Toast: A Story of a Boy’s Hunger by Nigel Slater, 2003
I’ve heard the name Nigel Slater around the place before, a chef whose claim to fame was being a food writer for The Observer Magazine and also Marie Claire. He’s written several cookbooks and plays art director for his books.
This book is the matter-of-fact memoir of a loner growing up in ’60s and ’70s England. Food obsessed since as far back as he can remember, each brief chapter in this book is written like a diary entry with dishes or food items rather than dates to define them. Food and happiness are linked and the point of view is from someone who is lonely, hungry, sexually frustrated and bitter toward most others. He’s not an only child, but he might as well have been. It’s never obvious exactly why he is a loner, but his selfish ways probably don’t help. Not everything is explained in the book and you often have to put two and two together.
“Eating a slice of pie is like being in love.”
While this would be a compliment to the pie to most people, in Nigel’s story, it’s deeper than that. Toast is not an easy read or a lovely story. I had a lucky, happy childhood so I couldn’t really relate to Nigel’s feelings of isolation. You can’t help feeling slightly uncomfortable while reading this book. Food is very much a substitute for love or for friends.
I’m not a fan of Parmesan cheese and I could relate to Nigel’s first taste of Parmesan:
“Daddy, this cheese smells like sick,’ I tell him. ‘I know it does, son, don’t eat it. I think it must be off.’ We never had spaghetti bolognese or Parmesan cheese again.’
This book is about grub. Everyday, common food. Mostly processed food with brands of candy and chocolate bars identified and described. This is not a gourmet story, but the ordinary tucker of his childhood. This contrasts nicely with the cuisine he yearns for as he grows more passionate about food and cooking.
Some of my favourite morsels from Toast:
However much she hated making the cake we both loved the sound of the raw cake mixture falling into the tin. ‘Shhh, listen to the cake mixture,’ she would say, and the two of us would listen to the slow plop of the dollops of fruit and batter and sugar falling…
You can’t smell a hug. You can’t hear cuddle. But if you could, I reckon it would smell and sound of a warm bread-and-butter pudding.
The entire Christmas stood or fell according to the noise the trifle made when the first massive, embossed spoon was lifted out. The resulting noise, a sort of squelch-fart, was like a message from God. A silent trifle was a bad omen. The louder the trifle parped, the better Christmas would be.
My father loved a jam tart and would put one in whole and swallow it like a snake devouring a bird’s egg.
I just thought how utterly cool I was to have eaten grilled grapefruit. I boasted about it to everyone at school the next day in much the same way as someone might boast about getting their first shag.
He has a thing about carving the roast. It is like he imagines he clubbed the animal to death and dragged it home through the snow like a caveman with a mammoth. Not to carve the Sunday joint would be an admission to not being quite a man.
Warm, soft and creamy, this wasn’t food that could be a kiss or hug, like marshmallows or Irish stew, this was food that was pure sex.
These days I prefer to read books on the free Kindle app on my iPad. But since the new update which got rid of the much loved Google and Wiki search, reading isn’t nearly as pleasurable as it used to be. Especially in a book like Toast, where loads of unfamiliar food brand names are used, it would have been nice to just touch the word and come up with a photo from either Google or Wiki. There were foods like Garibaldi (like Golden Fruit here in NZ) or Jammie Dodgers (like Shrewsbury here in NZ) that I would have liked to look up while reading. Hopefully with the next update of Kindle, they will reinstate the Google and Wiki search features.
Read this book if you have a sweet tooth or come from a dysfunctional family or experienced a lonely childhood.
This book was published in 2003 and both paperback and electronic versions can be found on Amazon. It was made into a movie and released in 2010. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m interested to see if the loneliness you feel for Nigel in the book is translated into the movie.
For those that have just joined, as part of my year’s resolutions (read more books) I hoping to read and review a food related book every month during 2012.
January Book Review: A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg
February Book Review: Don’t Try This At Home: Culinary Catastrophes from the world’s greatest cooks and chefs Edited by Kimberly Witherspoon and Andrew Friedman
March Book Review: East of Eden by John Steinbeck