Celebrating our tenth anniversary with favourite stories from the first decade
At the furthest extent of Spitalfields where it meets Aldgate was Tubby Isaac’s Jellied Eel Stall, run by Paul Simpson, fourth generation in this celebrated business founded in 1919, selling the fresh seafood that was once the staple diet in this neighbourhood. Where the traffic thunders down Aldgate High St, tucked round the corner of Goulston St, Tubby Isaac’s stall sheltered from the hurly-burly. And one morning, Paul told me the story of his world-famous stall as he set up for the day, while I savoured the salty-sweet seaweed scent of the seafood and eager customers arrived to eat that famous East End delicacy, jellied Eels for breakfast.
“I’ll be the last one ever to do this!” Paul confessed to me with pride tinged by melancholy, as he pulled a huge bowl of eels from the fridge,“My father, Ted Simpson, had the business before me, he got it from his Uncle Solly who took over from Tubby Isaac, who opened the first stall in 1919. Isaac ran it until 1939 when he got a whiff of another war coming and emigrated to America with his boys, so they would not be conscripted – but then they got enlisted over there instead. And when Isaac left, his nephew Solly took over the business and ran it until he died in 1975. Then my dad ran it from 1975 ’til 1989, and I’ve been here ever since.”
“I began working at the Walthamstow stall when I was fourteen – as a runner, cleaning, washing up, cutting bread, getting the beers, buying the coffees, collecting the bacon sandwiches. and sweeping up. The business isn’t what it was years ago, all the eels stalls along Roman Road and Brick Lane – they were here for a long, long time and they’ve closed. It’s a sign of the times.” he informed me plainly. Yet Paul Simpson was steadfast and philosophical, serving his regular customers daily, and taking consolation from their devotion to his stall. In fact, “Regular customers are my only customers” he admitted to me with a weary smile, “and some of them are in their eighties and nineties who used to come here with their parents!”
Understandably, Paul took his eels very seriously. Divulging something of the magic of the preparation of this mysterious fish, he explained that when eels are boiled, the jelly exuded during the cooking sets to create a natural preservative. “Look, it creates its own jelly!” declared Paul, holding up the huge bowl of eels to show me and letting it quiver enticingly for my pleasure. The jelly was a crucial factor before refrigeration, when a family could eat from a bowl of jellied eels and then put the dish in a cold pantry, where the jelly would reset preserving it for the next day. Paul was insistent that he only sold top-quality eels, always fresh never frozen, and after a lifetime on the stall, being particular about seafood was almost his religion. “If you sell good stuff, they will come,” he reassured me, seeing that I was anxious about the future of his stall after what he had revealed.
Resuming work, removing bowls of winkles, cockles, prawns and mussels from the fridge, “It ain’t a job of enjoyment, it’s a job of necessity,” protested Paul, turning morose again, sighing as he arranged oysters in a tray, “It’s what I know, it’s what pays the bills but it ain’t the kind of job you want your kids to do, when there’s no reward for working your guts off.” Yet in spite of this bluster, it was apparent Peter harboured a self-respecting sense of independence at holding out again history, after lesser eel sellers shut up shop. “When it turns cold, I put so many clothes on I look like the Michelin man by the end of the day!” he boasted to me with a swagger, as if to convince me of his survival ability.
Then Jim arrived, one of Tubby Isaac’s regulars, a cab driver who wolfed a dish of eels doused in vinegar and liberally sprinkled with pepper, taking a couple of lobster tails with him for a snack later. Paul brightened at once to greet Jim and they fell into hasty familiar chit-chat, the football, the weather and the day’s rounds, and Jim got back on the road before the traffic warden came along. “It’s like a pub here, the regulars come all day.” Paul confided to me with a residual smile. And I saw there was a certain beauty to the oasis of civility that Tubby Isaac’s manifested, where old friends could return regularly over an entire lifetime, a landmark of continuity in existence.
It was a testament to Paul Simpson’s tenacity and the quality of his fish that Tubby Isaac’s lasted so long, after this once densely populated former Jewish neighbourhood had emptied out and the culture of which jellied eels was a part had almost vanished. Tubby Isaac’s was a stubborn fragment of an earlier world, carrying the lively history of the society it once served – even after all the other jellied eels stalls in Aldgate had gone and the street was no longer full with people enjoying eels.
Tubby Isaac’s closed forever in 2013
The earliest photo of “Tubby” Isaac Brenner who founded the stall in 1919
Tubby and one of his sons in the twenties
Ted Simpson, Solly and Patsy Gritzman in the forties, after Tubby and his sons left for America
In Petticoat Lane, sixties
Ted serves jellied eels to Burt Reynolds and American talk show host Mike Douglas in the seventies
Ted shakes hands with Ronnie Corbett
Joan Rivers helped out at the stall in the eighties
Paul Simpson at the stall in 1989, before it became refridgerated
Tubby Isaacs stall in Aldgate
You may also like to read about
Boiling the Eels at Barney’s Seafood
Charlie Casey, Fishmonger
Tom Disson, Fishmonger
This post first appeared on Spitalfields Life | In The Midst Of Life I Woke To, please read the originial post: here