Toast: the Story of a Boy's Hunger by Nigel Slater

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Toast: the Story of a Boy's Hunger by Nigel Slater

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: The story of Nigel Slater's childhood will have you laughing out loud one minute and reaching for the Kleenex the next. It's sexually frank but not explicit and above all it's about food. Buy it - it's a book to read again and again.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: September 2003
Publisher: Fourth Estate
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 1841152897

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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.

Toast was voted "Best Food Book" of 2004 in The Observer Magazine. 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. It's 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 and I'm glad that I did as it's a book that I'll dip into time and again. My husband has just read it and is currently re-reading it! 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!

Booklists.jpg Toast: the Story of a Boy's Hunger by Nigel Slater is in the Top Ten Biographies and Autobiographies.

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lhine said:

I have bought this book but not read it yet. Sounds like I will be reading it very soon.

Christopher Pillitz said:

the boook is like da best ting in da wowd!!!!!!