This is the saddest book I have ever read.
Many chefs and food writers have written about their childhood memories, how their mother once gave everyone at a party food poisoning, or how their father made them fried-egg sandwiches. It is a glimpse into their past, to see what shaped their ideas and feelings and thoughts about food, something that would stay with them all their lives, influence the paths they took (or did not take). Some have mothers who were wonderful cooks who loved food, who inspired their children; others had mothers who could barely make toast and hated to cook, who had no interest in food except as a necessary fuel.
I had discovered Nigel Slater after reading Nigella Lawson's cookbooks some five or six years ago; the food movement in Britain had moved towards the idea of fresh, natural, good ingredients, a certain minimalism contradicted by expansive, luxurious, seductive generosity. Simplicity and a minimum of fuss and ingredients belied by a desire for comfort, for taking just a little time to produce something to make the people around you feel loved, cared for. Slater's cookbooks have titles like Appetite and Real Good Food, and his writing is as enticing as Nigella Lawson's, except, well, manlier. But his autobiography Toast: The Story of a Boy's Hunger is the saddest book I have ever read.
His memories begin with his mother in the kitchen, burning toast. She could never make toast without burning, he tells us, and he has never seen butter without black bits of crumbs in it. The memories are of candy bars and plastic-wrapped cake and bread-and-butter for tea. Of making Christmas cake with his mother, how the top always sank like a canyon that had to be filled with marzipan, of spreading jam on tartlets before baking them in the oven. There are disasters like spaghetti with tinned sauce and disgusting grated Parmesan cheese from a cardboard tube that tastes of vomit or Slater's first experience of Indian food, which I think is to the British what Chinese takeout is to us Americans. Or at least it was then.
When his mother died just before Christmas (Slater was nine) he is left without the anchor of her comforting presence, it is just himself and his father (and an older brother who no longer lives at home), a father who certainly couldn't cook at all. I cannot see the pages for tears as he describes living on packaged chips and chocolate and trying to make kippers for his father's tea (a humiliating failure), and the unbearable sadness of losing a parent when you are just a child. Shortly before his mother's death Nigel describes marshmallows as a mother's kiss, and afterwards his father leaves two marshmallows on his bedside table every night for two years. A poor substitute.
Later, there would be a stepmother who he never quite got along with. Later there would be kitchen jobs that took Slater out of his childhood and towards what would make him a celebrated food writer and columnist and television presenter. Later there would be fumblings of sex and love and food, real food. But this is how it all began, the saddest story I have ever read, all the sadder because it is real.