Split the kipper: snowfall thoughts of breakfast, fish and childhood games

Kipper 2018-01-21 10.39.16.png

Karin and I had kippers for breakfast this morning, a satisfying and warming treat on this cold Sunday as we watched the snow fall into the garden, softening the edges and hedges:

Snow in the garden 2018-01-21 11.20.48.png

I do like a nice kipper!  Smoking fish to make it last longer has been repeatedly discovered and transmitted as an idea across cultures, and represents a fascinating intersection where wild biodiversity meets human ingenuity.  The north east of England, where I grew up, has a great and ancient tradition of smoking herrings to preserve a portion of the catch, a practice that may have originated with the Vikings who colonised that part of the country over one thousand years ago.

Of all of the North Sea’s edible biodiversity I feel most comfortable eating herring; although there were issues with over-fishing in the 1960s and 70s, current stocks look to be being managed sustainably.  The most up to date information I’ve found is in a Norwegian government report from which I took this graph:


Kippers have had subtle, but interesting, influences on culture, spawning phrases, songs and games. To be “done up like a kipper”* is to be taken advantage of by someone or bamboozled, whilst a “kipper tie” is a fashion hangover from the 60s and 70s, named for its broad proportions.  Of course Supertramp sang about having kippers for breakfast, particularly in Texas “cos everyone’s a millionaire”.  That strikes me as an odd line as herrings (in whatever form) have always been considered a cheap dish. Though I suppose importing them from Craster to Dallas could be quite expensive.

Back to the north east and my childhood, where we played a game called “Split the Kipper”. This involved standing opposite a friend on a grassy field and taking it in turns to throw a knife near to your opponent’s foot.  If it stuck into the ground then your opponent had to slide their foot to that point.  This continued until one of you had your legs so far apart that you fell over – the kipper had been split!  Not the safest game for kids but I never knew anyone to get injured playing it. Like all the best games the point was not just to win but to win beautifully: inching your adversary’s legs apart with accurate knife throws gradually ramped up the tension of the game.  I wonder where the game originated? Is it too fanciful to imagine that it was brought over by the Vikings?

The snow is still falling – wonder what’s for lunch….?


*Whatever you do, don’t search the Urban Dictionary for the definition of the word “kippered”….

15 thoughts on “Split the kipper: snowfall thoughts of breakfast, fish and childhood games

  1. Charles D Pitts

    We Americans have (or had – it’s been a while) a similar game called mumbley-peg with as many variants as there are kids. In Texas, the game started with two opponents facing each other arms length apart. The game was to stick the knife in the soil BETWEEN your opponents legs. If it stuck in the ground, the opponent had to move his leg closest to the knife next to the knife, thereby closing the gap between his legs. If the knife struck your opponents foot, he won. The game continued until someone chickened out – most often the thrower, depending on the size of the knife. I think I played the game only three times. Yes, Texans are strange…and I no longer live there.

  2. Emily Scott

    I have a fish allergy and kipper has the very worst affect on me of any fish! Just the smell of it cooking makes my throat swell and tighten and itching starts in my mouth. How anyone can enjoy it is beyond me – I’m on the side of live kippers!

  3. Stephen Valentine

    While I understand your partisanship for Cranster kippers excellent ones can be got on the Isle of Man and there are Arbroath Smokies though these are Haddock. We played the same game when I was growing up in Lancashire though I seem to remember that we called it Stretch. Those were the days when small boys could wander around with large knives. Is it too fanciful to think that all the above can be ascribed to a Norse influence? Some of us of course have gone to extreme lengths to develop the English/Norse relati!

  4. spamletblog

    I think I recall some ‘accidents’ in these ‘splits’ games. Especially so when one tried to throw in the circus knife thrower way, holding the point: it almost never landed the right way up in the right place! 🙂 In the scouts we played it with axes too: which might have been how the Vikings played. 🙂

    Can vouch for the Craster kippers too. Though the restaurant was closed when I visited, they do a handy mail order service.

    1. Stephen Valentine

      Ha! Playing stretch with axes might account for the relatively small populations in the Nordic countries – natural selection and all that.


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