Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Nigel Slater's 'Toast' and memories of my mother being mortified by her children

A drizzly Saturday morning spent poking through odds and ends at a car boot sale resulted in this haul:

I was excited to read them all but Nigel Slater’s food memoir ‘Toast’ was top of my list. I've been meaning to read it for absolutely ages.

It turns out to be a surprising book. It tells the tale of a boy born with a passion for food to parents who care little about it. Nigel was born 15 years after his older brothers. His mother developed asthma while pregnant with him and was a sickly – though loving – presence in his childhood. His father was well intentioned but had a terrifying temper. Nigel craved their love and attention and this craving is represented in his hunger for food.

His mother – “a peas and chops sort of cook” – cooked plain food badly. She burnt the toast every morning. Her rice pudding was always too milky. And the icing on her Christmas cake was once so hard his father set about it with a hammer and chisel.

She was baffled by her son who would spend hours fantasising about the dishes described in a cookbook he found hidden at the back of the bookcase: dishes such as gammon steak with pineapple and cherries, steak and kidney pudding and stuffed eggs.

The highlight of Nigel’s week was visiting Percy Salt’s grocers with his mother. Its hams, kippers, sugared almonds and fresh pineapples delighted Nigel. He loved it so much he would often play at being a grocer and selling cheese to his imaginary customers.

Nigel’s warmest memories are those that involve him making food with his mother: the sound of raw cake mixture plopping into the cake tin, rubbing butter into pastry for jam tarts and flipping pancakes on Shrove Tuesday before sprinkling them with granulated sugar and Jif lemon juice.

Other memories are bittersweet. Nigel wrote a school essay in which he described marshmallows as the nearest food to a kiss. When Nigel’s mother dies, his father remembers this and knowing that Nigel will miss his mother’s bedtime kisses most of all, leaves marshmallows on his son’s bedside table every night for two years. There are funny moments too. 1960s Britain was a different world when it comes to food and Nigel captures this perfectly. He talks about parents’ pride in possessing an item as glamorous as a grapefruit knife and the first time they ate grilled grapefruits – a fruit nobody they knew had ever eaten.

And then there’s the first time they cook spaghetti bolognaise. They panic as the strands of spaghetti escape through the holes of the colander and they decide that the parmesan cheese must be off because it “smells like sick”. So traumatised are they by the entire incident that they never speak of it again.

Food was also defined by class. Crisps, baked beans, chips, sandwich spread, ketchup, bubblegum and HP sauce are among the items that never feature on the Slater table.
But Artic Rolls – those tubes of vanilla ice cream covered in jam and sponge – were considered the ultimate in food as was a grapefruit spiked with cocktail sticks bearing cubes and cheese and pineapple.

Nigel’s life changes after his mother dies and so does what he and his father eat. His father never ate his favourite foods – tripe and onions, liver and bacon, cauliflower cheese – again.
In fact, the pair hardly eat at all until Mrs Potter enters their lives.

Mrs Potter becomes their cleaner and eventually Nigel’s stepmother. She is a fabulous cook and brings delights such as homemade parsley sauce, Victoria sponge cakes and pork chops with apple rings into their lives.
However, she is possessive of her culinary skills and reluctant to share them with budding chef Nigel. When he shows prowess at making her Victoria sponge, she never shows him how to make anything again.
Not even her lemon meringue, which attains the status of legend in this book. Nigel describes it as having a “warm, painfully sharp lemon filling, airy pastry and a billowing hat of thick, teeth-judderingly sweet meringue.”

There is so much to savour in this book besides the fabulous descriptions of food. Nigel’s classes in home economics, his first jobs in catering, his exploration of his sexuality; these tales are interwoven with stories of the relationships that shaped him and the food that made him into the cook he is today.

While reading this book, I couldn’t help but think back to the food memories that have shaped my own life.

The scrambled eggs my mother would make when I was sick as a child: hot buttered toast made a little soggy by the slightly milky scrambled eggs on top. To this day, this is all I want to eat whenever I’m ill and nobody can ever make it taste the same.

The dish of brown rice with umeboshi plum and tahini sauce my boyfriend made to impress me early in our relationship: I was a strict vegetarian then and I loved its mix of sharp and smooth flavours. However, I wasn’t particularly enamoured when he told me he had learned how to make it when he took a macrobiotic cookery course to impress a previous girlfriend. Still, I suppose the dish counts as a success for him: it helped him score on at least two occasions!

Meringue and mortifying my mother: the stations are still a popular tradition in West Kerry. The local parish priest comes to your home and holds mass there, blessing your house and all who live in it.
After the mass, there is usually a lunch of sandwiches, salads, roast meats, poached fish, cakes and such. The priest and all of the neighbours are invited.

I was about six years old when a relative of ours invited my parents, my two younger sisters and I to her stations.
The custom was that everyone invited to stations would bring along a contribution: usually a cake of some sort. My mother made a cake and when we arrived at the stations, I was told to leave it in the room where the other cakes were being stored until after the mass.

My jaw dropped when I opened the door to this room. Every single surface was covered with cakes and desserts: fruit cakes, chocolate cakes, meringues, cheesecakes, mousses… You name it and it was there.
Returning to my sisters, I whispered the wonders to be found in this room. Our overwhelming greed meant that within minutes, we had sneaked away from our parents and into this room.
Then, we went on the rampage. Mouthfuls of chocolate mousse, spoons of strawberry soufflé, slices of sponge…

We were beginning to feel a little ill when we heard our mother’s voice calling for us. As the handle began to turn on the door, we started to feel even worse.
My sister was hastily licking the sticky, sugary crumbs of a cream-filled meringue from her lips when my mother’s face appeared, along with the shocked face of the woman hosting the stations.
My mother was never more embarrassed. We had never before been in such trouble. But it was worth it for those cakes.

One last memory: my father is a farmer and when I was growing up, it was common for local farmers to come together and help each other making hay, silage and harvesting crops. Instead of spending money that was scarce hiring extra farmhands or machinery, they shared energy and effort in lending each other a hand.

The kitchen of our house would be frantic on these days. Huge vats of stew bubbled on the range, along with pots of potatoes, while loaves of bread baked in the oven. I always thought my mother had made far too much food but when the men came in from the fields – big and strong and sweaty – they would drink bottles of Guinness (those old-fashioned black glass bottles that were always kept in the cupboard under the kitchen sink) and would finish off the bowls of stew, heaps of potatoes and mounds of bread and butter in record time.

These are the memories that came to me as I was reading this book. I’d love to hear yours. What were the flavours of your childhood? What are the culinary highlights and lowlights of your life to date?

Please do share. And if, like me, you have yet to read Nigel Slater’s ‘Toast’, you should do so soon. It’s a treat.


  1. Like you, this has been on my list of books I want to read for ages. After your fantastic review, it's getting bumped back to the top of the list. Thanks for sharing your food memories too - how could a child resist an entire room full of cakes?

  2. Kristin,
    I doubt if there is a child alive that could! Enjoy reading the book.