This memoir is both an amusing and sad commentary on Nigel Slater’s childhood. He weaves food into all parts of the book. Each chapter begins with a food item such as toast, Spaghetti Bolognese, Sherry Trifle, Radishes, Fried Eggs…….you get the idea.
In the beginning, Nigel’s very first reference to toast (ought I to have capitalized that?) is also in the first sentence of the book.
“My mother is scraping a piece of burned toast out of the kitchen window, a crease of annoyance across her forehead…”
It’s very clear how much he loved his mother. She couldn’t cook very well and regarded it as more of an obligation instead of a labor of love. Recently I watched the movie Toast and that’s what inspired me to read the book. Books are always more detailed and well…better than the movies which are derived from them. What is true in both movie and book is his dislike of his step mother. In the movie she is played as a schemer who tolerated Nigel because she had to. If she wanted to marry Nigel’s father, Joan had best treat Nigel well.
It seemed an antagonistic relationship but let’s remember, this was written by a man who culled childhood memories which may be distorted. Perception is reality though and it seems his reality was a sad coasting along through childhood, feeling as if he were in the way, missing his mother who was a great buffer for his father’s coldness.
After his mother’s death so many of the short chapters start with comparisons of life before and after his mother died.
“I am not sure the cooking is any worse since Mum died. But it isn’t any better either.”
The chapter titled Cheese-and-Onion Crisps he writes, “On Saturdays Dad used to buy a crab and we would spend much of the afternoon taking it to pieces…..After Mum died we never had crab again, nor any of Dad’s favorite things like tripe and onions and liver…”
“For the first six months after Mum died I lived on cheese-and-onion crisps and chocolate marshmallow teacakes…”
Then Mrs. Potter appeared in their lives to clean house. Nigel writes about coming home and finding her wearing his mother’s apron. Obviously that didn’t sit well. She eventually becomes a fixture in the Slater’s lives; his father buys a home in the country and ultimately marries her.
In very few instances, he is surprisingly kinder in his portrayal of his step mother. Her character (in this memoir) helped him to stay out of trouble with his father in several instances. One short chapter even stated he realized she was just as lonely as he was living on a country property, away from everyone and town.
My overall take on this memoir is it was certainly honest and explored Nigel’s hunger for acceptance, love, sex and food. The book explains other family relationships (left out in the movie) such as having a brother 15 years his senior and an older adoptive brother as well. Mrs. Potter, the infamous stepmother, had three daughters which are hardly noted in the movie. Her abandoning them to live with Nigel’s father caused a rift (as may be imagined) and only one daughter evidently stayed in touch with her.
Quotes I liked:
“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.”
“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.”
One food scene that stood out for me was young Nigel cooking a haddock dinner for his father. His father was always home by 6:30 but for whatever reason, he was late. The fish burned as Nigel was trying to keep it warm. When his father arrived home Nigel was in tears over the dinner but his father, uncharacteristically kind, sat down and ate it, pronounced it “fine, very good…just the way I like it.”
It was a warm moment between a 9 year old trying very hard to please a father who was uncomfortable with his young son.
So, here is my inspired dish – Grilled fish with a smear of butter.
And of course – toast…from homemade English Muffin toasting bread.
Movie review and recipes may be found at Squirrel Head Manor
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