Toast: The Story of a Boy's Hunger
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24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
HALL OF FAMEVINE VOICEon February 14, 2006
Food writer Nigel Slater is a man after my own heart, as he, like me, relates episodes of his childhood, through the food he ate at the time. I am not familiar with many of the foods he references since they are Brit-specific, for example, oddities such as grilled grapefruit, space dust, angel delight, cheese-and-onion crisps, arctic roll, and heinz tinned puddings. At the same time, I feel his descriptions are so illustrative that it is easy to sense what these concoctions taste like. He also captures the ambivalent feelings consumers had in the 1950's and 60's about accepting modern convenience foods, especially with his mother's culinary pride and his own fastidious palette on the line. Even more personally, Slater shows how he used food as an emotional substitute for a mother who died early and a distant father, who vented his frustration through abuse and ultimately remarried the family cleaning lady as if to destroy the family nucleus intentionally. However, the author does not dwell on the emotional impact of these events but rather uses his edible memories as the catharsis to which we could all relate.

The author can be a cipher as he is hesitant to incur the risk of sharing too much of his personal history. The wider significance of the people in his life is never explained, and as a reader, I don't miss this dimension since Slater is so engaging in his narrative, the focus of which is almost entirely on himself - through breakfasts, lunches and dinners. He is full of hilarious anecdotes such as his overachieving stepmother who sounds like she would put Martha Stewart to shame or taking nightly walks with the dog and a candy bar to observe couples making out in the back of cars. Slater eventually finds a substitute family working after school in the kitchen of a hotel restaurant, and he describes the mundane tasks as if they are pioneering adventures, whether it amounts to preparing prawns for a cocktail or defrosting ready-made meals. The timeline of his story is thankfully limited. It begins with burnt toast and ends as the author, just out of school, finds employment in a restaurant in London. Slater converts the recollections in between into precise sensory memories that attain emotional resonance. This is not sentimental writing by any means, as he evokes time, people and place with a palpable realism in his energetic prose. Like Ruth Reichl and Anthony Boudrain, Slater makes his own idiosyncratic exercise in culinary history a winning childhood memoir.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on March 24, 2005
"My mother is scraping a piece of burned toast out of the kitchen window, a crease of annoyance across her forehead..." So begins Nigel Slater's amusing tribute to his life in food and the food in his life.

Each chapter begins with a food item and Slater riffs off of that to tell the story of his life and of his family: "Cake holds a family together. I really believed it did. My father was a different man when there was cake in the house....if he had a plate of cake in his hand I knew that I could climb up onto his lap."

We forget sometimes just how important home cooked meals mean/have meant/continue to mean to us. The food doesn't have to be great but it has to be prepared with care and of course served with love to mean something to us. What Slater has done is to take the ordinary, the everyday and elevate it to the sublime. And even though he writes about his childhood in England and the foods he fondly and not-so fondly remembers, his memories are so personal and the words to describe them are so lovingly related that they cease to only be of a particular time or place...they become universal: "You can't smell a hug. You can't hear a cuddle. But if you could, I reckon it would smell and sound of warm bread-and-butter pudding."
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on November 29, 2004
Beautiful, funny, sad coming-of-age story, a swirl of flavors and emotions in an England in transition, where the type of chocolate bar you ate defined who you were, and the hippies were still threatening and terrifying for the middle class, stiff upper lip kind. I enjoyed it immensely and praise the ability of the author in making this reading almost an olfactory and savoring experience. The story is almost too predictable, and maybe not so important as the way in which food, memories and emotions are strictly connected.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
`toast, the story of a young boy's hunger' is a memoir by noted British culinary writer, Nigel Slater, described in his flyleaf biographical blurb as `a national treasure'. Foremost among his accolades for this book is a blurb at the top of the front cover by his nibs, Jamie Oliver. Since I have not read any of Slater's other books, I cannot offer any opinion on the `national treasure' label, which I would tend to reserve for only those culinary figures of the very highest order, such as Elizabeth David and Julia Child. Regarding Sir Jamie's comment, I will attribute that to the fact that Mr. Slater is, in fact, a very good writer who does not, like Oliver, dictate his books into a tape recorder and have all the writing done by a copy editor. But I'm getting too far afield.

This particular book is a personal memoir covering a lot more than simply his food preferences as he was growing up. The flyleaf accurately compares the book to Tony Bourdain's `Kitchen Confidential' and Ruth Reichl's two memoir volumes, `Comfort Me With Apples' and `Tender at the Bone', but I think neither of these comparisons quite captures the tone of these memoirs. Like Bourdain, there are some later chapters recounting life in the back of the house of some major English restaurants, but the book is really not `about' these things. Like Reichl, Slater has a mother who is simply not a very good cook, although she does manage to avoid risking the poisoning of her guests by using spoiled food.

Oddly, the writing which comes to mind when I read this book is the pieces by Jean Shepherd in, among other books, `In God I Trust, All Others Pay Cash'. There is one huge difference, however, in that Shepherd's writing is not memoir, but satire. His stories are simply not true. The purpose of the comparison is to point out how entertaining Slater's writing can be, in spite of the fact that he is recounting incidents from his own life from the age of about 8 years to the age of about 20, after leaving catering school (English version of the CIA or Johnson and Wales).

Practically all mini-essays are given the title of a type of food. Among these one to three page long recollections are three essays, including the first, entitled `toast'. One thing few culinary memoirs do well (Reichl's books are a notable exception) is to give a thorough understanding of what it is in the person's life which drove them to take up cooking. This book does an excellent job on that point, even though Master Slater has some very odd gastronomic aversions as a child to expect him to become a major culinary journalist. For example, he seems to physically unable to eat eggs or drink milk. There is nothing said about an allergy, and Master Slater has no problem with ice cream or custards, so it must just be a psychological thing.

Slater's family life in this period is such that it is simply impossible for him to ignore the fact that his mother dies of respiratory disease when he is in his early teens and his father dies when he is near his twenties. It is amazing to me that he can write of his parents with such equanimity when they were not very demonstratively loving toward young Nigel and seemed to have a typical non-intellectual obtuseness toward their child's more adventurous or inquisitive instincts.

That is not to say that Master Nigel was a model of intellectual sensitivity. He was quite capable of being quite selfish, sometimes at the most regrettable times, as when he wished that his mother would die for having forgotten a mince pie ingredient, and actually being but two weeks away from her long expected death, just before Christmas.

As culinary memoirs go, this may rival those from Ms. Reichl, just a cut below the great memoirs by M.F.K. Fisher. It is to be read for pleasure; there is no significant culinary wisdom to be gleaned from these pages!
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on October 26, 2005
Toast tells the story of Nigel Slater, one meal or snack at a time. Instead of chapters, he divides his book into sections where he tells a story surrounding food. He remembers his grandmother by her lemon drops that she kept in a tin. Slater tells of growing up with a mother who could not cook very well. Above all, she allowed him to help around the kitchen. The last memories he has of his mother are about the pies they baked together. Then many stories follow, detailing his father's cooking, until he hires a helper. Nigel Slater learns a lot about cooking from the woman who eventually became his stepmother. Many stories are told while he learns to cook in classes and the jobs he eventually receives. Many sections are just about the different candies, some he loves and some he despises.

Toast is a book full of innocence. Nigel Slater grew up losing his mother and living alone with his father. He eventually gets a stepmother, but he still manages to keep that innocence. Readers will see Nigel's world through his eyes, mostly about food and sweets. They will watch him grow up and experience the world through his taste buds. Readers will hang on to Slater's every word as I did.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on January 6, 2005
Slater is a brilliant writer. Brilliant! This book is so perfectly heartbreaking, it is difficult at times to read and just as difficult to put down.

Stunning work.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on August 25, 2005
Slater is a great storyteller with a knack for making his childhood familiar and capturing details. I love that he uses food to convey memory and place. The book is great when discussing his Mom (who can't cook), Dad (a man with a temper but who adores sweets) and his stepmom (the woman who can cook but is a bit evil). I lost interest when he dove into adolescence but that is just a personal preference. If you like food descriptions and coming-of-age stories this is sure to be your cup of tea
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on August 29, 2005
I thought this collection of tidbits throughout the author's life is charming and moving. Despite having grown up in completely different surroundings, I identify with Slater in that I also have many food-memory associations. This is such an intensely personal book and it's way more than the usual gastronomic exploration. A slightly more cmprehensive glossary of the British terms used in the book would be more helpful. Other than that, this book is a perfect treat for the foodies in all of us!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on February 7, 2005
Nigel Slater is a renowed TV and published Chef in my country.

His work is consumed with all the gusto of those who are considered his wise contemparies. If you are not familair with him he is every bit as inspiring and knowledgable as the wonderful Nigella Lawson, (How to be a Domestic Godess).

Here he tells us of his childhood in 1960's Birmingham (UK) and each stage of his development is either a delicious recipe or a daliance with some foul tasting horror. His delicious writing being every bit as adept at tale telling as it is at sorting a dinner party for 12.

The story is passionate and animated as the boy becomes the man, struggling to understand what life has dealt him and trying to express emotions through culinary creation.

This novel is an accurate, social historic depiction of England in the 1960's. A pre-diverse culture England which was still shaking off the last remains of Victorian values and which had yet to let Migrant cultures permeate.

Nigel stirred my emotions and memories often here, being a British child of the same decade, this is not to say you will not find enjoyment here if you don't identify with his world.

The themes are powerful and fairly universal, though the upbringing and world of such repressed emotion, cast iron secrets and children being seen but not heard is very British, the experience of loss, marginalisation, anger, grief, emerging sexuality, rebeliion and the wicked step parent are all here.

And always there is the food, each chapter begins with his feelings for a foodstuff (the chapters are small and punchy and feel like a seductive and greedy secret, "I'll just have one more before I put it down!") and this is exquisitely played off against his feelings for a time, place or person.

This book is really worth a shot, it has done biography in a different and inspired way, it also feels and tastes, bittersweet; a comfort and sad lonely tale all at once.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on February 14, 2005
Infectious and irreverent, Toast is a memoir that leaves you hungry for treacle-laden delights (even if you've never partaken of that particular sweet), as well as feeling the sympathetic pang of loneliness. Slater's dysfunctional childhood is retold via events in which there is the omnipresent taste or aroma of a meal or snack (and who among us can say that memory is not food-based?). Perhaps it is the cushioning of a parent's death, molestation, and the awkward development of self-awareness with visions of jam-layered sugarplums, as it were, that allows the reader to swallow the bitter pill of Slater's own unfortunate episodes. Although it is his innocent guile and his mischievous insight that endears him as a kindred spirit and hero for his triumph of self.

Despite not being familiar with many of the regional goodies that Slater reminisces over, I only felt the stranger in the latter chapters (brief and unnumbered vignettes that they are). Slater talks of working in hotel restaurants, pursuing his quest for the love in and of cuisine, but his lust for beef Wellington or moules mariniere (the cuisine of the 5-star) fails to trigger the same compassion as his earlier longings for the simple joy of catching the whiff of a Christmas cake in the oven.

Still, Toast was a palatable and charming journey.
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