Living in Britain, even transiently, one gets a taste for the regionally mundane.
You expect people to call you ‘darling’ and ‘love’. Because of its spasmodic nature, you fall in love with the sun. You easily spend an extortionate number of pounds on umbrellas and hats you’ll never use. And, of course, out of nowhere, you develop an unhealthy infatuation for chips.
While it is the complete meal of fish and chips that is often synonymous with the ‘food culture’ of UK, the actual mascot remains a mighty plate of chips. A nice stack of crispy, thick potato slices, artery-clogging-level deep fried, and salt not so much sprinkled as dumped over the heap. Chips, that accompany pretty much everything – burgers, beans, coffee, beer, wine, scallops and cigarettes, you name it.
I always get reminded of these chips when I watch Netflix’s The End of the F***ing World.
Reminded is a weak word though. The desire to devour a huge pile of classic English chips when I watch Alysaa and James sharing one on the screen is intense; at that point, nothing in the world matters as much as those greasy potatoes.
Now, for those who may not know, The End of the F***ing World is not even remotely related to food, at least not explicitly. It’s a dark show. The protagonists, Alysaa and James, portray idiosyncrasies not usual for regular 17-year-olds. Throughout the series, they either come across or beget a string of weird adventures – murder, existential crises, psychological dilemma, robbery, violence and love. It’s wonderfully odd to watch two people being disgusted with the world at an age when they should conventionally be discovering more of it. Their exasperation with everyone and everything around them is evident; Alysaa smashes her phone in the pilot and, in the same, James punches his harmless father.
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Throughout these mind-boggling adventures which unfold, the one thing that remains normal is the food they eat.
Even though the rest of their life mirrors a psychotic undoing, their eating habits warmly remain common, something that Alysaa and James are not angry at or are not irritated with or aren’t finding faults with. And best of all, they aren’t making a big deal out of it as well. Food is food and without overwhelmingly singing its praise they display their love for it innately. To quote Alyssa, it’s “properly beautiful”.
What, you may ask.
It’s beautiful when Alysaa declares to James that she likes food, as if challenging another person, apart from her unctuously lithe mother, to stop her from indulging in the one thing that is needfully supposed to be enjoyed in life. The first time she goes to James’s house, she deftly starts buttering a toast with the precision of someone who is habitual of being respectful towards food, and shameless of their surroundings. Sure enough, James himself finds it strange, the audacity of someone entering your kitchen for the first time and proprietarily wolfing down its contents but he immediately gets over it; his plan to murder Alysaa, just because he wants to, probably tops any level of strangeness at that moment.
It’s also beautiful when James and Alysaa always end up eating the aforementioned chips after having done anything tragically phenomenal, say kill someone or perhaps, drop the coagulated mass of a dead person’s ashes in a dingy park. Facing each other, they bite into the chips served to them in glass plates or styrofoam boxes – a run-of-the-mill grub set in deep contrast with the overwhelming thoughts that bombard their mind at that moment.
I want to grab these chips by the fistful and thrust them into my mouth. No matter how full I am. Especially since the pandemic thrust me out of London, making it impossible to access these authentic English chips in my hometown in India.
It’s not like there hasn’t been a nice projection of chips in other forms of UK’s visual entertainment. In Derry Girls, the protagonist’s father almost has a meltdown while deciding how many chips to order for their family’s Friday night routine of eating fried food from their favourite chippy. Not only do they end up upping their order from three to seven bags of chips, there’s also explicit judgement passed upon an English boy, who the gang has acquainted, because he refuses to order anything from the sanctimonious dwellings of their Irish town’s fast food place; it’s an affront for them that this fellow hasn’t worshipped the ‘lovely’, greasy grub being sizzled around him.
Likewise, there’s a subtle hint of cliched English desideratum in Sherlock, when our man himself walks around central London, nibbling on kiosk-brought chips with an unholy amount of ketchup squirted over them. He spends the whole night strolling through cold, rain-soaked streets with a supposedly harmless yet suicidal client who turns out to be his sinister sister at the end. ‘’We had chips’, she whispers, when her identity is revealed, in a way that suggests even an innocuous cultural trait of chip sharing could have menacing implications.
But the respective in-your-face devotion and cultural suspense of Derry Girls and Sherlock fails to evoke the same desperate desire in me to gobble down chips as it does when I witness the understated comfort of them in The End of the F***ing World.
I recently watched the second season of the show and could not help feel famished after finishing it. Sure, it spurred other emotions in me as well. I cried over Bonnie’s pain, and rejoiced at the bittersweet reunion of Alyssa and James, but all in all, I craved a large plate of thick chips, all golden, perfectly crunchy, not too hard and not too soft, with a heavy sprinkle of salt.
And it’s not just chips. The entire show has displayed common food with no-frills presentation in a criminally tantalising way. The burger plate with chips that Alyssa leaves untouched after running away from her wedding. The eccentric wine they consume before the crazy-eyed hitchhiker they’ve befriended kills the owner of the motel where they’re all staying put. The Asian food they awkwardly try to ingest after Alyssa snaps at the waiter who questions the chronology of their meals. The whipped cream lathered apple strudel that the policeman devours, oblivious of the heavy air of fear around him.
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Banana Yoshimoto begins her lovely novel Kitchen by waxing poetic about the beauty of the eponymous dwelling. The protagonist, Mikage, introduces herself by talking about her love for kitchens – no matter how dirty they may be. “If it’s a place where they make food it’s fine with me.” She even goes on to describe that she’d love to breathe her last in a kitchen. “Whether it’s cold and I’m all alone, or somebody’s there and it’s warm, I’ll stare death fearlessly in the eye. If it’s a kitchen, I’ll think, ‘how good’.”
I like to think that food holds a similar presence in The End of the F***ing World.
For Alysaa and James, it’s an unconscious acceleration to a sane place, something they’ve been truly deprived of in their lives. Especially for Alysaa who repudiates any harsh waves of body-shaming harboured by her mother, and instead declares her adulation for food in an exigent tone as if on the verge to start a revolution; food is a brilliant thing, food is sustenance but when that is contemptuously denied, mindlessly criticised or needlessly segregated, a revolt doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. In terms of Yoshimoto’s comfort, food also represents a thing people rely on to live. Maybe Alysaa and James needed food as a reminder, especially before they fell in love with each other, that there is something to live for in their dark, miserable world.
And just like Mikage’s desire for placidly culminating her life in a kitchen, they wished to be near the one constant thing in their lives – before all hell inevitably broke loose around them.
Because if it really is the end of the f***ing world, then a plate of chips sounds f***ing great.
Sahiba Kaur Bhatia is a media and communications graduate from Goldsmiths. She spends her time listening to Ali Sethi and reading anything and everything related to the 1947 partition.
Featured image credit: Netflix