Like Pig and Pepper, Toast was a surprise present, shoved through the mail slot with a bulb catalog and a flyer from Time Warner. And like Pig and Pepper, a total hit: I love reading about food. I’m not a cookbooks-in-bed gal — and I know they exist — but I subscribed to the defunct Gourmet magazine all of my adult life and spend way too much time noodling around on food blogs. Food is about eating, of course, but it’s also about culture and emotion, which the best food writers understand. Having just finished Toast, I now know that Nigel Slater is one of the best food writers.
His career is mostly in England but I sometimes read the Observer’s excellent food column and I’ve used some of Slater’s recipes: simple, handy, full of flavor and respect for the ingredients. What Toast demonstrates even more strongly is how he sees food as an expressive language. As he says on the first page, “It is impossible not to love someone who makes toast for you. People’s failings… 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.”
And we’re off, folks. Toast is the story of Slater’s childhood, presented as vignettes mostly focused on foods. Toast. Christmas Cake. Spaghetti Bolognese (not a hit with the Slater family, but hilarious), Tinned Beans and Sausage. Such a pleasing, simple structure, but it could have gone so terribly wrong. Slater avoids many pitfalls. Toast isn’t sentimental, it isn’t cute, it doesn’t glamorize or patronize. His much-loved mother is a menace in the kitchen even by the standards of 1960s England, but she cooks for her family. When she dies, Slater’s father takes over the duties, one of the wrenching changes wrought by her death. There’s a section on the small Nigel cooking his father’s favorite smoked haddock — tears ensue. “When your mum dies you notice little things more, like your senses are all cranked up a notch.”
Gradually the food gets better, but for a bad reason: Slater’s father remarries a difficult woman who cooks in a showy, controlling, competitive way. Young Nigel discovers sex and gets a job in a local restaurant, two happy developments. Stronger flavors, better ingredients, new techniques, and comfortable relationships all point the way into a new world. There is also a hilariously lewd story involving a seafood cocktail served at a hotel wedding. Page 220.
Food communicates. Slater is entertaining and discerning about the politics of various sweets, for instance: which are for adults, which for boys, which irredeemably girly. He understands how dining choices are freighted with social messages, sometimes eclipsing the primary sensory pleasures of taste and texture. And Slater reminds us that every dish we cook, for ourselves or for others, talks to those who consume it. Even if the toast is burnt.