I’ve always disliked Nigel Slater. I’m not sure exactly why but I thought he was a bit, well, patronising. I think it’s partly the way he speaks and partly his terrible TV show. For those of you who haven’t seen it, Slater presents “Simple Suppers”, a televisual concept so pretentious that when I first saw it I thought it was satire. Imagine the most middle class show kitchen ever. All the flour is decanted into mason jars, the butter is wrapped in brown paper and string, everything is painted in Farrow and Ball’s Elephants Breath. In between VT of Slater making balsamic reductions and char grilling asparagus are graphics of a little handwritten notebook with cute drawings of leaves and things with fake post it notes saying “don’t forget to cook a bit extra for tomorrow’s supper – even better the next day!” There’s something about this that really grates on me. No one lives like that. It’s all so fake but he presents with such seriousness – then you realise all he’s done is made an omelette with a few extra herbs that you could knock up in your sleep. Blaargh.
So you could say I had pretty low expectations of Toast – Slaters memoirs of his childhood to the age of 18. But boy, was I wrong.
Unlike other life stories, Toast is written in very short chapters which each centre around a memory of a specific item of food. I know that Slater is a food writer for the Observer so when I began reading this I did wonder if he’d just recycled his newspaper columns. Was I being ripped off?
All I can say is – I very much doubt that the content of Toast would be printed in a national newspaper. I couldn’t believe how candid Slater was. He was so honest about his feelings towards his own family, his early sexual encounters, his loneliness and struggle to make his father proud. He had almost nothing nice to say about his stepmother and didn’t seem to care that (presumably) members of his family would read it it and quite probably be upset.
To say I was shocked by this novel was an understatement. Not only to find out that Slater is from Wolverhampton (I seem to be reading a lot by people from Wolves, but he’s from the posh bit so I can’t relate as much) but to discover that he’s actually really rather sweet and comes across as witty, geeky and utterly oppressed by his family (he must be a therapists dream, there’s literally years worth of issues to work through). I couldn’t believe it – I actually found myself liking Nigel Slater. Weird.
Throughout the book there’s more than a hint of Slater’s bisexual/gay proclivities although he never confirms his sexuality. However, this seems almost irrelevant as its clear that Slater has one great love – food. This book is a love letter to all the cooking he had consumed throughout his formative years and is nowhere near as fancy as you might expect from someone who I always thought was a bit, well, up his own arse. Although towards the end Slater starts to discover decent restaurant food, throughout his childhood he devours his way through the whole repertoire of Marguerite Pattern 70’s style cooking and devotes as much love to a humble slice of toast as to home made lemon meringue pie. I have to add here that I also grew up on Marguerite Pattern’s Perfect Cooking and the Hamlyn All Colour Cookbook (written by Bake Off’s finest Mary Berry, no less) and found myself reminiscing right along with him. I inherited Perfect Cooking from my partners mother and still maintain that it’s the best book to use for basic home cooking, although if you try out any of the variations of the blueprint recipes then you’re heading into uncharted territory.
I really enjoyed this book. It’s compelling reading and by linking his memories to specific types of food Slater creates an immediate bond between reader and author – I guess food is a great leveller. I love a bit of nostalgia and Slater’s memories of certain chocolate bars (Cadbury’s Aztec anyone?), dinner party food (I have vivid memories of my mother’s coq au vin and dauphinoise potatoes) and booze (when was the last time anyone had a babycham?) were really evocative of my childhood, despite it taking place almost two decades after his. The short chapters allow Slater to skip all the boring and-then-I-went-to-school-where-nothing-happened bits and just tell anecdote after anecdote, which makes the whole thing far more interesting.
Altogether I thought that Toast was a really interesting read and despite some desperately sad parts a lovely trip down memory lane. I have a new found respect for Nigel Slater – who’d have thought it?
I read this book as part of the Popsugar Reading Challenge #19 Read a book about food and the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2017 #10 Read a book that’s set within 100 miles of your location.