Don't knock jellied eels until you've tried them.
London’s East End pie-and-mash shops are old-school lunch counters where simmering mincemeat meets flaky crust meets hot liquor meets butterless mash meets jellied eels—yes, eels. The flavors and textures dance on your tongue and warm you to your very core, like an Eagles victory at the Super Bowl. In 2015, Sam Jacobson opened Stargazy, an East End pie-and-mash shop, in South Philadelphia, and it is a true gift to the city.
From his post behind the counter, Jacobson is keeping the East End tradition alive through his hole-in-the-wall storefront with etched glass, white-tiled walls, wooden church pews topped with bottles of malt vinegar, and free hot tea. It looks and feels as though he plucked it from 19th-century London, shipped it to Philly, and plopped it down on Passyunk.
When they first started opening, pie-and-mash shops were working-class establishments that served hot, inexpensive lunches to workers on tight timelines, and you could find one on nearly every corner. “Most of the time, they were based in the East End of London near the dock workers,” said Jacobson, who's from Central London. “And the menus offer one and one, or two and one, which is the number of pies you want in relation to the number of scoops of mash. Then the side of eels.”
The pies were as simple as the concept of the shop: just ground beef and onions with salt and crust (though Jacobson chefs his up a bit with red wine, Worcestershire, black pepper, and beef stock.)
“You used to be able to get a full meal and a cup of tea for $9, and I wanted to keep that. People here haven’t had anything like this before, but I didn’t want it to be a fancy specialty item; I wanted it to feel like it does at home. It’s still supposed to be simple and rustic,” he said.
Those bubbling meat pies were not always meat, though. They originated as eel pies, until supply and demand inflated eel prices as their population grew scarce. The shops started using meat, but the eels stuck around, as they were a key component in their longstanding tradition. As is a very particular, unique-to-East-End gravy.
"If you don’t have the green sauce, then you’re not an East End pie and mash shop; you’re just a pie shop,” said Jacobson. (Shots fired.) “If you go to any other part of the country, you’ll just have that brown gravy. The green sauce is called Parsley Liquor. Originally, it was made out of the eel cooking liquid with blended up parsley, that’s why it’s called liquor, but nobody really does that anymore.” Jacobson’s liquor is a light parsley broth with malt vinegar, butter, flour, and white pepper.
As a result, the eels were incorporated in another way: they were served jellied (cold) or stewed (hot) as a side to the pies.
“You’d get your pie and mash with a scoop of eels, whether hot or cold, and the eel broth or melted jelly would mingle with the Parsley Liquor on the plate, sort of recreating the original,” said Jacobson, who jellies eels in his shop. The eels are simmered bone-in and skin-on in a court-bouillon until they’re fully cooked, then cooled in their cooking liquid. The natural collagen from the bones sets into an aspic, and there you have it—jellied eels, served cold with malt vinegar.
On a busy afternoon, Stargazy sells roughly 200 precious meat pies to the hungry people of South Philly, and there’s almost always a line. Jacobson cooks up other traditional tasty English snacks not typically found in pie-and-mash shops (because he’s a people-pleaser) like Bedfordshire Clangers, Cornish pasties, and seasonal fruit pies. Stargazy is an homage to Jacobson’s past, but he puts a personal twist on it with things like Banoffee tarts and Philly Cheesesteak pies—a nod to his adopted hometown.