- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 9, 2004

Nigel Slater, though not exactly famous, is probably the best loved food writer in Britain, and with good reason. While television chefs whip up impossibly trendy dishes in their sleek kitchens (farm-raised veal with a Merlot-and-shiitake reduction, anyone?), Mr. Slater purveys a quieter, more stripped-down approach to cooking: His food is homey, somewhat slapdash, nourishing to body and soul. It is all enjoyment and no pretension.

I should own up that Mr. Slater taught me most of what (little) I know about how to cook, and more importantly, how to eat. His first cookbook, “Real Fast Food” (1992), came as a revelation to an impoverished graduate student equipped only with a miniature Baby Belling-brand stove (one oven rack, two stovetop elements). Finally, here were some recipes I could make. I impressed my fiance with the 10-minute Trout in a Fresh Herb and Lime Crust; in the throes of dissertation writing, I found late-night solace in the Bacon and Banana Sandwich.

In the introduction to that book, after dismissing “affected arrangements” and “effete garnishes,” Mr. Slater warned with delicious tartness: “Ignore anyone who tells you that every meal should be a ‘performance’ and be suspicious of those who tell you they iron a tablecloth and arrange the flowers when they come in from work, exhausted, at eight o’clock. They are trying to hide something. Probably the food.”

Now Mr. Slater, the longtime food correspondent of the Observer newspaper, has written a memoir of a childhood recalled through the palate. “Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger” is awash in the tastes and smells of middle-class England during the 1960s. There are familiar delights, like lemon meringue pie and mashed potatoes; others are distinctly British, or so dated that they now seem vaguely exotic: canned raspberries, boiled ham with parsley sauce, pickled walnuts, and something called “mushroom ketchup.”

At heart, though, “Toast” is about the death of the author’s mother when he was only nine, an event that brought new troubles to an already lonely boy. We see young Nigel struggle to accept — and be accepted by — a cold perfectionist of a stepmother, while nursing his own culinary ambitions and coming to terms with sexual confusion.

As opposed to the misty-eyed “Tales of baking at [my] mother’s knee” one might expect, this memoir is largely free from sentimentality. For one thing, the author’s mother was a reluctant and lousy cook, of the shoe-leather-pork-chops-and-instant-dried-peas school. Only a sense of maternal duty can induce her to make the occasional batch of jam tarts; an attempt at apple crumble results in a hard crust of “dry, gritty powder” atop a “watery mush” of fruit.

“He wants to be a chef,” Nigel’s father would explain to cocktail-party guests as his son offered them a whole grapefruit spiked with cheese-cubed toothpicks. This was the older Slaters’ bizarre idea of a sophisticated hors d’oeuvre, and it was deeply embarrassing to Nigel. “I would throw my head in the air and flay my nostrils in disapproval … I had to let everyone know my disdain for my parents’ catering arrangements.”

Like most British children Nigel is crazy about “sweeties,” consuming them in teeth-rotting abundance — Sherbet Fountains, licorice chews, candy cigarettes, Mars bars and “jammie dodgers.” He is hardly the only boy to lick the cream filling from a sandwich cookie, a habit his stepmother calls “revolting” (“She pronounced it with a short o”).

But early on we sense that his is no ordinary attachment to food. “I spent most of my money on sweets that made your tongue sore: acid drops, sherbet lemons, chocolate limes, and roll after roll of refreshers,” he writes. “The price for which was mouth ulcers the size of shirt buttons, and on which I would put salt-and-vinegar crisps to see just how much pain I could stand.”

While junk food is a source of masochistic joy, eating also triggers purely negative sensations. One gulp of milk is enough to make Nigel violently sick. When his teacher insists that all the children in the class drink their milk, he offers his daily bottle to any girl who will show him her underpants. This works, until the teacher finds out and forces him to drink his whole milk ration standing in front of the class. He gets the first mouthful down — and the rest of his stomach’s contents come right back up.

One of the funnier incidents Mr. Slater describes is the protracted “egg war” between himself and his father. To Dad, eggs are just the thing to turn his spindly-legged “nancy boy” of a son into a real man. To Nigel they are “the food from hell. The white to make you gag. The yolk to make you retch … the one-eyed yellow monster.”

Force-feeding only makes him puke, so his father becomes more cunning. “[A] promised pancake had turned out to be an omelet, some slices of hard-boiled egg had been slipped into a salad sandwich … I was having none of it. Every morsel of food was inspected both on the plate and again on the fork for signs of the dreaded oeuf.” Peace is finally achieved when Nigel gets down a plateful of scrambled eggs with cheese. (Behind Dad’s back, though, subsequent servings are fed to the family dog.)

Food in the household gets better, and worse, when Nigel’s recently widowed father takes up with the cleaning lady, Joan Potter. She is an excellent cook. She is also vulgar, gold-digging and obsessive-compulsive. The most compelling aspect of Mr. Slater’s memoir is the competitive relationship that quickly develops between Joan and Nigel as each of them tries to gain supremacy over Dad’s stomach.

When Nigel asks Joan how to make her sublime lemon meringue pie, she conveniently “forgets” the recipe and refuses his many offers of help in the kitchen. When Nigel begins a cooking class at school on Wednesdays, Joan suddenly makes Wednesday her baking day. “Each Wednesday I would proudly come home from school with … a sunken fruit cake … to find the house full of … enough cakes, tarts, and pies to feed the entire village.”

In his recollections of early sexual experiences (with both males and females), Mr. Slater is anatomically explicit yet emotionally coy, in a way that forecloses real candor. So we know that the Slaters’ young gardener, Josh, was physical with Nigel to a degree that was likely inappropriate and that he brought him “secret” magazines; whether this constituted child abuse or something less serious — and how it affected Mr. Slater psychologically — we are only left to wonder.

Overall, though, Mr. Slater combines a disarming, poignant coming-of-age story with a celebration of traditional English cuisine (which in many home kitchens, at least, never reached the depths it is so often ridiculed for). Chicken Tikka Masala may be the new national dish of Great Britain, but smoked haddock and treacle tart, one hopes, will always remain on the menu.

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