Eating For England by Nigel Slater
|Eating For England by Nigel Slater|
|Reviewer: Sue Magee|
|Summary: This collection of short pieces from the nation's favourite cookery writer didn't meet expectations. Better editing might have improved the book but if you enjoy short, nostalgic pieces on food writing then the book is not without merit.|
|Buy? Maybe||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 304||Date: October 2007|
|Publisher: Fourth Estate|
|External links: Author's website|
If you're a reader of The Observer then you'll be familiar with the writing of Nigel Slater who is possibly the pre-eminent food writer of this generation. I've long ranked him alongside Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson in terms of the depth of his understanding of food and the clarity of writing. Each Sunday sees me turning to The Observer Magazine for another perfectly-presented and thoughtful piece of writing accompanied by a couple of seasonal recipes. In Eating For England Nigel has given us a collection of his writings loosely based around the theme of 'England' or 'the English at table'. Some are a few pages long - others as short as a brief paragraph.
It's unusual for me to be in two minds about a book. It's unknown for me to be in two minds about a book by Nigel Slater, where other reviews have occasionally been closer to hagiography. But this time, I have to confess, I really can't make up my mind. Firstly, let's look at the good things.
Like Alan Bennett he's a sharp observer of people but even sharper at capturing his own reactions to them. I had a pang of memory when he talked about visiting his aunt in a home and noticing that one of the fellow residents had put her hand down in a plate of custard. He thought about removing it himself, but didn't know what he would do with it, so pretended he hadn't seen. The guilt from a similar incident still haunts me. His aunt makes a racist comment but the black nurse says Don't worry love... we know she doesn't mean it. Sadly they both knew that she did.
His knowledge of food is encyclopaedic. If you'd like to know his thoughts on Old English Spangles or chocolate digestives then this is your book. He can wax lyrical about sweets forgotten by all but a few of us in the same way that he extols the virtues of the farmers' market or the joys of shopping in the corner shop. His descriptions of a bread and butter pudding had me checking the bread bin. There is nothing elitist about his food - he can capture the enjoyment of a supermarket biscuit or a Dairylea Cheese Triangle with the same delight that he describes the celebrities eating out in an upmarket restaurant.
Each piece is short enough to capture your interest but not long enough to lose it again. I found myself 'reading just one more' and still doing it half an hour later. There's always another interesting title to lead you into the next piece. It was, though, perhaps a mistake to read the book through in a couple of sittings as I did, particularly as I realised that I'd had completely different expectations of the book. The flyleaf describes it as Nigel Slater's personal portrait of the British and their food. I expected a considered look at the type of food the British eat and perhaps a few recipes with a new take on old ideas, but there are no recipes and the writings are simply a collection of pieces which can loosely be gathered together under the title. Another critic has described it, perhaps a little unkindly, as a ragbag, but there are contradictions (come one, Nigel, tell us whether you like Rich Tea biscuits or not - no need to hedge your bets) and repetitions which suggest that the editing has not been all it might be.
The writing is light, amusing and in much the same style as the pieces in The Observer Magazine. Reading these each Sunday I've occasionally been conscious of a formula being used - start with a statement, digress on the subject and then return to the original statement thus neatly tying everything together. Once a week this doesn't matter but in reading this book I became conscious of its regular use. That's me being picky though.
I was occasionally annoyed by some of his generalisations. The French cook with their senses, the Italians with their hearts, the Spanish with their energy and the Germans with their appetite. The British, bless them, cook with their wallets. I know that it's easy to be cross when you think that you're on the wrong end of a generalisation, but I did feel that he was ignoring all the cooks who don't think about the cost of food as their priority - and just for the sake of a good quote for the book jacket.
I came back to thinking of Alan Bennett again. I've long suspected that he (or his publisher) works on the principle that he should have a book for the Christmas market. Periodically he produces a miscellany in the early autumn and these have varied in quality. I couldn't help but wonder if our other national treasure has done the same thing but without the benefit of Bennett's superior writing abilities.
So, there it is. I'm in two minds. Oh, dear - did you notice what I've just done?
For a superlative collection of writing about food I don't think that you can do better than Elizabeth David's An Omelette and a Glass of Wine and for the ultimate book about English food you should have a look at Jane Grigson.
You can read more book reviews or buy Eating For England by Nigel Slater at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy Eating For England by Nigel Slater at Amazon.com.
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I have a strong suspicion I might just like that! Despite having sold my 2 previously bought Nigel Slater cookbooks on (due to the fact that in several months I had them and with few repeated - and enjoyable - re-browsings, I didn't cook a single thing from either of them!).
I think I like reading Nigel Slater more, though he annoys me a bit (he seems constantly slightly, just a tad sorry for himself or in need of comforting) and of course I got mortally offended when accused of lying about my dislike of Smarties (which, like marshmallows, you need to grow up with, from a VERY early age, I am sure, to like - my daughter doesn't either, and she was first exposed at the age of about 2.5).
Your reaction with regard to Smarties has the same cause as my reaction to being accused of cooking with my wallet. The assertion which is meant to amuse actually offends.