I finished reading Nigel Slater’s Toast, and I have to say I thoroughly loved it. Here’s why:
It’s a “story about a boy’s hunger” — hunger for everything — for experiences that satiate his curiosity, for discovering boyhood, for a bond with his parents, for friendship, and of course, for food.
It’s a memoir, and uses food as the medium. But I loved that for a change, it was stories about food and memories sparked by specific 60s British foods told minus the staid and frankly overdone and very boring route that is nostalgia. This book doesn’t have lyrical descriptions of food that will make you hungry. It doesn’t talk about food in a way that will make you visualise it, or crave it or rush to the kitchen to cook. But it will evoke feelings, and your heart will go out to the characters in the book — most of all Nigel Slater himself.
It’s become so normal to expect food and food memories to only evoke nostalgia that we forget that very often the memories associated with certain phases of life — from the happiest to saddest, shameful and joyful, alike — are tied to the things we ate. Memories of eating are always tied to events that occurred around them, which are so much more than just about the food that was in your plate. The hook for each chapter is based in a dish or ingredient, but what you get is so much more than a deep dive into the unidimensional kind of warm, loving, hearty memories one typically associates with food memoirs. What you get is a spectrum of emotions, ranging from brutal anger, to rejection, deprivation, simple joys, parental love, carnal desire, and so much more, and food is just the vehicle for it all.
Told through the words of a boy, over many years of growing up, I loved the typically wry British humor, sardonic narration and completely matter of fact and acerbic style it adapts, and still manages to evoke so much feeling. The chapters are very quick and cut and dry, more like short vignettes, that bring vivid memories and images to life. The words, while snappy, leave lasting images that linger on. Rather than having a thread of continuity that somewhat puts pressure on the story to “go somewhere” I thought this was very unusual, clever format that gives you bits and bobs, flashes of life as it was, individual moments, memories and experiences that each stand their own weight.
If there are more food books like this — that go beyon waxing eloquent about the warmth of eating with family, heirloom recipes, and the warm hug of mothers cooking — I’d love to read them. So if you have recommendations, please send them my way. As for Toast, I recommend it highly. Turns out there’s a movie too!