Food memoirs can be emotionally sticky reading. Too often they involve soft-focus tales of learning to cook at mama's knee, or recalling a fall picnic in a distant, idyllic land where the author was plunked down by fate for a year or two.
Enter Nigel Slater's Toast: The Story of a Boy's Hunger (Gotham). A noted cookbook writer, columnist for the London Observer and television personality, Slater may be practically unknown in the States, but he's approaching knight status in England. And judging from this book, he deserves it.
Slater sets the story in his lonely boyhood, from the illness and death of his mother to his father's remarriage and Slater's own coming of age. Common enough material, but Slater makes the details shimmer with a bittersweet honesty. The book is arranged in clipped, easily digested chapters, beginning with an observation of his mother scraping a piece of burned toast. It was a daily event in the Slater household.
The chapters are often named for foods: radishes, cream soda, tinned raspberries. But these are just jumping-off points from which the story blooms. The radishes become a sly means for flirting with the gardener. Spilled raspberries on the living room rug right after his mother's death lead to a grief-stoked beating from his father. As Slater's interest in cooking surfaces, he and his stepmother do battle in the kitchen to win his father's heart.
American readers may grapple with the references to British food, many of which are relics of the '60s. Slater graciously provides a glossary in the U.S. edition. But even if he hadn't, Yanks could still read about cheese footballs, cornets, crisps and fairy cakes and identify.
- Bill Addison