Monday, 7 March 2011

A toast to living

Nigel Slater’s Toast had only been on the edge of my awareness – until Christmas just past when the BBC screened a film adaptation of it.

I turned over after a short while – not because it wasn’t any good, because it was, but because I wanted to read the book before seeing the dramatisation.

Because it had been trailed, when my mother had asked me for present suggestion, I’d mentioned it. And it was duly among my gifts, although my mother noted, in a slightly odd way: “It’s looks a bit ... strange”.

Ah, Mother. That’ll be because you probably noticed, on the back cover if nowhere else, the phrase ‘sexual awakening’. I do hope she didn’t leaf too thoroughly through the pages and spot the references to masturbation.

Toast is Slater’s volume of autobiography – he says he’ll never pen another – and it covers his life from childhood to early adulthood.

The book is centred on the foods of his childhood and youth, but not only does Slater evoke these wonderfully, his ability to recollect events from his life in terms of these foods is almost Proustian.

There are times when the detail of his recollection can prompt your own – certainly if you grew up in essentially the same era and also within the same sort of class group.

I’d forgotten that helping to polish the brasses was a regular chore – and one that I enjoyed: it always left you with a sense of gleaming achievement.

I’d forgotten parental snobbishness about certain foods (although not about TV). I’d forgotten arctic rolls.

Such things sprung back to life in my mind as I read, in full, technicolour clarity.

It’s not, on the surface of it, a particularly heart-warming story. Slater’s adored mother died when he was nine and his father was something of a bully.

When his father then married the cleaner, it created a climate of competition between new wife and son for his affection. And the weapon for both of them in that was food.

Whereas his mother struggled with cooking and frequently turned to toast to replace disasters, Slater’s step-mother was far happier and more skilled in the kitchen.

What follows is like a darkly hilarious reality TV show – 'extreme cooking', with the prize being one man's affections.

The author never makes the error of trying to present himself as a delightful child who was easy to deal with – this is far more natural and real.

But although all of this should make the book quite depressing, it’s far from that, because even if most of the food that Slater describes is about as far removed from haute cuisine as possible, what comes through clearly is the pleasure of eating and cooking.

And since the author is very much of the opinion that pleasure is what links food and sex, then this tale of growing up and discovery and yearning has to include sex too, which it does, very funnily, on occasion. And very, very open and honest he is too.

A really excellent book from a writer who has a wonderful ability to capture and convey time and place and the sensuality of one of life’s greatest pleasures.

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