Toast by Nigel Slater
I love bread-and-butter pudding. I love its layers of sweet, quivering custard….I love the way it sings quietly in the oven; the way it wobbles on the spoon….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.
Despite what Peter Mayle may say, post-war English food couldn’t have been all that terrible. Though Mayle begins French Lessons by describing how bland and dull everything he consumed during his childhood was, Nigel Slater has managed to write a substantial book about the foods he ate as a boy in 1950′s England — not all of which were terrible.
Sure, there were the eggs he wouldn’t eat, the tapioca that looked disgusting, and the milk Slater projectile vomited all over his shoes one fateful afternoon. But each of those atrocities is countered by a chapter on the wonder of his mother’s flapjacks (a really dense bar made of oats and other things), his father’s cheese on toast, and the neighbor’s walnut cake.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not a food porn book. Far from it. Most of the stories about food are tinged with body fluids, be it projectile vomiting, ejaculation, or something else. The chapter on Heinz Sponge pudding (cake that comes in a can that you boil to cook), despite the nostalgia it awakened for my days in Ireland, was totally tainted by the description of how Auntie Frances’ snot would drip into the whipped cream. It’s a miracle Slater became a chef.
Anyway, though, his writing as a whole is wonderfully funny in a dry, clever way. I like the structure, with a whole childhood told in vignettes that center on food. This isn’t the perfectly poetic world of Ruth Reichl, where even her mother’s moldy food is somehow picturesque. Much as I love Reichl and as much as I was disturbed by some parts of Slater’s work, Slater’s work is imbued with a kind of gritty reality one can’t help but respect.