* Prices may differ from that shown
A while ago I had a "one day..." aspiration to work for a TV chef. As I have now changed my mind, and as I try to be as anonymous as possible on here, I suppose I can now speak the truth about them. So I shall.
First off, I love to cook. Not in a poncy, French sort of way (no offence if that's your sort of thing!) but in a homely, healthy, showing-how-you-love-someone sort of way. I like to reduce wastage as much as possible and cook from scratch whenever I can, time and work-related exhaustion allow. Or commuting based exhaustion more to the point!
So I love Nigel Slater's shows. His half hour offering for the BBC show him trying to make the most of the weekly shop (okay, okay, he has top quality ingredients, a spotless kitchen, shops in trendy indie London shops and generally is largely enviable) but his recipes have both a sense of comfort food and simplicity as well as quality and good old fashioned common sense. The point? You don't have to waste food and good hearty home cooking doesn't have to reduce your dinner party guests to barely-concealed multiple orgasm at the table. This is cooking for the love of it, and for people you love. Without Nigella's simpering pals Compo, Tallulah and Tarquin, but good that you could imagine serving to your loved ones happily and in a relaxed way, standing about in the kitchen necking wine while you cook it in front of them having a good laugh.
That said the fact that every time he does something nice, simple and widely achievable you get a sudden blast of some epic by Coldplay or similar does, however, reduce me to yelling "HE'S JUST MADE EGGS ON TOAST!" at the TV. It's good music, don't get me wrong, but the grandiose crescendos of all these hot indie tracks culminating as he serves up a stuffed mushroom has started to give me the giggles.
And he needs a hair cut. But I can't criticise on that front.
Anyway, on to his book.
A while ago I popped into an Oxfam bookshop near work and was surprised to see not one but two copies of an autobiographical work by Slater. I had no idea it even existed and on reading the back cover was very intrigued to read it. Despite his - or his producers' - tendency to overhype the emotional and dramatic significance of plonking a plate of Welsh Rarebit in front of a camera - I do like his style and his food. Unfortunately I was a few days short of payday and thought I'd have a good chance of popping back in and getting one of the copies a week later - no such luck.
I had to wait a few months until I finally got to read this book when the lovely Mr Rarr remembered my ranting about missing out on it and bought me a copy for Christmas. I couldn't wait to get stuck into it.
The idea is the recounting of Slater's childhood, his story told via his association with food, which became a major influence in his life and ultimately his career, although the book checks out before the majority of that aspect of his life takes over.
What we see instead is his relationship with his mother and father, his thoughts on life in the West Midlands and his observations on his family's social status and the awkwardness that goes with it. It opens with the thought that you can't not love someone who gives you toast, even if they don't do a very good job of it. Instantly I enjoyed the approach to writing that Slater employed in telling his story.
Another inclusion into the story are the first hints of sexual awareness, and some of this comes almost disconcertingly early in the story, recounted in a matter-of-fact way by the writer, who crafts his tale not child-like but simply, allowing the reader to believe it is the account of memories left with the man who grew from that young boy. As if we can see what is happening to him and the impacts seemingly fleeting moments would have on him as he grew older, but not told negatively by the writer, just with the open mind that his childhood self possessed.
I love the way that Slater tells his story with an accompaniment with his memories about food. It seems a very precise account of his childhood thoughts - I wish I could remember things so precisely! - but as with theories on scent, I find that food is a very powerful memory trigger and for someone who makes food their career, if not their life's work, much more believable than if there had been no consistent reference point. That his memories and passion for food start to build into more of a part of his older childhood life than just highlights and social recollections of his younger days, make this a very well-rounded account.
I loved this book and I feel I have a better understanding of the TV cook - not chef - particularly after one passage in which he talks about his education of French cookery. There are times when you feel for the childhood Slater, times when his humour against his surrounding adult world are touching and sharp at the same time.
This book is both easy to read and also engrossing, and no part of his upbringing is left lacking in my opinion. It evokes sympathy, empathy and support but Slater does not at any point in my opinion play the victim, just telling his life as it was through the eyes of the young boy he once was and complemented by the memories and inspirations of the foods that he loved.
I recommend this to anyone who enjoys good food and autobiographical accounts that show a subtle humour and aren't afraid to be honest. I think Slater has done brilliantly in his account and the fact that it is advertised as being an award-winning book is thoroughly understandable in my opinion.
I might even let him get away with ramping Coldplay up to top volume next time he serves up fish and chips without shouting at the TV. Or at least, I'll do it fondly.
Fairly wide, £6.29 new on Amazon and also at lower prices used, other dealers etc.
This is a review of the 2003 book 'Toast' by Nigel Slater.
**Good chapter format***
I immediately warmed to the format of the book, which starts each paragraph with a type of food or something relating to food. His childhood memories are retold through his experiences of food he loved, hated and recipes that succeeded and failed.
**Dos and don'ts***
You really get a great feel for the Slater family and their strange traditions and snobbiness (there were certain things you did and didn't eat according to how common they were!). For example, the pink wafers were a big no-no!
***Bit rude in places ***
I must mention the odd reference to sex and sexual preference are touched upon from the groping gardener to the uncle who wanted to be touched up and his sexual experiences as a live in chef whilst in his latter teenage years. Whilst it's never graphic, it's also quite shocking in places. Like when he catches his father 'watering the tomatoes' in his greenhouse when he's actually playing with himself! Nigel's obsession as a child with the local dogging layby is also quite amusing. He walks the dog past it each night and stays to observe whilst eating a walnut whip.... until his dad walks with him past the layby one day and sees all the walnut whip wrappers and clocks what his son has been up to!
***Sad in parts***
Whilst he mostly speaks fondly of his childhood, Nigel's deep sorrow shows when he loses his mum and his dad remarries. When his dad dies and it's his step mum in charge, Nigel goes it alone and clearly does well for himself.
My favourite bit in the book is when Nigel describes the first night they ate spaghetti bolognaise and they try Parmesan cheese and his dad tells him not to eat his food as the cheese is clearly 'off'!
**Do you really want to know?***
Another gross section is some of the things that go on in the kitchens of pubs and restaurants. I'm sure it does happen but I really don't want to know!
Nigel's hunger for trying new foods and creating culinary delights demonstrates his true passion for food in this book. The reminiscent chapters cover old fashioned sweets, school dinners and his favourite (and dreaded) meals. This book is a must for food lovers who don't mind a bit of humour and a child's sexual curiosity thrown in for good measure.
This book will take you back in time with every morsel of each sentence and transport you to the tastes, essence and emotions attached with each food type had as a child. It entices you to remember smells such as going home from school and walking into freah baked bread, the smells you smell as an adult and remember that time when you were a child. It immediately throws you back in memories and thoughts, ones which the majority of people would have forgotton, but it is only specific food types that allow your brain to be taken back.
Items of food such as battenburg, artic roll, rice pudding, over boiled vegetables and jam spread onto hot buttered toast. The foods that our mothers and fathers forced us to eat and eventually we ended up hating every little bit or loving them and wanting them each and every day for each meal.
The book is comprised into easy read small sections, describing each food type that he remembers and with each one I was immediately reminded of a memory with my own family and the feelings I had then. A very nostalgic and beautiful read, the perfect rendition and compliment to childhood memories shown through the most evident thing - food which we take for granted everyday.
You cant smell a hug. You can`t hear a cuddle. But if you could, I reckon it would smell and sound of warm bread-and-butter pudding.
Toast is a journey through Nigel Slaters early life via food. From early childhood through adolescence to sexual awakening, each episode from boy to man has an item of food or culinary experience inexorably linked to it. Whether it be Nigels Mum scraping a piece of burnt toast, an act that Nigel says happens as surely as the sun rises each morning, or the yearly ritual of baking the never to rise and always to sink Christmas cake. Nigel so eloquently describes his Mothers inability to make good toast by stating that It is impossible not to love someone who makes toast for you, and who could argue with that. And so it is with every piece of burnt toast and serving of watery rice pudding that his Mum produces, his love for both her and food increases. Nigels Father was not much help in the kitchen either, with his dreaded leftover turkey stew described as nothing better than a Boxing Day trauma for all concerned, although he did make a fine sherry trifle. Of course in a household where food is king the serving and eating of the trifle was a momentous event on which Christmas stood or fell depending on the noise emitted when the first giant spoonful was served. The noise described so well as a sort of squelch-fart was the only measure worth noting, with the loudness of the parp directly linked to the quality of Christmas in the Slater household, with a silent trifle seen as a very bad omen indeed. The Slater family were also quick to try out new fangled foods from far and wide, with spaghetti bolognaise pushing dear Aunt Fanny to tears with its worm like resemblance and Arctic roll considered quite a treat in deepest Wolverhampton, despite young Nigels insistence that it tasted like frozen carpet.
For an eight-year-old boy there is only one true requisite of jelly. And that is that it makes a squelching sound when you dig the spoon deep into its orange depths.
And even away from the family home Nigel had to deal with issues of such importance as not buying the wrong type of sweets, with Spangles and Frys chocolate considered adult territory while love hearts and fab ice creams the sole preserve of girls. No, for the boy about town it had to be gobstoppers, Milky bars and acid drops with insurmountable peer pressure bought to bear should these unwritten rules be flouted. And eating a simple treat like chocolate was a trying experience, the erotic pleasure elicited from a simple walnut whip as his tongue worked the soft white mallow from the hard chocolate shell was considered fine by his parents, and was a regular Friday night treat, while the sucking of a Mars bar was considered a sexual and provocative act too far, and thus banned. This method of chocolate consumption was not the only food related battle Nigel had with his Father, from a young age Nigel had detested the taste, smell and texture of eggs and milk and therefore avoided each at all costs. Nigels Father took this as a slight and set about trying to feed his son these two foodstuffs in ever more inventive ways, of course Nigel was rarely fooled, and even if he was the mistakenly eaten egg or milk was sure to make a sudden projectile reappearance. As Nigel grew up it became apparent that a life in catering awaited him, a job in the local pub whetted his appetite and put money in his pocket while he waited for catering college to start, and a couple of jobs in local restaurants and hotels showed him the marvels and treats that could be produced with just a few basic ingredients.
I never bought bags of sweets. They carried an implication that they were to be shared. A Mars bar or Milky Way carried no such baggage, and so that was what I bought with my pocket money.
Toast is a marshmallow of a book; it is soft, inviting and fun in equal measure. Nigel Slater manages to inject humour into the most mundane of foods and the eating or preparation thereof. Descriptions of everyday foods like toast or banana custard are transformed into an exciting story or episode that belies the mundane nature of the item in question. Brief sexual references and experiences are also present and are all of course linked to some food or other. Take the times when Nigel used to walk the family Labrador to a local lay-by to watch lovers copulating in their cars, a nightly trip that was only discovered by Nigels Father when he happened upon dozens of walnut whip wrappers in the lay-by which Nigel had enjoyed while spying on the unwary car occupants. There is also heartache and loss in the book and each of these incidents is again dealt with in a matter of fact, humorous and culinary linked way. But above all else, what came across to me was the shear passion that Nigel Slater has for food, the joy when his Mum would ask him to help in the preparation of the Christmas cake, the glee when the gardener pointed out various fruits and vegetables, and the pride on his first days work in the local pub as he produced his first ever prawn cocktail.
Nesquik was my parents` last-ditch attempt to make me drink milk. Orange, strawberry, chocolate. The only thing that changed was the colour of my puke.
There will be little surprise then when I award toast by Nigel Slater the full five stars. The chapters are short and punchy with the standard format of numbers dumped in favour of the food to be described and remembered in the following few pages. My only quibble is that at 247 pages it is too short by half. I picked up my paperback copy in Tesco for £3.73, and such was the enjoyment toast gave me it could well be the best book related bargain I have ever been party to.
Why on earth did I buy this book, I dont really know. It could have been because in the back of my mind I had read an excellent review or two about the author in general, and combined with the fact that it was under offer as part of Ottakers 3 for 2 deal, it seemed too tempting by half NOT to pick up. So another misspent lunchtime, a purse a few £££ lighter once again; and I began to read Nigel Slaters TOAST.
It was with considerable delight that I started to read this book, and chuckle out loud at some of the similarities regarding upbringing and food between the author and my own upbringing. In fact, even flicking to the front page Mother was not much of a cook (mine still isnt!) and reading about Arctic Roll as an upmarket pudding caused me to smile in the bookshop and I figured my culinary upbringing may not be too far removed from Nigels (and thankfully I didnt inherit my Mother's cooking skills either!)
This book is completely about Nigels childhood seen through the perspective of the dinner table and what was placed upon it. And as someone who still has vivid memories of the dreadful food that was served to my sisters and I as kids (most of which is still served to this day by my mother), this book had me chortling out embarrassingly loud for the remainder of the day.
We join Nigel when he is a mere eight years old and discussing the Xmas baking rituals; baking being nothing but a chore that his mother clearly hated. At eight years old she decided he was old enough to ice the cake and so begins Nigels exploration of the kitchen.
Even a few pages into this book and you are transported back to 1960s Britain when people were just discovering the likes of sherry trifle, spaghetti Bolognese (if you were really ahead of the times! ) and bookcases which doubled as drinks cabinets, and contained a bottle of whisky, snowballs and maraschino cherries.
This book is simple to read each section, for they are not really full chapters, contains around two to three pages about a particular food item, for example mashed potato, tinned ham, or Heinz Sponge Puddings or angel delight. Rather like many of us, Nigel had nightmares about being made to drink 1/3 pint bottles of milk which had been sitting in the playground sun all morning and hasnt been able to touch it to this day.
Things dont get any better for Nigel from a culinary standpoint after his mother unfortunately passes away when he is still young his Dad isnt much of a cook and he tends to leave him to his own devices at night and force feeds him eggs for breakfast although these have almost the same effect on Nigel as the milk does.
However, things start to look up with the arrival of his brothers girlfriend and the housekeeper Mrs Potter, both of whom could cook a decent meal and could get Nigel to eat anything. Home life is threatened once again when Mrs Potter eventually develops a relationship with his Father, changing their lives forever.
Its an interesting book and very ingeniously written, in that by relating to many snippets of information relating to food, we are able to build up a clear picture of the kind of upbringing that Nigel had, including the topics of adolescence and sexual encounters, as we meander through his life, including Christmases, Birthdays, illnesses, first jobs and step parents.
Its a short book; only 247 pages long and it is the kind of book that you can finish in a few hours, particularly as if you can relate to it you will find it difficult to put down. List price £7.99 although discounted at Ottakers bookshops and on line via Amazon.co.uk. If you still need convincing it also won the British Book awards Biography of the Year award as well as appearing on the Sunday Times best seller list and the WH Smith's People's choice Award.
But although this book was a great read, I don't think I will be tempted to serve up salad cream, fray bentos pies, peach melba or tinned fruit with "nessels" evaporated milk any time soon!
Nigel Slater trained as a chef and then became a food writer. He's one of my heroes: he taught me to cook, you see. I have to credit Delia Smith with teaching me to prepare food, but Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson and Nigel Slater taught me about loving good food, adapting recipes and using quality ingredients. I read him each week in The Observer and I've got a file full of cuttings as well as most of his books.
I've got one of those cuttings on the desk in front of me now. Actually it's more than a cutting it's five pages torn from The Observer Magazine in May 1997 and it's entitled "I am what I ate". In ten excellent recipes and some wonderfully concise writing it's the story of my hero's early life. This is the article which was to spark the suggestion that he should write "Toast: the story of a boy's hunger".
I imagine food writers and chefs as coming from a foodie background, but that's not true of Nigel. His father had his own engineering business and his mother would have been a home-maker had she been able. This wasn't just because of the asthma which was ultimately to kill her; she was simply less than competent when it came to running the household and providing meals. By the age of nine Nigel had got used to burnt toast and had never seen butter without black crumbs. There's an obvious bond though between mother and son.
After her death father and son are bereft, but grief doesn't bring them closer; they live together but their lives barely touch. It's not long before father employs a housekeeper to bring some order and comfort to their lives and an even shorter time before the housekeeper is providing father with more than just well-cooked meals and a clean home. Joan, the housekeeper with social pretensions, becomes his wife, and step-mother to the young Nigel.
I read in The Observer Food Magazine that "Toast" had been voted "Best Food Book" of 2004. This is surprising, because there isn't a single recipe in it. It's pure autobiography, although food plays a major role throughout. It's there in the early memories of the mashed potatoes which his mother used to make so well, but which went downhill as her health worsened. It's there when it became the battleground as Joan and Nigel vied for his father's affections. Finally it became his escape.
It was fascinating to look back at the food of the sixties, to a time when Arctic Roll was much sought-after as a dinner party dessert, but Angel Delight was acceptable for everyday meals. Tinned ham, "pretty-pink with evil jelly" was served at a picnic with Heinz Salad Cream in a gravy boat. I suspect that I'm a few years older than Nigel he seems to be a child of the fifties rather than the forties but I remember similar meals with horror.
Playing almost as large a part as food is sex. The book is sexually frank, although not sexually explicit and the history of his awakening is dealt with sensitively but openly. Some people have been offended by the sexual content, particularly as there are strong overtones of homosexuality, and you might wish to bear this in mind if you are buying the book as a present.
It's best not to be too squeamish about what goes on in hotel and restaurant kitchens either. I'm unlikely ever to order seafood or an apple pie in a restaurant again. We're thirty years on from the events related, but I suspect that some things never change!
I like the way the book is written. Its a series of anecdotes. They're rarely more than a couple of pages long and each is complete in itself, but read consecutively they build to a compelling story. A friend who was reading the book shortly after I'd finished it said that she was "hoping for some closure on Joan". I found myself doing my best not to tell her how it worked out so as not to spoil the story.
There are parts of the book which are deeply moving I could have wept for the boy who thought that his parents were talking about her being pregnant, only to realise later that they were discussing the fact that she didn't have long to live. There are other parts which are laugh-out-loud funny. I made the mistake of reading part of this in the dentist's waiting room and some of the other patients must have thought that I had mild hysteria. It's a very easy read I started it one evening and had finished all 247 pages by lunchtime the following day.
In the publisher's blurb at the back of the book Nigel is described as "a national treasure". This put me in mind of Alan Bennett who often attracts the same description. There are superficial similarities between the two men both unmarried, of uncertain sexuality but with an acid wit. When he described a vicar's funeral oration with the words "as generous as he could be about someone he had known only as a corpse" I laughed aloud. The story of how a litter of Walnut Whip wrappers showed his father what Nigel had been doing when he took the dog for a walk is worthy of Bennett at his best.
The book covers only Nigel's childhood and adolescence but he has said that there's unlikely to be a sequel, if only because taking the story any further would mean writing about people who are still alive. Other than Nigel all the main characters in "Toast" are dead. I suspect too that there's another reason. I believe that Nigel's a deeply-private man who has no wish to invite all and sundry to share the details of his current life.
The book's recommended to buy. I bought the hardback version with a list price of £16.99, but it's currently available on Amazon at £11.89, and I'm glad that I did as it's a book that I'll dip into time and again. The paperback version was published on 28 June 2004 and can be bought from Amazon at £3.99. If you do buy the hardback, have a look at the photo of Nigel's father on the back of the cover and compare it with current photos of Nigel. I've rarely seen such a striking resemblance between father and son!
Publisher: Fourth Estate