Sunday 30 January 2011

Devouring Books: Toast by Nigel Slater

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This review should also be called 'How I thought me and Nigel Slater were the same person', but more on that later! I have become obsessed with reading this book since I watched the BBC adaptation of it over Christmas, which made me cry a lot more than I should have considering the slightly festive mood I still found myself in. Anyway, I finally found the book in a charity shop on Wednesday, had finished it by Friday, and now must gush about it to anyone who might stumble upon this!

Toast is basically the childhood memoirs of Nigel Slater, an English chef who also happens to be able to write really engagingly and well. I hate him just a little bit for this. The book is laid out in chapters titled in the most parts with types of food, as Slater links most childhood memories to the food he ate, from the terrible meals his mother provided for him, to the far more delicious meals, but far less nourishing life provided for him by his stepmother, and then onto the things he makes for himself, as he begins to forge a career in the food industry. He also doesn't shy away from talking about his sexual development, or from the things he never said to his father or stepmother, and the moment when he goes and smells his mother's clothes after she has died made me cry without having to be at all sentimental. He is a really really good writer.

So, me and Nigel Slater. Obviously, my writing is not as good as his, but I try. I also like to bake. This is not why Toast made me believe we were the same person though. We do, for a start, have the same birthday (he's just a tad older than me. Like, 30 years or so), and we share a lot of the same food dislikes too. We both abhor milk (although I never vomited any up onto a teacher, but probably would have if I'd been forced to drink it in school), eggs (although my dad never forced me to eat them, or indeed ever cooked anything), and that gross jelly stuff you get on processed meats. The connection I felt went deeper than these things though, and I just felt like I was reading tales of my own childhood at a few certain points of the book- although we grew up 30 years apart, there seem to be parts of an English childhood that have remained immutable throughout those years. This really hit me the hardest when Slater recounted a trip to the seaside with his parents. As he described it, I found myself recognising the places and things that he mentioned as Bournemouth, my own childhood holiday destination, and when he confirmed this at the end of the chapter, I just felt so connected to him, and also a little nostalgic for the carefree days of strolling along the beach and through the lovely gardens. I can't help but think many many more readers may have experienced these same longings for the past when reading parts of this book.

There are, of course, many things in Slater's past that you wouldn't want to emulate. His relationship with his father and stepmother after his father's death, while not necessarily amounting to child abuse, seems to have involved a certain amount of emotional neglect, where his feelings were neither talked or, it seems, thought about. There is such a touching moment near the end of his recollections, however, where Slater decides to go and phone his stepmother, who has been left essentially all alone after his father's death. When he finds the phone occupied, however, he loses his nerve and decides not to do it, but he had "just wanted to check that she was alright". I find it extraordinary of him that he could care at all about this woman who had never nurtured him, and often belittled and complained about him to his father; and I was incredibly moved by this gesture. The BBC apparently also found this event unbelievable, since they showed the young Slater simply packing up and walking away from his stepmother without at word at the end of Toast. It would perhaps be more majestic if this had actually happened, but that's not always how real life goes, is it?

So, Toast made me love Nigel Slater and his mother, have conflicting feelings towards his father (that he tried to do his best, but often fell short of that aim), and murderous stabby type feelings towards his stepmother, and the BBC adaptation made me feel much the same way (despite it's blatent sensationalising of quite a few details!) I absolutely loved the nostalgia it filled me with, and also the way he could relate all the important events of his childhood to food, something which I could also probably do (starting with my traumatic Pizza Hut party when I was 6). I would really recommend this book to you if you grew up in England, if only to see whether or not I had a tragically old fashioned childhood or not, but I think it has wider appeal also. I also really recommend the BBC adaptation if you can find it anywhere, since Helena Bonham Carter as the evil stepmother has to be one of the best castings ever.  It might, however, put you off walnut whips for a pretty long time...

You can read extracts from Toast here

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