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Toast by Nigel Slater

by Michael Chu
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I just finished reading Toast: The Story of a Young Boy's Hunger. I received this book as a gift when Cooking For Engineers won Food Blog of the Year of 2005 (Bloggies.com) and didn't get a chance to start reading it until a month ago. If you believe that food is integral to your life (beyond simply a life sustaining means) or have ever remembered an event in your life by the smell of the kitchen or the taste of a pie, then this book will work for you.


Toast is a pretty easy read and is split up into bite sized pieces that are interesting enough to get you to want to read each one or two page segment. The writing isn't gripping enough to cause you to go to bed late or miss the bus in the morning because you couldn't put it down, but the story is intriguing enough to get you to come back and read yet another couple pages (until you've finished the book).

At the simplest level, Toast is an autobiographical account that follows Nigel Slater, the acclaimed British cookbook author and columnist, from the age of six through his time at catering school (culinary college). Most of the narrative moves along rapidly with slight leaps of time taking place between vignettes where we pause briefly to glimpse at Nigel's childhood memories of food and eating set to the backdrop of an ominous event or foreshadowing of his future. Through these memories of food - mince pies, blackcurrant pies, marshmallows (which young Nigel once described as "the nearest food to a kiss"), peach melba - Nigel recounts not just how he felt about the food and preparation of the food, but also what it means to him: the social hierarchy of candy bars in the world of prepubescent boys, his efforts to receive affection from his father through learning about gardening and preparing smoked haddock, and visiting Grandmother in order to steal her lemon drops.

His memories move between delightful remembrances and a melancholy achingness. At one point in the story, as his mother's health ails due to asthma, I was brought almost to tears as he recalls his mother preparing pie crusts with him for mince meat pie.
"Isn't it a bit early?" I say, quizzing Mum over her plan to make the mince meat pies ten days before Christmas."No, I'm going to put them in the freezer so they are ready for you to pop in the oven whenever you want one." It's about time we had something in the freezer.[...]"Here, you have a go, darling." She hands me the wooden pin with its red handles and goes to the top drawer for one of her Ventolin inhalers. There seem to be more than ever lately.[...]Mum walks over to the larder and there is much clanking and banging, I hear tins being pushed along the shelves, even the Christmas pudding being moved."Sorry, honeypie, I could have sworn I had some mincemeat, we'll have to put it all away in the fridge till tomorrow."[...]"But Mummy, you PROMISED!""Darling, I'm sorry, I forgot to get it when I went to the shops.""You're HOPELESS, I hope you DIE." I run up the stairs to my room, slam the door and lie facedown on the bed. I knew she'd forget. I just KNEW it.

His stories give you a window on his childhood and his perception of his well-to-do parents, mother's asthma and ailing health, his step-mother, early sexual experiences (and, later as a young man, frequent "shaggings"), revulsion to certain foods (milk, eggs), and his fascination with good food.

The story is interesting, especially if you like books that aren't cherry coated. Nigel's early life was sprinkled with grief, dirtiness, and, occasionally, shocking events - and he doesn't hide any of it. More than anything, it's the frankness and openness that Nigel writes with that kept me reading through the rest of the book. In the end, it left me feeling a bit guilty that I had been exposed to the personal secrets of a man who I didn't even know. But, it's hard not to feel like you really know Nigel as a human being (instead of the celebrity of a famous food columnist) after reading Toast.

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Written by Michael Chu
Published on May 03, 2007 at 12:46 AM
1 comment:(Post a comment)

On May 09, 2007 at 10:24 PM, Ishbel said...
I've read 'Toast' . I've also enjoyed some of Nigel's TV programmes.
I've also got a couple of his cookery books. He's a geat chef and and, from the little I've learned about him, a nice man, too!

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