So far not so good with the 'blog at least once a week' resolution, this being my first post of 2013. But never mind, let's soldier on. My first read of the year wasn't one that I chose, or not entirely. The museum book group that I organise fell too close to the day that I finished A Game of Thrones (as brilliant and as troubling as I remembered it) to justify reading anything else before this month's book. Which was Toast by Nigel Slater. I was a whole world of underwhelmed at the idea of reading this award winning memoir of food and childhood. I'm a huge fan of Slater's recipes. If you haven't eaten the unctious, creamy deliciousness that is his pasta with sausage, basil and mustard from Real Food you simply haven't lived. The two volumes of Tender are absolutely the best vegetable cookbooks I own - I implicitly trust Slater to find a solution for the three stems of kale wilting in the fridge or the gargantuan swede that came in the veggie box. I've never warmed to him on television though; in fact, I find him vaguely and disconcertingly distant. Toast hasn't changed that. The opposite. Now I think he may also be ever so slightly unpleasant, but only insofar as we all are.
I knew the lineaments of the story of Toast beforehand because of the BBC's adaptation aired at Christmas 2011. It is an autobiography of sorts, covering the narrow but formative band of years between the ages of 6 and 16. Slater was the late child of an ageing couple. His mother suffered from debilitating asthma, and was a disastrous cook and 'failed' housewife; his father was born in 1905 and supplemented his diet with daily doses of Setlers. His mother died when he was eight, leaving Slater and his father struggling to cope with caring for one another. Up rolled Joan Potter, a younger woman in nylon stockings and hair curlers with a cigarette permanently dangling from her lips. She started as their cleaner, then moved in as 'Auntie Joan', before finally sealing the deal and marrying Slater's father when Nigel was a teenager. Nigel and Joan didn't get along from the beginning, and things only worsened as they competed for his father's attention through the medium of food.
The story from Slater's point of view is a litany of repressed grief, rejection, anger and resentment directed at everyone, even his dying mother, but delivered via a nostalgic encyclopedia of British food from the 1960s and 1970s. His memories are packaged with a commentary on the eating experiences that accompanied them. The book is a paean to Heinz steamed puddings, Angel Delight, Artic Roll, Frey Bentos pies and spaghetti hoops. The two strains - sugary reminiscence and angry resentment - make interesting companions, splitting our reading group (and online reviews) down the middle into those who enjoyed Toast as a trip down memory lane and those who were left with an abiding uncomfortableness. I was firmly in the latter group, although I did recall a lot of the foods Slater talks about from my own 1980s childhood. Do you remember when the starter menu was invariably a choice between Seafood Cocktail, Melon and 'a selection of fruit juices'? (The fact that I do probably means that the Bournemouth hotels we stayed in on family holidays were stuck in a 1970s timewarp.)
It is impossible not to love someone who makes toast for you. People's failings...drop 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 hits your tongue, you are smitten. Putty in their hands.
This, on page one, is the closest Slater comes to saying that he loves his mother, or anyone else, in Toast. It's typical of the book that he uses food to say it; it is the vehicle for every ounce of emotional expression. At no point does anyone in the book make a direct statement of feeling, least of all Nigel Slater himself. When his mother dies his father doesn't take over the duty of tucking him into bed. Instead he leaves a little dish of marshmellows at the side of Nigel's bed each night: the closest thing to a kiss between them.
Food is a complicated, over-laden signifier. It isn't just used for transmitting love. In fact, the giving and receiving of food is only rarely about love or kindness or generosity. It is more often a punishment, as when Slater's mother punishes him for nagging for a toy by making him eat shrivelled lunchtime leftovers with skinned-over gravy, or when his father forces him to eat the eggs that he find repulsive. It is also about rejection and isolation, as when Nigel watches his only friend Warrell eat fists full of biscuits while never being offered the tin himself, or when Nigel thinks 'Auntie Joan' is using sweets and cakes to alienate his father from the memory of his mother. It also delineates class, gender, sexuality and age. It doesn't unite us, it divides us. The little boy who is Nigel Slater warily navigates the world by what you can or can't or shouldn't eat at different times and places. He can catalogue the does and don'ts, and each choice is weighted. You get the sense that the food might turn around and bite him back.
Crisps were frowned upon, rather like baked beans, chips and Love Hearts...fish and chips in newspaper, mushy peas, evaporated milk and sliced bread in plastic. It wasn't that such things were considered bad for me, too sweet or full of additives. It was because my parents considered them to be 'a bit common'.
Quite how this snobbery was reconciled with their appetite for Heinz sponge puddings or Kraft cheese slices is a mystery of the British class system. But anyone who has navigated the terrifying waters of a class food culture different from their own will understand implicitly. I will never forget the shock of fizzy water at a friend's parents' dinner table; it was completely outside the realm of my experience and I almost spat it out. The assumptions you make about food marks you, even though you may grow away from them later (as Slater almost certainly has done).
Food and sex are classically connected in the imagination, and almost pathologically linked in Toast. Late on in the book there is a scene where Slater catches a young chef masturbating into a slice of rare roast beef, which pretty much sums it up: Toast is all about sex wrapped up in food. The metaphor ranges from the relatively innocent - Auntie Joan sleeps in a seperate bedroom but seduces Slater's father with the silky topping of her famous lemon meringue pie - to the explicit beef episode. The image of Slater and parents sat licking out the centre of their walnut whips, working their tongues into the chocolate shell to get every last bit isn't going to leave me any time soon. Slater's suspiscion is that his dad is training him for a very different explorative exercise. Nor is the incident where a used condom is accidentally dropped into the seafood cocktail at a restaurant and eaten by a customer, presumably mistaken for a tough bit of squid.
This is not the sex-food connection that Nigella Lawson et al exploits, it is something quite different and implies a disgust around intimacy, eating and sexuality that challenges our assumptions about food writers. There is barely an eating=pleasure correlation in sight. Eating is intimate alright, but the intimacy is as much with revulsion, heartlessness, revenge and fear as it is with comfort, affection and tenderness. There were certainly things about the book that I didn't love. I found the smooth journalistic brevity of the chapters disruptive; and I didn't trust the factual truth of the narrative for a moment. It doesn't really matter what happened to Nigel Slater as a child, however. What I found compelling and worthwhile was the utterly fearless and amoral way he explored his own personal taxonomy of food and memory, even the food and memories that made him physically sick. He succeeds in positioning himself as an anecdote to the domesticated anodyne celebrity chef.