Joe Cooke is the owner of Cooke’s Pie and Mash shop in Hoxton, an East London institution that was founded by his great-grandfather Robert in 1862. According to Joe, his ancestor didn’t just own many pie and mash shops and pubs in the East End, he actually started the pie and mash business by selling pies indoors, rather than from a market stall. He was also apparently the first to serve the pies with ‘liquor’, the traditional parsley sauce which normally would have gone with fish: “Probably because he was Irish descent and he was drunk.”
Joe was born in Clapton, so “strictly speaking” he is not a Cockney: “You’d have to have bionic ears to hear [the sound of Bow bells] here.” Raised in Hackney, Joe is a “Hackney boy”, and later moved to Chingford. “I don’t know about the language and the culture, but we’re certainly promoting the Cockney food.” Jellied eels is a very Cockney meal, he tells me, because Cockneys were poor and eels were “always dead cheap and very plentiful”.
Pie, mash and jellied eels is “the most traditional food in this part of the world” and his customers are “proper old school Cockneys”, some in their nineties, who have eaten there for decades. “This is the thing with a family business. You go through your family of four generations, but you go through other families of your customers in generations. We have the grandchildren come in, with the mum, and the grandmother, and in some cases the great-grandmother.”
However, following some extremely popular YouTube documentaries about his shop, Joe now gets visitors from all over the world: Peru, Brazil, Japan, Singapore and every European country. Interestingly, he says, “he gets more of a reaction to the eels from people from the UK.” Foreigners are generally keener to try the local delicacy, “they expect it is foreign food.”
Joe doesn’t think that the demand for pie and mash shops as such has declined. Rather, there is now more competition where initally “the economic pie was made up of three things you could generally eat: fish and chips, cafés and pie and mash. So I think it’s just been the gradual – and in some cases quite fast – introduction of all the other foreign food. And I remember Kentucky Fried Chicken coming over here.”
Dealing with his customers has brought Joe into contact with many different accents and ways of speaking, but the one distinction he associates with London is that between north and south of the river. “It’s tribal. We are the tribe of the north, and they are the tribe of the south. They speak a bit funnier, a little bit different to us, and they’re a different people”. “It’s all light-hearted”, he adds and many of his family members actually settled in South London. “But as my cousin always used to say: the only good thing in south London is the bridge leading north.”
Joe and his family are fluent in “butchers'” back slang speakers, and he and his daugther use is as a secret language when they’re on holiday. He says, he speaks with a “regular London” accent, which to him is still very recognisable, especially when compared to other English accents. “London speakers – be it north or south of the Thames – it’s like you’ve been hit over the head with a mallet when you hear ’em. It’s subtle, but it’s boom! Know where you’re from!”