arrive and figure out how to make fire. At some point, a very, very long time ago but not as long as those other things, humans learned (probably by accident) that they could use smoke from a fire to preserve fish, and that initial moment of discovery probably involved something not too far from what we now know as kippers, the little fish that come from a can and whose packaging now feels distinctly old-fashioned, which has helped make it popular in modern times.
Got all that? Great. Let’s break it down a bit more carefully.
The first known preparation of kippers and sometime in the 1200s, although it was undoubtedly a thing long before that—the world “kipper” is Old English (meaning “to spawn”) and there are similar words in Icelandic and German and, again, people have been preparing and preserving fish this way for millennia, including Indigenous peoples across North America.
In the search for the origins of kippers, you’ll find plenty of corporate histories that are, as usual, demonstrably false, like this one:
It was first created by John Woodger at Seahouses in Northumberland in 1843. As with the red herring, from which it derives, it has an origin myth of accidental discovery – a herring, presumably split ready for filleting or frying or grilling, left overnight in a room with a smoky stove.
No. That was not the first time someone sliced open a piece of herring and then smoked it. It wasn’t.
In any case, sometime in the latter half of the nineteenth century, kippers took off and were “popular on Victorian and Edwardian breakfast tables” including plenty of upscale environs—according to The Guardian, kippers have “been a permanent fixture on the Savoy's breakfast menu since the hotel opened in 1889.” (That may have been true in 2012 but—FACT CHECK—they do not appear on the hotel’s current breakfast menu, although black pudding does.)
At some point, kippered snacks crossed the Atlantic, becoming a fixture in American grocery stores (they’re all over newspaper ads of the early 1900s) and were a featured part of this care package you could send to the troops fighting overseas in 1944:
Everything your soldier needs: Pocket novel, toothbrush, candy, shaving supplies, cigarettes, soap, cards, and kippered snacks. The essentials! Gift-wrapped!
Kippers were such a big deal, especially in Great Britain, that the tiny fish were almost all depleted by the 1970s. In 1977, The New York Times did a whole story about overfishing and the resulting cultural shock waves:
In the early 1950s. British fishermen were taking more than 100,000 tons of herring a year in the North Sea: in 1976 they caught 25,000 tons. John Silkin, the British agriculture and fisheries minister, concluded that “we really are faced with the possible extinction of the herring stock, and that I am not prepared to countenance.”
So Britain banned all herring fishing in the North Sea, set limits in the waters off Oban and Stornoway and Mallaig in Western Scotland and finally persuaded its Common Market partners to observe the restrictions: Two trawler captains, a Dane and a Dutchman, have been arrested for violating the North Sea ban. They were fined and their catch and gear were seized.
In the same period, though, food trends were changing. Kippers started to fall out of fashion. They were smelly and oily and a relic of the past, old and outdated. The president of the National Federation of Fishmongers (who I am quoting specifically because he is the president of the National Federation of Fishmongers and for some reason I love that this is the actual name of an organization) told The Guardian in 2012 that “kippers, along with other traditionally popular oily fish such as mackerel and sardines suffered from a culinary prejudice by younger people who considered them old-fashioned and the kind of food eaten by their grandparents.”
By that time, a decade ago, the trend pendulum had swung back. Old-fashioned was in! Bartenders were wearing suspenders and sporting handlebar mustaches and making forgotten cocktails using long-lost tinctures; Mumford & Sons was doing whatever Mumford & Sons did …
… and kippers were cool once again. Sainsbury’s, the British grocery store chain, reported that “sales of kippers from its fresh fish counter were up 79% over the past year.” That was in 2012, and even though the specific cultural cachet of Mumford & Sons has receded a bit and you can now find plenty of craft cocktails made by people without fedoras or facial hair modeled on Snidely Whiplash, kippers are still going strong—so much so that earlier this year, The Daily Mail announced that they were, once again, making a “comeback.”
Conclusion: Oceans rise, empires fall, but kippers will always be back.
And now, please enjoy this video of kippers being prepared in the 1970s (?).
Get it here
Notes and stray thoughts
Sources include the Encyclopedia Britannica entry for kippers; “Kippers, the breakfast dish that fell out of favour, are back on British menus” by Rebecca Smithers for The Guardian (2012); and “Britons Mourning Beloved Kippers” by R.W. Apple for The New York Times (1977).
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt liked kippers for breakfast, according to the Food Timeline.
In the north of England, just before you get to Scotland, there’s a spot called Kipper Hill in Berwick-upon-Tweed, which is the most stereotypically British place name I’ve ever heard.
Unrelated to any of this but … your faithful snack correspondent would like you to know that a travel story he wrote for Literary Hub (about a trip to Minsk just before the pandemic hit) was just listed among the notable selections for the Best American Travel Writing, so you should probably make some time to go read that complicated tale.
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BTW, if you enjoyed this post, here’s another Very British snack for you, the Cornish pasty: