Toast is Nigel Slater's truly extraordinary story of a childhood remembered through food. In each chapter, as he takes readers on a tour of the contents of his family's pantry--rice pudding, tinned ham, cream soda, mince pies, lemon drops, bourbon biscuits--we are transported....
His mother was a chops-and-peas sort of cook, exasperated by the highs and lows of a temperamental stove, a finicky little son, and the asthma that was to prove fatal. His father was a honey-and-crumpets man with an unpredictable temper. When Nigel's widowed father takes on a housekeeper with social aspirations and a talent in the kitchen, the following years become a heartbreaking cooking contest for his father's affections. But as he slowly loses the battle, Nigel finds a new outlet for his culinary talents, and we witness the birth of what was to become a lifelong passion for food. Nigel's likes and dislikes, aversions and sweet-toothed weaknesses, form a fascinating backdrop to this exceptionally moving memoir of childhood, adolescence, and sexual awakening.
A bestseller (more than 300,000 copies sold) and award-winner in the UK, Toast is sure to delight both foodies and memoir readers on this side of the pond--especially those who made such enormous successes of Ruth Reichl's Tender at the Bone and Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential.
There are no customer reviews available at this time. Would you like to write a review?
October 05, 2005
Number of Print Pages*
Adobe DRM EPUB
* Number of eBook pages may differ. Click here for more information.
Excerpt from Toast by Nigel Slater
"Write a piece about the food of your childhood, will you?" asked the (then) editor of my weekly food column in London's Observer newspaper. I liked the idea and went out and bought the candies and puddings that, some thirty years ago, had been such an important part of my diet. Some I still ate as an occasional treat; others I had not had my tongue around for twenty years or more. As I unwrapped each sticky chocolate bar or sucked each brightly colored candy, the memories--surprisingly clear and loud--flooded back. This would be easy, I thought. A painless column to write after several years of penning weekly recipe-led pieces.
At first it was all straightforward enough. Oat cookies reminded me of coming home from school; green beans brought back the smell of the farm were I was sent to pick them; Turkish Delight reminded me of Christmas. In that respect it was not dissimilar from other foodie memoirs. But the more I ate the more I realized that not every mouthful produced a memory so sweet. A dish of canned raspberries revisited a violent thrashing from my father that brought me to a point of near collapse (I had spilt them and their scarlet juice on the new gray carpet, and he was distraught from being newly widowed); cream-filled Walnut Whips hit back with an embarrassingly vivid recall of early sexual voyeurism; and the soft pink marshmallows I had not eaten since I was nine I found to be inseparably linked with my late mom's goodnight kisses.
I decided to take a chance and made the piece uninhibitedly personal. I linked the food not just with events but with feelings, warts and all, and even chucked in a fair helping of sex. I handed the column in.
A half hour later the phone rang. I knew it was my editor even before I picked it up. "It's about the story," she said. Immediately I gabbled at her, saying that I was sorry, I knew it was too intimate and was out of style. I offered to rewrite it, taking out all the memoir and sticking strictly to the food. "No," she insisted, "I love it. I'm going to publish it exactly as it is."
The morning after the piece, now called "My Life on a Plate," came out, Louise Haines, my literary editor who had worked on all of my cookbooks, called to say that she had read the story and thought I should write it as a book. We were in the depths of finishing Real Food, my fifth cookbook and one that tied into my television cooking series at the time. Overloaded with work, we put the idea of the memoir on the back burner.
Forget salt and pepper, garlic and lemon. The most successful seasoning for what we eat is a good pinch of nostalgia. Ask anyone about the foods they grew up with and you will unleash a torrent of (mostly) happy memories. I must admit that I knew this when I finally set out to write Toast. To punctuate the story of a childhood memoir with brand names of the chocolate and candy and recipes that were household names at the time would be sure to ring a few bells.
I suppose it is perfectly appropriate that I should have chosen food as the blood in my memoir's veins. I have always worked with the stuff; first in restaurant kitchens, and then as a food writer. I have had a weekly newspaper cooking column for over a decade, written for glossy magazines, and have published several cookbooks, the first of which, Real Fast Food, is now in its twenty-eighth printing. Food has been my career, my hobby, and, it must be said, my escape.
Yet most people were more than a little surprised that I should write such a personal book at all. Despite my work being well known in the UK, I had never taken (and never will take) the celebrity route. I had devoutly refused to play the game, to attend food symposiums, join writers' guilds, present cooking demonstrations, or do the cooking circuit. I would go to any length to avoid a photo shoot or a seminar and would rather eat feathers than attend an awards ceremony. Even when I was up for a medal.
There were times, especially toward the end of writing, when I questioned the appropriateness of such a project. When a cooking writer pens his autobiography it is invariably written with a freshly baked, rosy glow. Tales of baking at their mother's knee is what is expected. Then there is the obligatory early morning trip to the market with your wicker basket complete with vignettes of the woman at the charming little cheese stall and going home with a laden basket and a crusty French loaf. Yet I had not written about any of that. I had waxed lyrical not about the vast cups of steaming caf? au lait and light-as-a-feather croissants, but of the canned meat pies my father unsuccessfully attempted to bake; the fried eggs with which I was force-fed until I vomited; and the cookbooks that, as an adolescent, I used in lieu of pornography. At one point in the book, more food seemed to come up rather than go down. In addition to that, the manuscript was tinged with sadness. Both my editor and my agent, the only two people to see the then-unfinished manuscript, admitted they had both been brought to tears.
Perhaps I should take the "chocolate-chip-cookie memoir" route instead? And there was another salient point. Why would anyone who worked so hard at keeping a low profile and preserving their privacy choose to write a book that could, at the very least, be described as "intimate"? Revelations, indiscretions, and recollections that even my most devout supporters might file under "too much information." I don't know what made me finish it. All I know is that I did.
True to plan, when the book finally came out I was not entirely surprised that so much of the food involved in my upbringing brought back memories for others. What I had not expected was the level of recognition of the backbone of my story. The tale behind the food. What I thought was a singularly personal account of a childhood scarred by the death of a parent, the imposition of a seemingly cruel step-mother, the feelings of frustration, exclusion, loneliness, and even sexual confusion, turned out to be anything but. Letters dropped through my mailbox, newspapers pressed for interviews (though rarely got them), people regularly stopped me apologetically in the street. "I'm sorry, but you have written about my childhood!" . . . "It is as if you were there at my side." . . . "I had thought I was the only one." . . . they all said. It quickly dawned on me that Toast had set a thousand bells ringing.
The book was neat and small, like a slice of toast itself. The critics were kind and generous, more so than I could ever have dreamed of, and unlike the cookbooks that had come before, the reviews of Toast appeared on the literary pages. It made the bestseller lists and stayed there for several weeks; then there was a flurry of inquiries about the film rights and they were eventually sold. I was amazed, delighted, and more than a little embarrassed.
When my agent told me that my little book was to be published in the United States I asked simply, "Will it work there?" I was convinced the brand names, the food references, and, in some way, the lifestyle of middle-class England may seem unfamiliar and distant. After all, few American readers had heard of me. I was hardly Julia Child. And then I remembered the first letter that popped through my door after Toast hit the stores in England. The one that said, "I am a lot younger than you, and we obviously come from different backgrounds. Yet in so many ways we appear to have the same childhood. It is like you have written my story."
My mother is scraping a piece of burned toast out of the kitchen window, a crease of annoyance across her forehead. This is not an occasional occurrence, a once-in-a-while hiccup in a busy mother's day. My mother burns the toast as surely as the sun rises each morning. In fact, I doubt if she has ever made a round of toast in her life that failed to fill the kitchen with plumes of throat-catching smoke. I am nine now and have never seen butter without black bits in it.
It is impossible not to love someone who makes toast for you. People's failings, even major ones such as when they make you wear short trousers to school, fall into insignificance as your teeth break through the rough, toasted crust and sink into the doughy cushion of white bread underneath. Once the warm, salty butter has hit your tongue, you are smitten. Putty in their hands.
Mum never was much of a cook. Meals arrived on the table as much by happy accident as by domestic science. She was a chops-and-peas sort of a cook, occasionally going so far as to make a rice pudding, exasperated by the highs and lows of a temperamental cream- and-black Aga and a finicky little son. She found it all a bit of an ordeal, and wished she could have left the cooking, like the washing, ironing, and dusting, to Mrs. P., her "woman what does."
Once a year there were Christmas puddings and cakes to be made. They were made with neither love nor joy. They simply had to be done. "I suppose I had better DO THE CAKE," she would sigh. The food mixer--she was not the sort of woman to use her hands--was an ancient, heavy Kenwood that lived in a deep, secret hole in the kitchen work surface. My father had, in a rare moment of do-it-yourselfery, fitted a heavy industrial spring under the mixer so that when you lifted the lid to the cupboard the mixer slowly rose like a corpse from a coffin. All of which was slightly too much for my mother, my father's quaint Heath Robinson craftsmanship taking her by surprise every year, the huge mixer bouncing up like a jack-in-the-box and making her clap her hands to her chest. "Oh heck!" she would gasp. It was the nearest my mother ever got to swearing.
She never quite got the hang of the mixer. I can picture her now, desperately trying to harness her wayward Kenwood, bits of cake mixture flying out of the bowl like something from an I Love Lucy sketch. The cake recipe was written in green biro on a piece of blue Basildon Bond and was kept, crisply folded into four, in the spineless Aga Cookbook that lived for the rest of the year in the bowl of the mixer. The awkward, though ingenious, mixer cupboard was impossible to clean properly, and in among the layers of flour and icing sugar lived tiny black flour weevils. I was the only one who could see them darting around. None of which, I suppose, mattered if you were making Christmas pudding, with its gritty currants and hours of boiling. But this was cake.
Cooks know to butter and line the cake tins before they start the creaming and beating. My mother would remember just before she put the final spoonful of brandy into the cake mixture, then take half an hour to find them. They always turned up in a drawer, rusty and full of fluff. Then there was the annual scrabble to find the brown paper, the scissors, the string. However much she hated making the cake we both loved the sound of the raw cake mixture falling into the tin. "Shhh, listen to the cake mixture," she would say, and the two of us would listen to the slow plop of the dollops of fruit and butter and sugar falling into the paper-lined cake tin. The kitchen would be warmer than usual and my mother would have that I've-just-baked-a-cake glow. "Oh, put the gram on, will you, dear? Put some carols on," she would say as she put the cake in the top oven of the Aga. Carols or not, it always sank in the middle. The embarrassing hollow, sometimes as deep as your fist, having to be filled in with marzipan.
Forget scented candles and freshly brewed coffee. Every home should smell of baking Christmas cake. That, and warm freshly ironed tea towels hanging on the rail in front of the Aga. It was a pity we had Auntie Fanny living with us. Her incontinence could take the edge off the smell of a chicken curry, let alone a baking cake. No matter how many mince pies were being made, or pine logs burning in the grate, or how many orange-and- clove pomanders my mother had made, there was always the faintest whiff of Auntie Fanny.
Warm sweet fruit, a cake in the oven, woodsmoke, warm ironing, hot retriever curled up by the Aga, mince pies, Mum's 4711. Every child's Christmas memories should smell like that. Mine did. It is a pity that there was always a passing breeze of ammonia. Cake holds a family together. I really believed it did. My father was a different man when there was cake in the house. Warm. The sort of man I wanted to hug rather than shy away from. If he had a plate of cake in his hand I knew it would be all right to climb up onto his lap. There was something about the way my mother put a cake on the table that made me feel that all was well. Safe. Secure. Unshakable. Even when she got to the point where she carried her Ventolin inhaler in her left hand all the time. Unshakable. Even when she and my father used to go for long walks, walking ahead of me and talking in hushed tones and he would come back with tears in his eyes.
When I was eight my mother's annual attempt at icing the family Christmas cake was handed over to me. "I've had enough of this lark, dear, you're old enough now." She had started to sit down a lot. I made only marginally less of a mess than she did, but at least I didn't cover the table, the floor, the dog with icing sugar. To be honest, it was a relief to get it out of her hands. I followed the Slater house style of snowy peaks brought up with the flat of a knife and a red ribbon. Even then I wasn't one to rock the boat. The idea behind the wave effect of her icing was simply to hide the fact that her attempt at covering the cake in marzipan resembled nothing more than an unmade bed. Folds and lumps, creases and tears. A few patches stuck on with a bit of apricot jam.