When I first read this book when it was first published I had really only a vague idea as to who Nigel Slater was. I had his “Real Fast” cookbooks which I used a lot but he hadn’t become the very recognisable TV cook of recent years. I’m not sure if I would have got a different impression of this had I read this more recently after seeing him so much on TV presenting his reassuring, comforting cookery programmes and food documentaries. Perhaps I would have found this memoir more of a shock. A very watchable TV adaptation was made with Freddie Highmore (Bates Motel) as Nigel and Helena Bonham-Carter as his step-mum but reading the book is the more valuable experience by far. I re-read this whenever I want a fast read which will have me laughing out loud and a few minutes later feeling close to tears. However well-written Nigel’s cookbooks are they do not have the same effect on me as this.
There’s a marvellous line from a review on the paperback copy from the Independent which claims Slater as the “Proust of the Nesquik era”. It was famously a Madeleine sponge cake that got Proust reminiscing at great length (haven’t read that and probably now unlikely to) and that is so appropriate as nothing kickstarts the old nostalgia like food (except perhaps music) and Slater cleverly uses this to provide the structure for his reminiscences. As his childhood was in the late 60’s/early 70’s (he was born in 1958) his memories are evoked by such joys as Arctic Roll, Cream Soda, Space Dust and Grilled Grapefruit. He tells his story through his hunger and does so admirably. The era is marvellously conjured up through his examination of his life through the foods we ate. It also contains in the section “Spaghetti Bolognaise” perhaps one of the most laugh-out-loud funny pieces of writing ever. I am grinning as I recall it as it is so close to my first experience of spaghetti. It is hard to believe that in the late 60’s pasta would be deemed to be something almost inedible to the British palate packaged in its “blue sugar paper that looks for all the world like a great long firework.” We Brits were not used to food that had to be forced into the pan and once cooked;
“We all sit there staring at our tumbling plates of pasta on our glass Pyrex plates. ‘Oh Kathleen, I don’t think I can,’ sobs Aunt Fanny, who then picks up a long sticky strand with her fingers and pops it into her mouth from which it hangs all the way down to her lap.”
Now in my household and my first introduction to spaghetti that is exactly how we ate it – plain and unadorned and I must say it was some years later before the experience was repeated. I’m really not sure why we did that- My Mum used to make Macaroni Cheese so must have known that it needed something on it. Luckily, in the Slater household they had a tin of “a slurry of reddy-brown mince that smells ‘foreign’”. With that addition things seem to be picking up, indeed the impressionable Nigel thinks he “wouldn’t mind eating this every day”, until that is, Dad remembers the drum of grated Parmesan cheese that he has been advised by a sophisticated friend to sprinkle on top.
“Daddy, this cheese smells like sick,” I tell him.
“I know it does, son, don’t eat it. I think it must be off.”
We never had spaghetti bolognaise or Parmesan cheese again. Or for that matter, ever even talked about it.”
I have laughed the whole time I have been typing this. I’m sure it will do the same to you when you read it. It’s not all fun in the Slater household, however. His mother dies when he is young (her memory kept alive poignantly by marshmallows on his bed-side table) and there is subsequently a difficult relationship with his step-mum. His almost obsessive interest in food begins to form itself into a potential career. It is a very British book, I’m not sure how well its sheer Britishness would translate for an international audience. This section sums up Nigel’s relationship with his father but the sensory value may be lost if these words do not sum up the same sensations;
“He always had something disgusting in his mouth, a Setler, a glug of kaolin and morphine, his pipe. When it wasn’t one of those it would be a Senior Service or a Mannekin. I flinched on the rare occasion he kissed me, even though I wanted him to.”
There is a danger to consider this to be a “celebrity biography” because to a point that is exactly what it is, but it is far more than that. This is Literature. It stands head and shoulders above most contemporary autobiographies because it is so well written and because of its disarming honesty. Family tensions and a coming to terms with his sexuality are all beautifully handled. It manages to be both touching and outrageous and was a highly deserved British Book Awards Biography of the Year Winner. A couple of years back it was one of the selected books to give out on World Book Night and I would have loved to have had a few copies to pass around. It also seems to be appearing as a book that is studied in schools and colleges and I am thrilled by that as it is truly a modern classic. Butterscotch Angel Delight anyone?
“Toast” was published in paperback in 2004 by Harper Perennial