18 December 2015

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

I rank the delights of baking much higher than time spent cooking at the stove.  I'm also one of those people who borrow cookbooks from the library to admire what others have accomplished with no intention of wading in myself.  And when I want something soothing on in the background while working on a knitting project, listening to Nigel Slater describe his dinner is as good as any classical music channel.

My memories of food and the kitchen when I was growing up wouldn't hold anyone's attention.  My parents were afraid of under-cooked meat so chops were crisp and curled, roast dinners were started at dawn and stayed in the oven until dinnertime.  Sandwiches were made with luncheon meat from packages when I know full well there were deli butchers aplenty.  My father was the one who first entrusted me with a frying pan at the stove.  He taught me to make scrambled eggs....like a pancake.  I suddenly realize why baking became my idea of heaven.

Nigel Slater's Toast is a diary of the first half of his life told through his memories and adventures with food..and lots of sweets.  He's also incredibly frank in his feelings for certain members of his family.  With the passing of time it would have been easy to erase some of his slightly caustic thoughts as a lonely boy trying to figure out adult situations, but he doesn't pull any punches.  These moments, however, are greatly outweighed by the poignant, happy, and downright hilarious events.

One of the themes that made me laugh out loud several times was the subject of food and class...

'...they considered eating the top layer off a Bourbon biscuit and licking the chocolate filling off was common.  Quote how they explained away their predilection for tinned mandarin oranges and Kraft cheese slices is a matter for speculation.'

...other unmentionables were Babycham, sandwich spread, tomato ketchup and Branston Pickle.

Nigel Slater's passion for food seems to have always been there.  Being one of only two boys to take a cooking class in high school shows his dedication.  He's several years older than I am and thinking back to my home economics classes I can't remember any young men concerned with perfecting their assignments.  Actually, quite a lot of it ended up as duck food in the stream that ran by the school.

There is one particular image from a paragraph that will forever stick with me.  It was after his mother died when Nigel was only nine-years-old.

  'Each night for the next two years I found two, sometimes three fluffy, sugary marshmallows on my bedside table.  It was the good night kiss I missed more than anything, more than her hugs, her cuddles, her whispered 'Night-night, sleep tight.'  No Walnut Whip, no Cadbury Flake, no sugared almond could ever replace that kiss.  I'm not sure a marshmallow really came that close.'

Toast is a perfect title for this book.  It was just the book when nothing else seemed to be working, it's a terrific comfort read, and made me want more.  There's a copy of Slater's Eating for England on my shelves but it's been years since I read it.  Having more of an understanding of what life was like for Nigel as a young man, I'm looking forward to reading it again with a clearer eye.

Nigel Slater


  1. I think I was sold when you first hinted that you liked this, but now... I can't wait to read it!

  2. Not when you're hungry, Audrey...consider yourself warned!

  3. I will definitely get this one as I am a big fan. "Notes from the Larder" is my favorite. I agree with you about this topic. In certain moods there's nothing more comforting. Yesterday amidst all the baking and cooking for Christmas, I sat down in front of the television and watched an episode of Barefoot Contessa. Not only did it calm me down, it motivated me to get back in the kitchen and finish the cooking. Wishing you a very Merry Christmas!