Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger

Nigel Slater

Gotham Books

I once saw a production of Alan Ayckbourn’s Season’s Greetings that called for a character in a dinner scene to be eating jelly. The actor pulled out a jar of jam and a spoon and started licking away. The polite audience response made it clear this group of Americans figured it was normal for the English to lap up jam like that. It also made it clear that the Shavian aphorism about two countries separated by a common language is alive and well in the world of food. In England jelly = gelatin or Jell-O, and has nothing to do with jam.

This gap is what makes Nigel Slater’s new book, Toast, richer than the average food memoir. Slater, author of several best-selling cookbooks in the UK and the beloved weekly columnist for the Observer, has written a very English book, and its foreign qualities are both totally charming and oddly challenging. A slim 238 pages, Toast embodies both the strongest and the weakest traits of the genre.

American food writing has been going great guns in recent years, with reprints of classics by Calvin Trillin and A.J. Liebling and new best sellers by Ruth Reichl and Anthony Bourdain. But despite America’s obsession with the royal family and James Bond; despite the fact that it’s the writing of Elizabeth David, not M.F.K. Fisher, that Alice Waters considers the greatest influence on her cooking; despite endless well-placed articles about the River Cafe and the sophisticated joys of double cream, England’s cuisine is still a big cultural joke, period, part of the repertoire along with blue cheese teeth and without-us-you’d-be-speaking-German. The late Julia Child was once asked in a magazine article if she was familiar with Delia Smith, England’s venerable television and cookbook chef. She wasn’t sure. It’s not surprising. The export of British food product to the U.S. has been cautious and fitful and seems to be based a lot on looks: Nigella Lawson, Cadbury bars, Aga stoves.

Slater, who appears November 19 at Borders on State, is virtually unknown in the U.S. His passionate yet self-effacing, sensual pieces about the joys of seasonal food and home cooking find their closest American kin in the late Laurie Colwin, whose wry columns for Gourmet were earthy, conversational, and wise. Slater’s columns and books, which inspire similarly slavish followers without (unlike Colwin) divulging much personal information, effectively puncture food snobbism with their vivid, descriptive prose and storytelling. His American publishers lean heavily on a quote from the New York Times that claims his “acidic riffs put you in the mind of Nick Hornby, Martin Amis and Philip Larkin all at the same time.” That’s their ham-fisted attempt to tell American readers his writing isn’t poncey or Merchant-Ivory, it’s accessible, “new” England. In other words, Slater is funny.

Toast tells the tale of Slater’s middle-class British childhood near the city of Wolverhampton in the 1960s and 70s. His mother is dying of asthma, although he doesn’t know it, and his gardening-mad father is by turns unreachable and mean. The book is structured around food, built of small, often one- or two-page chapters with titles like “Cold Lamb and Gravy Skin” or “Sherbet Fountains.” Scenes of cooking and eating, meditations on what their family ate or the food he sneaked, pull readers through the story, through his mother’s death and his father’s distressing remarriage to the cleaning lady.

The book gets its title from the first chapter and the idea that “It is impossible not to love someone who makes toast for you,” even a mother who burns the toast every day and makes sure that you “have never seen butter without black bits in it.” Slater knows at an early age that his mother is basically not good at the fairly typical meat and two-veg diet they enjoy and he describes her well-meaning but uninspired cuisine in gleeful detail. He also lingers on the deliciousness of childhood: the world of sweets, certain pies and puddings, occasional dishes his mother made that he loved with a nostalgie de la boue (watery rice pudding) or that were just plain delicious (buttery mashed potatoes).

Slater is incredibly good at using food to describe the general atmosphere–“We lived in a world of tinned fruit,” he writes early on–but food is also his tool for conveying meaning, defining class, and understanding his parents. “Crisps . . . were banished for the same reason that baked beans were, and fish and chips in newspaper, mushy peas, evaporated milk, and sliced bread in plastic,” he writes. “My parents considered them to be ‘a bit common.’…Quite how they explained away their predilection for tinned mandarin oranges and Kraft cheese slices is a matter for speculation.”

Toast is not a very happy book, especially as Slater describes the years following his mother’s death and his father’s remarriage. He even implies that Joan–the name he uses for his stepmother–helped his father to an early grave by overfeeding his weak heart, partly out of a desire to compete with Slater as he begins to cook himself. For Joan is as good a cook as his mother was a bad one. She cooks airy sponge cakes and perfectly tender meat, and keeps an immaculate house in which a teenage boy could never feel at home.

Slater is ruthless in his depiction of Joan as unkind, money-grubbing, and avid for a middle-class sterility in which his father’s smelly pickled walnuts are suddenly unacceptable at the table. When his father clumsily tries to get Slater to see Joan as “just like Mummy,” he rages in his head: “Mummy hadn’t drunk snowballs or collected cigarette coupons, she had never cut tokens from the back of packets or stuck Green Shield Stamps in a book. Mum had never played bingo and didn’t have yellow nicotine stains on her fingers. I am sure she would never have worn anything made of brushed nylon.”

The childhood snobbery is uncomfortable to read, especially for those of us here in our “classless” society. So is Slater’s adult charge that she basically killed his father. But that embrace of the unpleasant and contradictory is what gives the book force. Food cannot solve every problem. Bad people can make good food and vice versa. Joan makes good toast.

Slater credits Joan with occasional gestures of kindness, but the rest of Toast is concerned with his growing up and doing anything to get out of the house. He does so by learning to be a cook, matter-of-factly describing the camaraderie, inspiration, and constant sex in the restaurant profession, not to mention its disdain for basic hygiene. (The tales of twice-fried fish and semen in the shrimp cocktail are probably what prompt many to compare Toast to Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential.)

The notoriously reclusive Slater surprised English readers with the personal revelations in his book, and since its release last year Toast has won several awards, including a British Book Award for best biography. The book’s attention to detail and barrage of product names have also spawned a powerful nostalgia for the now-vanished packaged and grocery store foods popular in England in the 60s and 70s. These qualities provide the most obvious barrier for Americans to enjoy–or even understand–the book.

You don’t need subtitles like Snatch or a concordance like Trainspotting (although there is a small glossary in the back), but Toast is thick with untranslated UK English and proper nouns that are integral to setting the scene. Consider this typical childhood rant about brands of candy and their relative appropriateness for boys: “Fry’s Chocolate Creams and Old English Spangles were considered adult territory; Love Hearts and Fab ice creams were for girls. Parma Violets were for old ladies and barley sugars were what your parents bought you for long car journeys. Cones filled with marshmallow and coated in chocolate were considered naff by pretty much everyone, thought I secretly liked them, and no one over six would be seen dead with a flying saucer.”

There’s enough structure there to figure out what he means–any kid could probably tell you what he’s talking about–but at the same time there’s no doubt that the language poses a challenge.

Slater worries about this in the preface to the U.S. edition, but then comes to the conclusion that his story is universal enough to transcend the problem. I think he’s right, but I also consider the gaps in understanding created by language part of the value of Toast. You might suppose that a collective, close-to-the-bone activity like eating would show what we have in common. But instead it highlights our differences. A book about a more obscure topic would probably need less translation. As a result, the work you have to do as an American to fully understand Toast enriches your reading of the story, as the meanings embedded in this foreign vocabulary shine through. The family’s first grapefruit knife, their unsatisfying first tastes of spaghetti Bolognese, convey the sense of cautious abundance that crept across the country with the end of postwar rationing. Slater’s first visit to an Indian restaurant–which he declares “smells of armpit”–hints at Wolverhampton’s own growing cultural chasm, as Indian and Pakistani immigration boomed during the 60s.

Toast owes a debt to distressing memoirs of English boyhood like Rudyard Kipling’s “Baa Baa, Black Sheep” or Roald Dahl’s Boy, although closer kin might be the books of Denton Welch, with their strong obsessive and outsider qualities and vivid depiction of adult cluelessness about the physical world of children. While reading I often thought of the well-publicized advice Tobias Wolff gave Mary Karr when she was writing her autobiography: “Don’t be afraid of appearing angry, small-minded, obtuse, mean, immoral, amoral, calculating, or anything else. Don’t approach your history as something to be shaken for its cautionary fruits. Tell your stories, and your story will be revealed.”

By this measure the genre is well served by Toast. Slater can both convey the immediacy of a kid’s worldview and tell a good story. For instance, you can feel simultaneously the heartbreak of his mother’s illness progressing and the self-centered disappointment a kid would feel when his mom is too tired and sick to make her mash anymore and uses dried potato flakes from a box that don’t taste as good. Sometimes, though, Toast is so successful at depicting a myopic, child’s take on things it leaves an unavoidable desire for more shape or bigger, more measured narration.

American food writing tends toward excess in its effort to convey the importance of every piece of perfectly flaky crust, every frozen moment in time. Toast is not devoid of sentiment, but Slater himself has pointed out that the book veers away from what he calls the usual “freshly baked, rosy glow” of a food memoir. This is certainly true–the sheer mediocrity of a lot of the food he’s eating, whatever his attachment to it, is convincing and excellent material for his dry English humor. He is not as unusual as he thinks, however, in writing about bad childhood food. Many authors, like Reichl and Fisher, have written it into their food education as key to their later interest in gastronomy. But Slater makes it clear that he wasn’t alone: an entire country spent years eating Vesta chow mein and Mint Yo-Yos. As he described the enthusiastic English reaction to Toast in a recent article: “It was not only my own memories that were bound up with the food of the 1960s and 1970s. Of course, this being Britain, it was not so much a Proustian madeleine that had opened the door, but Bird’s Dream Topping.”

Slater notes in the preface that the book also lacks “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.” But Toast still has its own version of what he means: the hallmark of food writing, the Food Moment. These moments are difficult to write well–they melt into cliche in the wrong hands, becoming precious or sentimental. They are moments when food crystallizes an experience; when the writer bites into something that’s so good or transformative or real that it changes his feelings about it, about life, about the food that’s come before, about whatever’s going on at the moment, even if to only put an unforgettable frame around it. In Slater’s moment, a dish of potatoes in cream at a London restaurant opens his eyes to the world of adult pleasures beyond Wolverhampton. “The most wonderful thing I had ever tasted in my life, more wonderful than Mom’s flapjacks,” he writes, “and a thousand miles away from anything I had made at college. Warm, soft, and creamy, this wasn’t food that could be a kiss or hug, like marshmallows or Irish stew, this was food that was pure sex.”

But while food, when used as the bones of a narrative, can contribute structure or a sense of momentum, all those Moments strung together don’t always equal a story. Food makes it easy to find a way into a story, to set a scene, create atmosphere and personality. But the best writing is that which having found its way in, bothers to find a way out. This is much harder, and food isn’t necessarily the best tool for that. Sometimes it works. The first chapter of Jacques Pepin’s The Apprentice, which, after disturbing but matter-of-fact depictions of the privations of wartime France, closes suddenly with the unexpected sweetness on the tongue of a chocolate bar thrown by an American soldier during the liberation. Toast has more than a few moments like this, stories that seem to tell themselves, but they don’t last more than a few pages. I found myself wishing for some larger ideas to which to attach the moments. Several times Slater brings down the curtain on a scene that starts with a fight over food and ends with his father’s tears. By the second time it’s lost its punch.

In the best food writing the point is not just the childhood that comes surging from memory with the first bite, or the seven volumes of temps perdu, or the madeleine itself. It’s that you must have all of them. Toast has clearly fed a hunger in England, where Slater’s readers now sidle up to him and murmur brand names of foods he forgot to mention. Even for American readers Toast tastes at first bite like it contains the necessary layers of memory and food and story. It may seem like it’s missing some essential ingredient. As with an English trifle, you’re full before you’re satisfied. But it’s still delicious.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tomasz Walenta.