Inspiring Older Readers
Toast: the story of a boy’s hunger by Nigel Slater
It’s unlikely that you’ll find many references on this website to the literary output of celebrity chefs and it’s not subject matter I’m ever drawn to, even when they are not ghost written. One of the few exceptions that proves this rule is Nigel Slater’s memoir of childhood, Toast.
On the surface it’s easy to think that the word ‘charming’ might have been coined for a book like this. At one level it’s a gentle and nostalgic look back to a lost landscape of the past mapped out through food and sweets. But that would be to under-estimate its ambition because at a deeper level it’s a rather melancholic reflection of what it felt like for Slater growing up in an unorthodox, if not dysfunctional, family environment.
Slater isn’t bound by the usual rules of autobiography here – dates, for example, are sketchy and we only really know that the book deals with the years that might be called mid-childhood to mid-adolescence. He’s also really much more interested in the impressionistic – everything is focussed and interpreted through the eyes of the boy Slater and his priorities, which increasingly become defined by food.
The heart of the story isn’t dominated by big drama in the sense that it deals with tumultuous incidents and world-changing events – it is in fact a rather domestic, suburban tale of a Midlands family and the events and idiosyncrasies which play their part in forming the man Nigel will become. And that’s the key: this is all about Nigel. And it has to be said that as a child he can sometimes be a bit of a pain – which is something Slater is prepared to acknowledge and is a piece of honesty which helps to create a very positive bond with his readers.
The word that seems to pervade every part of Toast is ‘loveless’ – his relationship with his parents and later with his step-mother all reflect a painful lack of emotional closeness. The hugs are always awkward and the treats seemingly conditional. This gives meaning to the book’s sub-title, the story of a boy’s hunger – because the hunger is clearly for love and it is this need that gets subverted into a hunger for food. Later as he gets older and comes to terms with his sexuality he also chronicles how leaving home leads to that hunger being expressed through sexual encounters at the hotel he goes to work in.
The book takes its title from the fact that Slater’s mother was a truly dreadful cook and would burn toast every time she tried to make it – the smell of burnt toast becoming Slater’s enduring aromatic leitmotif. The vast majority of the ‘chapters’ or portions of the book are headed up with the name of a meal or sweets that somehow capture the moment in Slater’s memory. His most positive relationships seem to be formed on the basis of just how good a cook someone is.
For readers of a certain age the references to bygone foods or sweets that have now disappeared will be fantastically evocative – who still remembers Caramac or Fray Bentos pies –the obvious, childlike relish he still feels for these is positively infectious. Of course Slater is actually in pretty well established Proustian territory here, using the tastes and smells of food to trigger flashbacks which allow the boyhood Slater to appear as if he’s speaking directly to us.
Matthew Fort, reviewing the book in The Observer on its release in 2003, also noted the way Slater gives us this immediate sense of access to a child’s perception:
It is a child's, and then an adolescent's, view of his life, not that of an adult looking back on his life through the humanising prism of experience and maturity. This gives the book a vivid immediacy and a terrible honesty. It captures precisely the foreshortened perspective and selfishness of a child's view of the world. The clarity of his gaze is relentlessly unsentimental, his humour - and there are some very funny episodes - is pointed, even cruel, and his anger and loneliness are palpable.
This isn’t great literature but equally it’s not negligible and disposable – it’s a book that will intrigue and delight you if you take it on holiday or a long train journey and you’ll come away with a very different sense of just who Nigel Slater really is.