What’s the History of Bar Snacks?

Smith's Crisps (via Wikimedia Commons)

In our email newsletter (subscribe!) we asked if anyone had any questions they’d like us to look into with a view to a series of ‘notes and queries’ type posts of which this is the first.

Q: I wanted to ask about bar snacks and how they’ve developed over time — what have bars served along with beers over the decades? –Kyle, Bolivia

That’s a big question, Kyle, and the answer might fill a book, so we’ll limit ourselves to considering the kinds of nibbles that might have been eaten without cutlery, while standing at the bar. For obvious reasons, we’ve also focused mostly on the UK.

Hogarth's Pieman, adapted by George Cruikshank from a detail in the 1750 painting 'The March to Finchley'.

Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor records various examples of people who made their living selling snacks on the street and in public houses, so we know that, in the 1850s, pub-goers were eating pickled whelks (‘not to fill themselves, but for a relish’), boiled green peas, fried fish, pies and sheep trotters. In short, anything that could be sold in the street and didn’t require cutlery was probably being eaten in pubs.

Despite constant pressure from temperance campaigners, who wanted alcohol only to be served with food, things stayed more-or-less the same for almost the next century. In Bolton just before World War II, Mass Observation surveyors noted that substantial cooked food, such as tripe, black pudding (blood sausage) and pies, was still available from wandering hawkers. The pubs themselves, however, were also now selling a relatively new innovation: packets of potato crisps.

The origins of potato crisps (US: chips) seem somewhat obscure but the earliest written recipes for paper thin slices of potato fried in oil are from the early 19th century. The process of their manufacture was industrialised around the turn of the 20th century and they were first put into packets, rather than bulk containers, in the US in the 1920s.

They really seem to have taken off as a pub snack, however, when Frank Smith of Cricklewood, North London, started selling his packeted crisps with, for the first time, a sachet of salt included, making them the perfect, convenient, thirst-inducing pub snack. They had a long shelf-life, were easily stored, didn’t smell and were, in many other ways, far preferable to third-party sheep’s trotters from a publican’s point of view.

Before long, crisps became dominant.

Public Houses, Private Lives, an oral history of pubs in York in the mid-20th century, features the recollections of drinkers and publicans, and almost all of them remember crisps as being the only food available from the 1930s to the 1950s: ‘Crisps, potato crisps, that’s all.’

A 1949 article from the Economist summarised pub food as ‘a packet of crisps or a flaccid sardine on leathery toast’ and, in the same year, Smith’s Potato Crisps annual company statement proudly boasted of supplying nearly every public house in the country.

They were soon joined by other packeted snacks.

KP Nuts beer mat, 1970s.Roasted peanuts were formerly the preserve of street hawkers in the US (Mother Fresh Roasted most notably) but became popular in packaged form a little later than potato crisps, in the 1950s. The most famous UK brand is KP, who started producing packaged peanuts in 1952, while in the US, Beer Nuts, with added sugar, were trademarked in 1953.

We don’t know exactly how or when pork scratchings (aka pork rinds, aka crackling) made the leap from butcher’s shop to pub but the great surge seems to have been post-WWII, and part of the general trend toward anything (a) salty and (b) that could be put into a cellophane packet. Certainly by the 1970s, pork scratchings had become a pub cliché.

McGhees Oven Fresh Hot Pies at the Laurieston Bar, 2009, by John Gorevan.
McGhees Oven Fresh Hot Pies at the Laurieston Bar, 2009, by John Gorevan, used with permission.

Meanwhile, as pubs and bars felt the need to compete with fast food chains and supermarkets, more substantial bar food began to re-appear. We recall, from our own childhood trips to pubs and social clubs, eating fluffy white ham or cheese rolls, wrapped in cling-film and stored under glass cloches on the back bar. The 70s and 80s also saw a boom in pies, pasties and sausage rolls — either kept warm in a hot box, or microwaved, and just about possible to eat without cutlery, although at the risk of serious burns. (And food poisoning.)

The ploughman’s lunch, formalised in the 1950s and ubiquitous by the 1980s, could also just about be said to qualify as a bar snack.

To some extent, things seem to have come full circle today, with the rise of street food and ‘artisanal’ takes on working class classics meaning that all sorts of snack foods can be found on offer, from chicken wings to (expensive) scotch eggs. Packeted snacks — nuts, scratchings, crisps, Monster Munch, wasabi peas, pretzel pieces, and so on — are still, however, the easiest, cheapest, most instantly gratifying, and most commonly found bar snacks.

DISCLAIMER: This is based only on a quick whizz through our library, Archive.org, Google Books, newspaper archives online, and, of course, Wikipedia. We don’t claim to know much about the history of food and will correct and update this piece as and when we learn more.

Main image adapted from a photo by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos via Wikimedia Commons.

32 thoughts on “What’s the History of Bar Snacks?”

  1. In before loads of people moaning about how annoyed they are about expensive posh Scotch eggs, despite the fact that they never actually ate cheap, basic scotch eggs either because they were almost universally horrible.

    1. Don’t agree. Scotch eggs are horrible – as are pork scratchings – but they’re ideal when you’re feeling just very slightly hungry, as often happens after the second pint. (As are pork scratchings.) Reinvented gourmet Scotch eggs at double the money are an abomination. (As are… but you’re ahead of me.)

      Incidentally, has anyone outside Manchester heard of the ‘Manchester egg’? It’s a reinvented gourmet Scotch egg, only with black pudding in there somewhere. They were invented from scratch in about 2011, which means by now they’ve been seized on by about three generations of incomers and we’re stuck with ’em.

  2. Seafood salesmen were around until at least the late 1980s, certainly in East London – I lived then near the North Star in Leytonstone and there was one with a basket of things to sell who used to come in at around 10pm and I think had a regular round of local pubs, certainly at the weekends. There were also pubs with seafood stands outside – the only one I can immediately remember was at the Chestnuts (later Waltham Oak) in E17, which may have lasted beyond 2000. The Great Western in Wolverhampton still does traditional rolls – others in the Midlands may well do.

    If going further afield, boiled eggs are/were found on French bars, usually with a large salt cellar next to them. In Spain you traditionally got a small portion of tapas with each beer, and I seem to recall that if you had enough beers you could have had the equivalent of a full meal by the end of the evening, for free (it was no doubt priced in somewhere). This seems less common now.

    Ian

      1. I’m sure Boak will pop up later with here recollections of eating seafood in the pub as a child but living in Walthamstow 2003-2010, I saw a couple of places with vans outside, but never anyone *inside* the pub hawking. I’ve also seen a roving kebab van in a pub car park — why doesn’t that happen more often?

        1. I certainly remember seafood vans outside pubs in the eighties – my grandad used to take me to one round the corner to get prawns. However I was too young to go into the pub itself so I don’t know if the vendors came in to hawk food or just sat outside patiently.

          1. They definitely came inside the pub and would usually have their goodies in a wicker basket. Having done a circuit of the bars they would be off to the next pub. This might have died out as more pubs started doing their own food.

            The pubs which had seafood stalls in the car park usually had ‘proper’ stalls which could be about the size of a caravan. I assume that these sold to people beyond the pub-goers, although the latter would pop out for a snack.

            Another neglected piece of pub history which gets me thinking!

            Ian

    1. I remember the man selling seafood in the 70s and 80s who was greeted every Friday with shouts of “Have you got crabs?” He no doubt heard this side-splitting witticism in every pub he visited.

  3. I’ve certainly seen a seafood salesman in the current century, although not in the past few years.

    I can remember around 1979 thinking that the fact they sold dry roasted peanuts being a good reason for visiting a particular pub.

    The assorted filled rolls in a glass cabinet were certainly commonplace in the late 70s/early80s. Rare now, but I have spotted some this year.

    It might be worth you delving further into the “back in the day, the only food you could get in pubs was crisps” claim. My legal drinking memories go back to 1977, but even then meals in pubs were widely available, and in considerable variety. Yes, there were far more wet-only pubs, but at the same time pubs were more inclined to experiment rather than adopting the samey menus you so often see today.

    Did some huge revolution happen between 1965 and 1975, or was it always the case that pubs catering for office workers, travellers and tourists offered at least some straightforward food?

    1. The claims in the York pub book are a bit more specific — in less posh pubs that didn’t serve meals, from 1930s to the 1950s, the only *snacks* you could get were crisps. The peas and pies and black puddings had all gone.

      A lot of the difficulty in pinning down whether pubs did or didn’t typically have food boils down to the distinction between what would now be called ‘wet led’ but were, historically, alehouses, vs. taverns and inns, where food was a key part of the offer. Corner boozers in cities weren’t expected to provide food, although some apparently did on feast days, or if there was a particular business nearby whose staff came in for lunch en masse.

      Those big new pubs sometimes had canteen-style dining rooms or on-site sandwich bars, too, but there doesn’t seem to have been much crossover between that and the tap-room where the serious drinking went on.

      Referring again to the York pubs book (it’s a great read) a couple of the people interviewed recall that the pubs they lived/worked/drank in started serving food in the 1960s — scampi, curry and other things we would now recognise as ‘pub grub’. The suggestion is that they started catering for tourist coach parties and then stuck with it.

      There was also a general drive within the industry to make pubs more appealing (and respectable…) and serving food was seen as part of that.

      1. I wonder whether back in the 50s and 60s there was a kind of unacknowledged distinction between “pubs” and “inns and hotels”. Surely many of the big out-of-town roadhouses of that era served meals, and likewise city-centre pubs with an office-worker clientele.

        I certainly have vague childhood memories of my parents taking me into places they described as “hotels” but which I would now just consider as pubs.

        1. I think you’re right about a distinction, if not unacknowledged than at least not as clearly stated as it once was. Here’s Maurice Gorham on central London pubs in The Local 1939:

          “At midday practically every pub can supply something eatable at the bar, and many have separate dining rooms or restaurants as well… At the other end of the scale are the small houses where you can get bread and cheese and perhaps a ham sandwich and hard-boiled egg.”

          When he revisited that section in Back to the Local after the war, he seemed to suggest that it was no longer quite the same, thanks in large part to rationing: “sandwiches… are a gamble now… all London seems to be eating pink paste or old shoe leather”.

          So, perhaps the 1940s and 50s were really a blip?

          1. Remember rationing survived through to the 50s, which may have made offering snack food a poor proposition

  4. You still get the odd place that has trays of bits of pork pie, cold sausage, black pudding etc on the bar to nibble at for free while you’re ordering your pint – a sort of midlands tapas.

    The clingfilm wrapped baps behind the counter can be a definite bonus too, where that tradition survives – sometimes you just want some food at the same time as your pint, not a table number, a balsamic-dressed side salad and a forty minute wait.

    1. Yes, pubs miss out on providing “food for drinkers” rather than food to specifically go there for. It’s a struggle to find a straightforward sandwich in a pub nowadays rather than some ciabatta thing with salad and fries.

  5. It worth repeating a Henning Wehn joke.

    Why do you pay for English pub food upfront, instead of after the meal?

    Wait till you taste it.

  6. …excellent jaunt through the subject, as always – this gets my vote for ‘more, please…!’. Whitelock’s in Leeds has a now-dormant hot counter in situ, still. IN fact, (and I may have told this story before so please, bear with), one of my clearest pub memories is sitting in there with my grandmother circa 1989/90 and marvelling at a hot Scotch egg being served. Must have been made on site, but I had simply never come across one before. Now you can’t move for the tasty buggers.

  7. A great read. I can’t help but think that pubs are the only reason that The Real McCoys are still made?

      1. And don’t forget the Bacon Fries! The triumvirate of former-Smiths produced corn-based snack products. Very rare to get all three in one pub though, one of the many reasons I love the Shakespeare’s Head by Saddlers Wells.

  8. Pickled eggs in a packet of crisps is fairly popular here in Suffolk but friends (and bar staff) in other parts of the country seem to think it’s very strange.

  9. Pork scratchings stopped being proper pork scratchings when they no longer came with the original pig hair attached.
    The Windjammer in Dartmouth make their own pork scratchings – salted to remove the moisture then baked till they’re rock hard.
    At first it’s like biting on a pebble but careful sucking and chewing ( ooh matron) eventually renders them into something digestible.
    But I dread to think how many fillings have been lost over the years.

  10. I was amazed when 18 months ago a seafood man was in town. I think that maybe the late night takeaway has killed off hawking. I do know that many cling filmed sarnies are often on a sale or return basis with a local sandwich shop. This area is blessed with a local Pakistani sweet centre that produces fantastic samosas, pakora and kebab, these are often found in the wet led boozers, same sale or return basis.

  11. In the Nineteenth century at least (and possibly before, but not long after), oysters were a common bar snack in Bo’ness and presumably other ports along the Forth. They were so common in fact that they would be served free so that the saltiness would encourage further beer purchase. However, by 1920 the fisheries had gone due to the effects of pollution.

    Although the Forth is a lot cleaner now, it would probably still be inadvisable to eat any shellfish foraged (South Queensferry even has signs advising this.)

    PS If I had a pub, pakoras and samosas would be the snack of choice, but I can’t think of anywhere that does that. Does anywhere in Britain have a history of Bavarian-style pickled gherkins or similar?

  12. Fascinating post and discussion. Can anyone explain (to an American) the literal meaning of “wet led?” Is that an abbreviation? Cheers.

    As for the US, it was a real stimulus to the restaurant industry when Prohibition put an end to the “free lunch” in American saloons. Baked beans were a staple in them, free with the purchase of a 5-cent beer.

    1. Jan — the distinction is between ‘wet led’ pubs where drink is the foundation of the business, and ‘food led’, which are more like informal restaurants with booze on the side. Wet led pubs might not even have a kitchen and some even allow you to bring food from nearby takeaways.

      1. Oh, sorry! It is odd — about the only situation where it’s used like that, as far as I can think. I guess you could say ‘booze centric’ as an alternative.

  13. I remember a chap coming into the pub usually at the weekend selling whelks, and other seafood from a basket, this was in the 1970’s and I seem to remember the company name being Kershaws.

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