Stargazy, the East End pie and mash shop Sam Jacobson runs in South Philadelphia, has one of those plastic-letter menus, the kind that allows for easy tweaks and corrections. Its contents are fluid, but there’s one particular phrase that’s earned permanent status.
Yes, like actual eels!
Among the questions Jacobson fields about his business — and there are many — inquiries surrounding his slippery Cockney delicacy, advertised on painted glass out front, tend to dominate. When he says “eels,” the chef cheerfully informs everyone who asks, he means eels. Every morning, he cleans and guts a live, writhing batch, lops them into bone-in chunks and poaches them with onions and aromatics. You can have them this way, or you can have them cold, snuggled up in their own trembling gelatin.
A Brit who’s lived in the States for a decade, Jacobson knows eels might be a skittish proposition for Americans not hip to how he does things. But that doesn’t matter. “There are always going to be people that say ugh,” he says. “But I have to have them.”
Jacobson’s dedication to providing uninitiated Yanks an authentic experience doesn’t stop at things that slither. A scarf bearing the colors of Tottenham Hotspur, his preferred Premier League side, dangles in the window. He stuffs his display case with sundries from the United Kingdom, things like Marmite, Crunchie Biscuits and Colman’s Mustard. He even doles out mugs of English tea free of charge — “nuffink,” in common parlance — to parched patrons waiting for their orders.
The single-plate combination of a flaky-cased beef pie, mashed potato, electric-green parsley liquor and a right scoop of eels is the type of comfort food that sticks with you as much as to you.
But what really sets Stargazy apart is the pie and mash itself, a simple but incredibly satisfying dish that has yet to have its moment here in the States. Understanding the appeal of this beloved blue-collar meal, Jacobson and others will tell you, is key to understanding the DNA of London’s working class. It’s that city’s original fast food — and if the early reaction to Stargazy is any indication, Americans are picking up on it quick.
Jacobson, who holds dual U.K./U.S. citizenship, originally crossed the pond for work ten years ago and hasn’t left. He’s cooked in a number of restaurants around the country, most notably a string of small, critically acclaimed, chef-driven restaurants in the Philadelphia area. But when it finally came time to go all in on his own place, Jacobson knew it was an opportunity to introduce something completely different. That something: an American approximation of the “proper” pie and mash shops of his childhood.
While not an everyday thing, Jacobson has vivid memories of visiting these tidy canteen-style shops with his father, who himself was raised on the stuff in London’s East End. The single-plate combination of a flaky-cased beef pie, mashed potato, electric-green parsley liquor and a right scoop of eels is the type of comfort food that sticks with you as much as to you.
“It was something I became more nostalgic for after I moved away and couldn’t have it anymore,” says Jacobson, who began poking around to learn how other pie men in the States did it. He quickly came to a realization: “Nationally, I couldn’t find a single shop. I thought, there has to be room for one.” As far as he can tell, Stargazy still holds that distinction a little more than three months in. This is where clearly defining what a pie and mash shop is becomes important.
English meat pies, their crusts traditionally prepared with suet, have been around for millennia, and plenty of places sell them, from pubs to Tesco. The pie and mash shops that have come to be closely associated with London, though, have their specific origins in the itinerant vendors of Victorian England. “One of the most ancient of the street callings of London,” as noted by English sociologist Henry Mayhew in his study London Labour and the London Poor. These salesmen (who were mostly boys) hoofed all over Big Smoke to cash in on a hungry clientele, vending from portable cans warmed by smoldering charcoal.
These guys, some of whom established makeshift stalls, had the sales rap down fierce, with charismatic call-outs and built-in challenges like “Toss the pieman,” where a coin flip determined a bettor’s fate. Call it correctly and earn a pie, free of charge; lose the toss, and the pieman gets to keep your money without relinquishing a snack. The most common pie filling in those days? Yep — eels, which the Thames happened to be teeming with at the time.
During the period of Mayhew’s ethnography, in the 1840s, these vendors began feeling heat of a non-charcoal kind from a rising number of permanent pie establishments dipping their ladles into the market. “The penny pie-shops, the street men say, have done their trade a great deal of harm,” writes Mayhew. (The tension between street food specialists and stationary restaurants was palpable even back then.)
By the turn of the 20th century, brick-and-mortars had all but beat out the men on foot, setting the precedent for how pie and mash is served today. Beef became the default pie filling; eels, though scarce from overfishing, found their way out of crusts and into their own sauce, remaining a pie-shop staple. Traditional “liquor,” the usual accompanying sauce, was originally made with eel cooking liquid; nowadays, it’s commonly a light velouté, flavored with fresh parsley, no eels (or alcohol) involved.
Pie men offered simple selections, keeping prices low; the one-two of affordability and caloric heartiness appealed to London’s working classes, leading to a number of shops setting up in traditionally blue-collar East London. To this day, shops pride themselves on their accessibility, and the Everyman reputation of this food is integral to its identity. “You might hear the older London cabbies talk of ‘using’ a preferred pie shop, like it’s a filling station,” says Nick Evans, a founding member of the Pie & Mash Club, a fan group that since 2002 has organized regular eating marathons through Greater London’s best.
Some big names dating back to this era, like Goddard’s and M. Manze, are still around today, though the culinary climate is much different. While there is some talk of a grass-roots resurgence (March 2016 will feature British Pie Week, sponsored by baking company Jus-Rol), the pie and mash shop as a whole is on a downturn, in a manner similar to traditional Jewish delicatessens in America. This can be attributed to changing tastes and an increasingly global food selection, but these places still persist — mainly because they mean something to a particular audience that makes a habit of showing up to eat.
“You might hear the older London cabbies talk of ‘using’ a preferred pie shop, like it’s a filling station.”
“Pie and mash shops are undoubtedly in decline, but they have a very loyal and affectionate fan base,” says Evans. The members of his club, not to mention mega-star pie fanatics like David Beckham, have played their part in the survival of pie and mash as a cultural institution. Stargazy’s Jacobson is doing the same thing — in a much more hands-on manner.
Named after a traditional British pie that features fish heads peering out from the top crust toward the heavens, Stargazy is the type of establishment that the Pie & Mash Club’s Evans would call “pie and mash plus” — all the requisite options, with some unconventional twists.
Yes, Jacobson will happily plate you up a beef and onion pie — butter for his crust, no suet — with an emphatic scrape of mash, a generous splash of parsley liquor and eels any way you’d like. But he also puts together Cornish pasties, mushrooms churdles, sausage rolls, banoffee tart, sticky toffee pudding and “Bedfordshire Clangers,” a Wonka-esque pastry that pairs sweet and savory ingredients in a single pastry (braised pig face and spiced apples, recently). His pie fillings change daily, with seasonal vegetables (romanesco-tardiva-Fontina; spicy pumpkin) and meat and fish (lamb curry; chorizo and mussel) earning equal attention.
The reception Jacobson has received on East Passyunk Avenue, which has become one of Philly’s most exciting food corridors, has been very positive, in his eyes — and he’s been surprised by the number of Brit-associated expats, from England or elsewhere, who have pulled him aside to tell him how much Stargazy reminds them of home. They clearly get it. But not everyone who grew up pie and mash–less does — at least not yet.
In addition to the constant eel-related queries, Jacobson often finds himself gently reminding new customers that not every food that flies the Union Jack is in play behind his humble counter. Where’s the shepherd’s pie? How about kedgeree? Or some fish and chips?
“It’s not an English-everything shop,” Jacobson is always happy to retort. “It’s a pie and mash shop.”