The Monkey King Dances is a collection of columns written for two New Zealand newspapers – which don’t archive online – between August 2007 & July 2008. Columns are reprinted as originally published barring any serious grammatical errors. Pictures and links added for fun.
If indeed, you are what you eat, then my first encounter with the folks back home should be interesting, to say the least.
“Welcome home son. Hey! What the hell’s that on your neck?”
“They’re gills, Dad.”
“Why are your arms skinny and yellow, and … is that SALT?!?”
“Don’t ask Mom, don’t ask. It’s better you not know.”
Before coming to New Zealand, I never realised how much I was missing out. I never knew what pleasures awaited the flesh. Before arriving here, you see, I’d never had proper fish and chips. Now that I’ve had a taste, I can’t stop eating the delicious dish.
I understand how improbable this sounds. It’s as if someone told you they’ve never breathed, never loved, never ran through a herd of sheep in the dead of night, naked and covered in marmite. To most Kiwis it’s simply unbelievable.
There really is no equivalent to fish and chips in the states, though.
Sure we’ve perfected the burger, even then however, it pails in comparison. For any decent civilian under 40, a dish must fill three requirements to become a gastronomical legend. First, it has to be cheap. Secondly, there must be enough grease in a single serving to kill a small horse – or Peter Jackson. And thirdly, said serving must be available most hours of the night. Back home, you rarely get all three.
The best place in good ole Fayetteville, Arkansas, and maybe the world, is Brenda’s Bigger Burger. But I’m convinced that old hag flips a coin to determine whether she’ll be open on any given day. Of course, there’s a McDonalds at every corner and open every hour, but after a few double cheeseburgers, you really start wishing you could get a quality patty, or maybe just a colonic procedure.
In general, I think fish & chips is such a popular meal because of its accessibility. You can walk down any street in any town here and find enough F&C shops to make even a sailor nauseous, but rarely will a person say they’re making “fish and chops” for a regular Monday night dinner. Like pizza, it’s a dish that really needs to be mass produced to make it worthwhile. You won’t see anyone at New World trying to justify buying several litres of oil, a packet of fish and a small sack of fries.
Another reason for the dish’s popularity, I think, is the danger factor involved. I can remember few instances where someone hasn’t ordered fish and chips before, say, 10pm. It’s most definitely a meal for the nocturnal and abnormally hungry. From what I can remember, almost every shop has been below even Thailand’s standards of acceptable hygiene. And more importantly, every fish and chips meal I’ve ever had has been thoroughly wrapped in day-old newspapers.
For me, this packaging is essential to the fish and chips experience.
There’s nothing like devouring that last chip of the meal. You’ve rubbed it into the tomato sauce so hard you can see yesterday’s main headlines and as a victorious belch comes creeping up the esophagus, you proudly think to yourself, “I just escaped another close call with hepatitis”. At least, that’s what goes through my mind.
As anyone who’s done their OE can tell you, retuning home usually means leaving behind a few kilos. I’m almost positive that in my case, it will be the opposite. In every town I’ve been in, nay, in every town I’ve ever passed through, I’ve sampled the local fish and chops.
I justify this future heart attack by saying I’m only doing anthropological research – finding the best fish and chops shop in New Zealand. It’s a complete lie of course, but it’s a fun little game that’s gotten more interesting since I arrived in the south island.
Ever so much the scholar, I wondered if there was a difference between North Island and South Island fish & chips. When I arrived in Timaru, I saw a sign for a place that boldly declared, “Best fish and chips in South Canterbury.”
I thought to myself, “finally! Now I can get a definite answer to the question.” Ironically enough, the place looked as if it has been shut down for quite some time. My research continues.
The data thus far has been inconclusive and I wonder exactly how long I’ll have to continue my study.
Thanks in part to my fish and chips research, I ran across the familiar story about the fisherman who hooked the north island out of the sea like a giant fish. I don’t believe this silly fairy tale for a second. If it were true, the South Island fisherman would have immediately thrown the damned thing in a vat of grease and fried himself a decent fish – that much I’m sure of. Along with the little chip-like Fiji and the Solomon Islands, it would have been a wonderful meal.
After the many months of taking painstaking notes and the trials I’ve had endured from participatory research, I may not have figured out what’s at the core of the fish and chips phenomenon, but like any good American, I’ve found away to make a profit from it.
You see, the minds at the forefront of psychology aren’t in academia, they’re in advertising. If you doubt this, take a passing glance at the paper in front of you. The huge, page-sized ads aren’t meant for the person who rummages through the ink looking for information.
Advertisers know this paper is destined for the fish and chips shop. These pages are meant for the poor souls who’ve put their psychic-guard down while being attacked by the late-night munchies monster.
People begin to relate their satisfying, late-night grease bomb with a New World ad; a fish and chips craving is filled only after unwrapping an impossible-to-miss “Tomorrow Only” deal at the local market. It’s subliminal mass-marketing at its finest.
So tonight, I’m heading to every fish and chips shop within a 20km radius. I’m gonna begin handing out a bundle of pages with my column on it.
If all goes according to plan, I’ll have a massive following in a few, short months – even if they aren’t entirely sure why they feel the need read my column every week. Once I’ve made my way to every F&C shop from here to Oamaru, I’ll package my columns in a book. With the profits, I’ll open up the first and only fish and chips shop in Fayetteville.
I know it sounds like a long shot, but I’ve got a better chance of that happening than showing up back home with gills on my neck. Either way, I’ll come home with high cholesterol, blocked arteries and a greasy smile from ear to ear. More importantly, I’ll go home happy.
– Timaru Herald, May 2, 2008