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.
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.
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.
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.