July 29, 2005
Review: Nigel Slater's Toast

TOAST.JPGWhen excerpts of Nigel Slater's Toast appeared in the UK newspaper the Observer, I was intrigued. As any regular reader of this site will know, I like Nigel a lot. I love his salsa verde. His fish pie. His cheese and onions tart. I could go on, but I won't. I hemmed and hawed about buying his autobiography, though. It's not that I'm incurious or that I don't want to know what led a favorite role model down his path of life. I do. But Nigel Slater, while very open and sensual in describing his food, is fairly reticent about his private life in his column for the Observer. He has a cat. He has a garden. He occasionally says "we" and it's fairly clear it's not the royal we. But though I've been reading his column for many years now, I can safely say I know much more about his favorite cheese than what makes his mind tick. So, as I say, I was of two minds. On the one hand, I felt I owed it to the man to support him stepping out of the food world. On the other, I doubted his ability to come out in the open in the way that an interesting biography needs to do. Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying a good autobiography or biography needs to have salacious details or scandal. But it has to leave you feeling like you know the author better.

Well, our good friend Barrett took the matter out of my hands. He bought me a signed first edition for one of my many birthday presents. Lucky me to have such good friends! Lucky me to have another modern first with a signature. I happily jumped right into it.

And since this is a review (i.e. looking back not forwards) you'll be wanting to know, not what I thought I would think but what I did think. I thought it was a fascinating way to approach the past: almost entirely through memories of food. I thought it was well written, as all Nigel's work is. It was painfully class-conscious, which surprised me though it probably shouldn't have. And at the end of it, as expected, I didn't feel like I knew Mr. Slater any better than a careful reading of his recipes has made me.

The story is completely food-centric, each episode tide to a vivid food memory. You feel as though this is the only way that Nigel can approach intimate matters: though the lens of a food memory. And although it's an interesting perspective, it left me feeling like the story was being told coldly, baldly.

Perhaps I was at too much of a disadvantage with my American food background. I had to consult the glossary at the back of my American edition frequently and guess the nature of some of the other kinds of food. This means I probably missed out on a lot of what made the book vivid for Brits of Nigel's generation. But at the end of the day, although I was glad I read it (and really glad to have a signed copy by my hero) I felt most of my misgivings were justified. Nigel managed to tell the facts of his story but all the emotional content seemed to be tied up in the food. And much as I love food, it left me a bit cold.

Toast, by Nigel Slater, Fourth Estate, 2005.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at July 29, 2005 2:55 PM | TrackBack Print-friendly version

Well when you read a bio of a person from a nation where they actively enjoy Marmite, what can you expect?

Sorry the book wasn't more fun!

Posted by barrett on July 29, 2005 at 4:26 PM

Don't get me wrong - it was still very fun! It just didn't leave me feeling like I knew him better than before I picked it up. (This is the problem with publishing a review of a gift...!)

Oh and I forgot to mention that I LOVE the cover photo. Actually, I think it conveys more than anything else Nigel's character. A little shy, a little cheeky, sitting at a big feast and happy to be there!

Posted by Meg in Paris on July 29, 2005 at 4:34 PM

I too found Toast a little disappointing, although for me, it was its episodic and fragmented nature that was off-putting. I think I would have liked any one of the bits if I had read it separately, but reading a whole bookful of them was ultimately unsatisfying--and yes, left me feeling left out somehow, fended off.
Not unworthy of a read though.

Posted by mary g on July 31, 2005 at 9:25 AM

Toast was a gift to me from my best friend. We share similar tastes so I knew I would enjoy it.
I do have Nigel Slater's cookbooks but I must say- this one is my favorite!
I thought his stylistic approach was clever and helped the memories unfold. I liked it.
Rather than being a cold read, I found a lot of warmth in this book.
In fact, I thought it revealed the way many a youong child thinks, feels and processes the world around themselves. Toast shows a sensitive child, the development of a child, the manner in which a child - in this case Nigel Slater - fits into the family dynamic and the structure of their surroundings.
I think the obliqueness and distance is, probably not just the author's way of being in the world, but the distant memories he is conjuring up as well as the vulnerabilty he may have felt then. His armor; food and imagination - was his protection.
A beautfully written book, quite poetic. I was moved by many a vignette.
Miiki [USA]

Posted by miiki on September 11, 2005 at 3:31 PM

Marmite is delicious

Posted by kay on December 15, 2006 at 11:11 AM

I listened to Nigel reading his own story. It had a hypnotic effect and I certainly wnted to listen on. At the end, though, I was left a little dissatisfied, mainly because (I suspect) I had never heard of him before and therefore had no understanding that he was a successful food person. Perhaps just a little more ...
But then, my mother always said I should stop before I feel full.

Posted by John on February 15, 2007 at 4:55 AM
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