I used to be a waif-like girl with no particular interest in food, even though gourmands and amateur chefs surrounded me. Then I went to France…and then I took up a sedentary job profile for a year, which gave me time to think about my meals and start widening my food horizons. And somewhere along the line, I discovered that I was quite the gourmand (though not yet a ravenous eater) !
My new found pleasure in food has led to quite a few interesting experiences in the kitchen, but more importantly it has opened my eyes to a whole new genre of books – food literature. And so it is that I chanced upon Nigel Slater’s “Toast” tucked away in the food section of Blossom Book House. The title called out to me. I pulled the book out from the bottom of the pile, dusted it, saw the cover…and I just knew I had to read it.
“The story of a boy’s hunger,” Toast is a bittersweet autobiographical account of Nigel Slater’s childhood, narrated through a series of food anecdotes. The story starts in Nigel’s childhood, with an account of his mother burning toast, “My mother burns the toast as surely as the sun rises each morning” and ends with Nigel landing in London, “with a backpack and just enough money for a couple of rounds of toast…” The pages in between are replete with food experiences that tease the imagination and tantalize the palate.
The reader accompanies Nigel through the rollercoaster of his food experiences, watching him grow up from an awkward 9 year-old who to a young adult and budding chef. Unlike any traditional autobiography, Toast pays no heed to chronology of events or characters, weaving the events and people of his childhood adroitly to recreate a platter of gourmet experiences for us. We are introduced to home-cooking in sixties suburban England, stews and pies cooked in his mother’s Aga, trifle puddings and lemon meringue pie made by his stepmother Joan Potter, prawn cocktails (a rage in sixties England) and a whole range of gourmet delights in the kitchens of the restaurants and hotels where he worked or those he visited to expand his culinary experiences. Experiences that connect the taste buds to memory and emotions, much like Proust did with the madeleine in “À la recherche du temps perdu.”
Exquisitely written, Toast left my mouth watering with the descriptions of food, much like this one of the perfect Apple Crumble:
“Even bad crumble is good. The perfect one is that whose juices have bubbled up through the pale rubble of the crust, staining it deep claret or gold…”
Woven through Nigel’s likes and dislikes, his aversion to eggs and weaknesses for all things sweet is also a wonderfully evocative account of a solitary childhood, peppered with the loss of first one and then the other parent, a strained relationship with this stepmother, a not-so-ordinary adolescence and sexual awakening. I must admit, however, that I was so taken up by the food which he has brought to life so brilliantly in the pages of the book, I almost missed the fact that this was also a childhood memoir ! At his father’s funeral, Nigel says : “The flowers were lovely, as you could only hope for a man for whom the joys of gardening were on a par with that of sexual intercourse.” I’m sure for Nigel, the joy of food is on par with that of sexual intercourse. 🙂
Toast was a delightful read in so many senses – a book I will happily re-visit and recommend to anyone who enjoys food as much as I do.