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Toast: The Story of a Boy's Hunger

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Toastis Nigel Slater’s biography of a childhood remembered through food. Whether recalling his mother’s surprisingly good rice pudding, his father’s bold foray into spaghetti and his dreaded Boxing Day stew, or such culinary highlights as Arctic Roll and Grilled Grapefruit (then considered something of a status symbol in Wolverhampton), this memoir vividly recreates daily life in 1960s suburban England.

238 pages, Paperback

First published January 15, 2003

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About the author

Nigel Slater

60 books353 followers
Nigel Slater is a British food writer, journalist and broadcaster. He has written a column for The Observer Magazine for seventeen years and is the principal writer for the Observer Food Monthly supplement. Prior to this, Slater was food writer for Marie Claire for five years. He also serves as art director for his books.

Although best known for uncomplicated, comfort food recipes presented in early bestselling books such as The 30-Minute Cook and Real Cooking, as well as his engaging, memoir-like columns for The Observer, Slater became known to a wider audience with the publication of Toast: The Story of a Boy's Hunger, a moving and award-winning autobiography focused on his love of food, his childhood, his family relationships (his mother died of asthma when he was nine), and his burgeoning sexuality.

Slater has called it "the most intimate memoir that any food person has ever written". Toast was published in Britain in October 2004 and became a bestseller after it was featured on the Richard and Judy Book Club.

"I think the really interesting bits of my story was growing up with this terribly dominating dad and a mum who I loved to bits but obviously I lost very early on; and then having to fight with the woman who replaced her ... I kind of think that in a way that that was partly what attracted me to working in the food service industry, was that I finally had a family." As he told The Observer, "The last bit of the book is very foody. But that is how it was. Towards the end I finally get rid of these two people in my life I did not like [his father and stepmother, who had been the family's cleaning lady] - and to be honest I was really very jubilant - and thereafter all I wanted to do was cook."

In 1998 Slater hosted the Channel 4 series Nigel Slater's Real Food Show. He returned to TV in 2006 hosting the chat/food show A Taste of My Life for BBC One.

Slater has two elder brothers, Adrian and John. John was the child of a neighbour, and was adopted by Slater's parents before the writer was born.

He lives in the Highbury area of North London, where he maintains a kitchen garden which often features in his column.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 736 reviews
Profile Image for Petra on hiatus, really unwell.
2,457 reviews34.4k followers
July 17, 2018
Levels of guilt for not enjoying books that everyone else does.

Whenever I start to read a book that everyone seems to like and several of my friends write glowing reviews about and I absolutely loathe, I feel guilty. I feel that there is something wrong with me.

There is a scarcely-conscious ranking in my mind of how guilty I have to feel about disliking a book. At the top of the scale are the much-lauded cultural icons I really, really loathe, like Virginia Woolf. Lots of guilt there.

At the bottom of the scale are the popular authors people rave about that I feel I should have enjoyed more but really didn't, authors like Kate Atkinson, Liane Moriarty, Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Nigel Slater is somewhere around the middle on this scale.

The authors I don't feel guilty about loathing their books are the ones force-fed to me in school, Charles Dickens, George Eliot and Thomas Hardy come to mind.

Then there are those authors who, no matter their immense popularity, I cannot persuade myself that what they wrote had any discernable merit like C.S. Lewis, L. Frank Baum and Dr. Seuss. I don't feel guilt with them, I feel resentful that I am supposed to like them and people make out they cannot understand how I not only don't like them but can't appreciate their great and lasting value and how could I deprive my kids.

(I got trolled endlessly for disliking The Lorax, well over a 100 comments, but quite a lot got deleted by the sock puppet inventing various identities to troll me with.)

So Nigel, I didn't like this book. I don't like you on tv either. And yes I feel guilty you look like such a warm and friendly dude, but like... well, no chemistry, no literary chemistry at all,

Reviewed July 16, 2018
June 20, 2021

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I'm currently doing a project where I'm rereading some of the books I loved as a teenager. The impetus for this project was a long slew of disappointments from new releases I was looking forward to, and the discovery of some of my old books tucked away in my garage. TOAST is especially near and dear to my heart because I used to live in the UK and the copy I found was purchased at a Waterstones. It's an ode to food written by a food critic, but not just the fancy stuff-- here, he sings the praises of things like toast and store-bought trifle, penny candies and cheap gum, Jammie Dodgers, gammon, and all of the food of the working class and how it ties into his memories.

There's a movie based on this memoir and it's really good, but I like the memoir better. It's a lot like Anthony Bourdain's memoirs in how his passion for food and the emotions it stirs tie in to the eating of said food, but Slater is much less pretentious and much more unprepossessing in his tastes. He's not here to impress-- his tongue-in-cheek dry wit really carries the narrative along when he talks about his mother's failed custards and pies, or how marshmallows reminded him of goodnight kisses, or the Brit fascination with food from the South of France.

If you enjoy foodie memoirs, I think you'll really enjoy this memoir. It's so well written and so good. I think I actually enjoyed reading it even more this second time around because a lot of the humor and references went over my head as a teen. There are some trigger warnings for references to grooming and discipline that would probably be considered borderline abusive now (his childhood was in the 60s), and it also deals with the death of a parent as a young age, but it's never too grim and I think there's a real element of hurt/comfort in how Slater writes on all of these topics.

5 stars
Profile Image for Julie.
555 reviews275 followers
January 20, 2013
This is another 3.5 star rating, but lacking the ability to "split hairs" on goodreads, I take it to the next level.

What is painfully apparent from the first chapter of this book is that Nigel Slater lacked nourishment from the day he was born -- and remained that way until he reached adulthood and found his own reason for being. He seems to have been born into a family which had refined the art of witholding what a growing boy needs -- proper nourishment in body or soul.

From the first, we are inundated with images of food -- and there are lots of "empty calories" here: Rollos and sherry trifles; Cadbury's Mini Rolls and jam tarts; mashed potatoes and rice puddings; lemon curd and treacle tarts; crumpets and fruit cocktails swimming in syrup. The list is an endless parade of boiled down dinners and Cap'n Crunch breakfasts.

Admittedly, many of the British/American/Canadian post-war children were raised on this fare, given the new availability of treats groaning on the supermarket shelves; however, this emptiness was exacerbated in the Slater household by a twittery-headed mother who couldn't boil water and a self-centered Dad whose greatest comforts were found in endless jars of pickled walnuts, and inside his greenhouse, coddling pink begonias.

By the time I reached the chapter on Crumpets, I was starving, despite the groaning board presented before me. I felt I had gained 10 lbs in emptiness. I could only marvel that the little boy in this household survived to tell the tale. Not only did he survive, but he became one of the best, most-acclaimed chefs and food writers in the UK.

The story is told strictly from his point of view: a starving, angry, misunderstood little chap, who is quite clever, very funny at times, and desperate to get out of his prison. It is told from the self-centeredness of a child, with no room (or not much) for compassion and little insight into the world of adults. One feels somehow shrunken to the height of a ten-year old boy, feeling, seeing, tasting everything through his eyes, through his emotions. You feel -- absolutely -- what it is to be a child again and to have no filter on one's emotions, and no control over one's life.

I read it in one sitting -- a fascinating, thought-inducing way to spend a winter afternoon.

Profile Image for Diane Barnes.
1,302 reviews450 followers
January 11, 2021
A really magnificent and affecting biography of the author's boyhood told through the food he remembers, the death of his mother when he was nine, his father's remarriage to the cleaning lady who resented him and made his teen years miserable, and his years at culinary school and the first restaurant jobs he held. As an American, I just recently discovered Nigel Slater, but he seems to be a British institution in the food world. All I know is, this man can write. I just recently read Christmas Chronicles, his cookbook/Christmas memories/photographic record of the entire winter season, November through February. That led me to this one, and now to find the movie. Toast has also been turned into a long running play in London.
Profile Image for Cecily.
1,137 reviews4,185 followers
February 13, 2021
Autobiographical account of middle class 60s/70s childhood, as defined and recalled by particular foods and his mother's poor cooking - except that it wasn't quite as bad as he makes out. As he is the same age as me, many of the typical foods of his childhood have strong memories for me too (Surprise peas, Angel Delight, Space Dust).

It is subtitled "A boy's hunger", and his hunger is emotional at least as much as it is culinary. The result is sweet and sour.

TV adaptation

There was a BBC version in December 2010 (see imdb). It is awful in comparison with the book because it has none of the balance and shades of grey that make the book so powerful and intriguing. It looks authentic and thus familiar, but most of the food is incidental, leaving a much more depressing story, especially because Joan (step-mother) is portrayed as unremittingly unpleasant.

See also

An interesting contrast is with David Mitchell's semi-autobiographical novel, Black Swan Green (see my review HERE), which is set in the same period, with a similar-aged protagonist, and plenty (too many?) nods to iconic 70s things. Perhaps surprisingly, the chef does it better!

There is also Andrew Collins' opposite of misery-lit, Where Did it All go Right? (see my review HERE).

And then there's another Slater, Eating for England: The Delights and Eccentricities of the British at the Table (see my review HERE)
Profile Image for John.
2,034 reviews197 followers
October 1, 2009
I'm giving this one a fourth star because Slater really does write well; however, he became progressively bitchier as the book went on. His world fell apart when his mother died when he was 10, which is understandable, though not for the usual reasons. He's fairly open about his ability to manipulate his parents, esp his mother ("Eventually, if I nagged persistently enough, they'd get me what I wanted ... just as I'd moved on to wanting something else usually (sigh)"). Life with his single father proved more challenging for him in that regard, and in the arrival of a step-mother, Joan, he seems to have met his match.
Having finished the story, I've come to the conclusion that he was a self-centered spoiled brat; he was a virtual only child, with two brothers 15 years older. He, himself, admits that Joan tried to befriend him on occasion, nor was his list of complaints of her tyrannical ways exactly a portrait of extreme cruelty - at worst she was a neat freak (OCD?). I'd say that eventually Joan did despair of him, so that the self-fulfilling prophecy that she disliked him came to pass. A lot of psychological analysis, but it's a memoir from his perspective, that I found highly ... flawed. Moreover, Nigel was either incredibly precocious, or frequently lets his adult self regularly permeate the story with value judgments. For what it's worth, it seems he still feels aggrieved to this day, rather than letting things go, taking responsibility for his share of the personality mismatch. He's exposed the demons, but not exorcised them.

Back to the writing --

It's really good. He has an incredible way with images, and he is often funny, without seeming contrived (perhaps better on audio with inflection). Also, I admire his honesty in relating some of the rather awkward incidents (at the local car park - "shag central" - for example). I read Eating for England first, which I recommend doing, and then going back to hear that clever author's story.

Profile Image for Fiona.
63 reviews
February 13, 2011
A delightful little memoir written by Britain's greatest food writer. Written in bitesize chapters within a entire feast of words, Nigel Slater narrates with great honesty, wit and vividity his "story of a boy's hunger", his sexual awakening, his culinary journey through childhood and adolesence in sixties suburban England. 'Toast' is flavoured with Nigel's favourite tastes and teenage torments, decorated with a dollop of pain and seasoned with a great big pinch of passion for food and eating which ultimately fuels his emergence into the world of gastronomy.

Food writing, journalism, broadcasting, cookery books, I'll consume anything Nigel Slater puts his hand to so perhaps my review is a little biased. Nevertheless, this memoir is delicious!

Profile Image for Doug.
2,050 reviews746 followers
April 28, 2022
I came to this only after multiple viewings of the fine film adaptation (which stars a terrific Helena Bonham Carter as the abhorred stepmother) - but the book is rather different on many levels - which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Slater is a natural writer, and each short chapter (more like vignette) revolves around a memory of childhood that is most often food related. These range in attributes from hilarious to poignant to morbid to very distressing and sad. The film has more of a through-line, of necessity, and omits several of the more memorable moments. Oddly, the film also places the author's growing awareness of his queerness at the forefront, while - although definitely hinted at in the book - the only people Nigel actually 'shags' in it are female. The book (and film) ends rather abruptly with Nigel's first job at a 'real' restaurant in his late teens, but I'd bet there's more than enough material for a sequel. I'd be up for it.
Profile Image for Sonia Gomes.
319 reviews96 followers
October 2, 2020
Nigel Slater did not want to want to write an autobiography of his life...
He just wanted to pour out his grief, his confusion, his loneliness of that terrible period in his life when his Mother had died and his Father had married the cleaning lady. What hurt the most was his Father’s total indifference to him, Nigel.

‘Toast’ is written completely from the perspective of Nigel aged ten.
There is no thought of ‘what could my Father be going through’
‘what is my stepmother feeling?
These adult thoughts never crossed his mind, why should they?
Do pre-teens and teens think of how their parents feel? Never, or very rarely.
All Nigel thought of was his own terrible loneliness.

Nigel disliked his stepmother intensely. She was after all the cleaning lady with no class. He remembers how classy his Mother had been when he buries his face in her fur coats, her dresses and breathes in her faint perfume still lingering, still clinging, reminding him of better, happier times much before the cleaning lady took the role of his Mother.

Nigel’s Mother was a terrible cook, she burnt toast regularly.
The stepmother however was an amazing cook.
When Nigel recollects his stepmother’s lemon meringue, it is a work of art.
He writes, “Joan’s lemon meringue pie was one of the most glorious things I had ever put in my mouth: warm, painfully sharp lemon filling, the most airy pastry imaginable, she used cold lard in place of some of the butter and a billowing hat of thick, teeth-judderingly sweet meringue. She squeezed the juice of five lemons into the filling, enough to make you close one eye and shudder. The pie was always served warm, so the filling oozed out like ripe Vacherin.”

Things got worse when both Nigel and the stepmother feed the Father to death.
Both in need of affection, both competing for his affections- with food, the only thing they both did best, cook.
Sadly the stepmother was lonely too and resented the fact that Nigel was a very good cook- when he swapped woodwork for cookery classes at school, and brought home the results, she switched her baking day to Wednesdays, the day of his class, so that she could outshine him with perfect Victoria sponges, butterfly cakes, scones...
He took to handing out his cookery efforts on the bus home.

Nigel sums it all when he says, ‘Towards the end I finally get rid of these two people in my life I did not like, and to be honest I was really very jubilant - and thereafter all I wanted to do was cook."
Profile Image for Lynne Norman.
335 reviews6 followers
August 9, 2012
I really wanted to like this book - I really did - as I generally like Slater as a food writer and presenter. But 'Toast' left a bitter taste - not what you want from a food-based memoir. The nostalgia felt heavy-handed, the humour (for instance the used condom incident) felt forced and cynical and Nigel - as portrayed by himself - came across unsympathetic and a little bit self-pitying. I also wondered at some of the memories he chose to share as, often, I felt he went well past the mark. I don't want to know what his dad got up to in the greenhouse and we all know teenage boys masturbate, do we need so many descriptions of specific incidents? It felt as though Slater went out of his way to share the lewd and the tawdry memories, to offer a perverse view of childhood. Even the happy memories are offered as cold, emotionless descriptions. It's all very readable - you'd expect no less from Slater - but a lack of emotional depth and insight is glossed over with a sheen of sensationalism and whimsy.
Profile Image for Julie.
19 reviews3 followers
July 18, 2011
I wouldn't say this was a bad book but it was very different from my expectations. I had expected something funny and tongue-in-cheek about growing up with a mother who couldn't cook.

It's actually much darker, exploring a childhood stained with death and a dysfunctional step family. There's also far too many references to various moments of sexual awakening. It's hard to see how these are relevant sometimes, and they're certainly much less enjoyable to read than the stories about food.

The main problem I found was that for such a personal book, I wasn't endeared to the child. He seemed tragic and pitiful. I felt sympathetic to his loneliness and estrangement from his father, but as another reviewer puts it much better, he also comes across as a snobby, ungrateful brat and rather bitchy.

I was also drawn to read this book as the first few chapters of this book are set in my home town - but this didn't help me relate to him either.

I found the book depressing, and far too laden with stories of his sexual awakening for me to recommend it to anyone.
Profile Image for K.D. Absolutely.
1,820 reviews
August 9, 2009
This book brought back childhood memories. Not that I was into hard-to-pronounce food names when I was growing up but reading the book made me think back of how it was when I was growing up in Quezon. There is a part in Nigel's memory as a boy when he kept on discussing the odor of their house or the people in it. Did our house in Quezon have an odor? Maybe the odor of the sand (as our house had no cement flooring then), beer and smoke (as my father had those vices), copra (just like the last time I visited), sea breeze (as our town is in an island) or combination of all? Maybe people who are good cooks have special nose just like Nigel. I could not remember the odor of our house so that should explain the reason why I am not a good cook.

One of my most favorite boyhood memoirs is ANGELA'S ASHES by the late (he died last month) Frank McCourt. It was a poignant sad story of being dirt-poor in Ireland. This book, TOAST: THE STORY OF A BOY'S HUNGER is somewhat opposite as it is not just about being poor. In Philippine standard of poor, the foods that Nigel was having, e.g., sherry tifle, jam tarts, spaghetti bolognese, etc. were fit for the rich and famous. Back in Quezon, when I was growing up, I remember having to divide an apple one Christmas day with my siblings (this was before the import liberalization in the 80s) and my mother making macaroni salad and chilling it inside a styrofoam with lots of ice because there was no electricity then in Quezon so there was no refrigerator. The first time I had a Magnolia pinipig cruch was when I was already in my third year high school (1979) and I had to eat it right away because it had to come from Gumaca that was 45-minute motorboat ride from Quezon.

Nigel being a neglected battered son when he was small added a bit of drama to the story. I am sorry for him and I am glad that he was able to get over it and find happiness now that he is an adult. The story ended abruptly but with finesse and it is an unconventional ending. It reminded me of how John Steinbeck decided to end his famous novel, THE GRAPES OF WRATH: the breast-feeding scene. Nigel Slater ended this book with this conversation:

"There will be someone who'll ask you if you want a bed for the night soon enough." "What, just like that?" I asked. "Yes, son," he smiled. "You'll be fine, you'll just be fine."

It's just simply clever. Just like telling that everything will be all right in the end without having to put a lot of drama just to deliver the message just like how Nicholas Sparks would end his novels. I read that Nigel is a famous celebrity chef but he knows how to write. No wonder this novel won the British Book Awards Biography of the Year. I highly recommend this book to all food lovers who at the same time enjoy reading biographies.
Profile Image for Paul.
2,144 reviews
January 17, 2021
Like many people, some of my strongest memories are about some of the foods that I used to enjoy when growing up. Inevitable they are the sweetest and least healthy ones, the penny chews, blackjacks, sherbet dib dabs, Marathons lemon bon-bons, my mum’s Yorkshire puddings and salty chips by the seaside. Just w whiff of one of these can take me right back.

Nigel Slater is another of those who looks back on the foods of their childhood with nostalgia and a very fond eye. He loved helping his mother to cook and was growing in proficiency in the kitchen helping her when she was taken by cancer when he was nine. He was distraught, as was his father and they took a long time recovering emotionally. His father was a successful businessman, who saw that Slaters’ interests were not going to make a man of him, and the cold and distant relationship that they had, grew further apart.

It was not helped by the appearance on the scene of Mrs Potter, a housekeeper. He had been employed by his father, to do things around the house. She wasn’t a bad cook, but slowly Slater came to realise that she was there for more than the cooking and the cleaning. She became the wedge that drove his and his father further apart again. She didn’t like most of what Slater was doing, but she did have moments of kindness and warmth.

He does not judge the way they treated him, knowing with hindsight that these things are often easier to understand through the prism of time. But that difficult relationship formed his character and drove him to do the things that he really wanted to do, which was cook.

I have read a lot of his food writing, but even though I have had this for ages, it is the first time that I have picked it up. It is a memoir that made me laugh fairly often and occasionally wince. Losing his mother when he did was devastating, it was the biggest contributing factor to the dislike, and almost hatred of his father and his controlling ways. It is a very open account too, it is all in here, the wanks and the walnut whips, that sit alongside some very emotional moments, like when he opens his later mother’s wardrobe and all he can smell is her. Might not be for everyone, but I really liked it.
Profile Image for Caroline.
506 reviews587 followers
May 21, 2015
Wow, this is a real trip down memory lane - lemon drops, Cadbury's chocolate MiniRolls, Battenberg cakes, Heinz Sponge Pudding....

Nigel Slater writes well, and his passion for food lights up his writing. He evokes with nostalgic poignancy the foods of yesteryear. Well, some of the foods are still around today, but they seem to have been around forever.

"The pièce de résistance was a grapefruit spiked with cocktail sticks holding cubes of cheese and pineapple.....The worst of it was that everyone thought I had done the food. "He wants to be a chef," my father would say, as I held up the spiked grapefruit to the Masonic Worshipful Master's wife, who had a tight perm and lips like a cat's bottom. When it came to offering the dreaded grapefruit to everyone else, I would throw my head in the air and flay my nostrils in disapproval....After all, if I had done the food, they would have had prunes wrapped in bacon."

"If you opened a sachet of the original Space Dust and poured it into your mouth, the little citrus and chemical beads crackled and hissed like you had put your tongue on a battery. If you poured three packets in at once, it was like putting your tongue on an electric fence. This is probably why they changed the formula."

He also writes heart-achingly about his childhood - about a boy who has a tough time, losing his mum and gaining a step-mum whose over-riding ambition is to keep a clean and tidy house. About a father who blows hot and cold, and who can be horribly strict at times. About the idiocyncrasies and prejudices of life in a middle-class household.

The only things that marred my pleasure in this book was the amount of grubby sex that it contained (yuk), and Slater's description of a particularly unsanitary hotel kitchen where he worked (yuk, yuk, yuk.) I would recommend that chapter to anyone who thinks the Health and Safety brigade are over-zealous. His description was really stomach-churning.

All in all this was an enjoyable book. I didn't fall head over heels in love with it as a lot of the critics did, but I thought it was a fun and moving read...
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Veronica.
776 reviews114 followers
December 5, 2010
If you grew up in Britain in the 60s and 70s, you can open this book at any page and encounter a Proustian moment. Spaghetti in those long blue packets, with instructions in Italian (it was the only kind of pasta you could buy). Grated Parmesan in carboard drums ("Daddy, this cheese smells like sick." "Yes, son, I think it must be off."). Steak Diane flambed at the table in smart restaurants. Aztec bars, sherbet lemons, Curly-Wurlies, licking the filling out of Walnut Whips, it's all there; Nigel's life seems defined by taste.

This is a quick read, a brief, impressionistic autobiography from the age of around nine to sixteen. It's quite surprising really that even when small, Nigel longed to be a chef. His mother, who died when he was nine, hated cooking and wasn't good at it (she burned the toast every day). The family never went out to eat, except for rare splurges at a Berni Inn. One of the saddest parts for me was that his new stepmother was an excellent cook, but while she was happy for Nigel to wash up and do chores, she would never let him share the pleasure she took in cooking, probably about the only chance they might have had to overcome their dislike of each other. When he swapped woodwork for cookery classes at school, and brought home the results, she switched her baking day to Wednesdays, the day of his class, so that she could outshine him with perfect Victoria sponges, butterfly cakes, scones ... he took to handing out his cookery efforts on the bus home.

There are both hilarious and touching moments here. The Guardian summed it up perfectly: "Boyhood blues without bitterness." Definitely worth a read if you are a fan of Nigel.
Profile Image for Caroline Roberts.
182 reviews5 followers
February 25, 2019
I really enjoyed the book but thought Slater, perhaps unintentionally, revealed himself to be something of a 'nasty piece of work'. His insinuation that his father was masturbating in the shed and his insistence that his step mother was trying to 'feed' his father to death (unlikely at best) were just two examples of 'memories' that reflected badly on the author. Following his fathers death he recounts the following in relation to his step mother:
'Joan fussed over me all week, making steak for my tea and calling me 'son'. A sign, some said cruelly, that Dad's will had yet to be read. But then she needn't have worried, for, as anyone knows, there is nothing that quite turns an old man's attention in your direction like an offer of sex and home-made cake.'
Who I wonder are these 'some' who cruelly think this, my guess is Slater himself, and 'Toast' is peppered with similar character assassinations. Given it's a memoir, and as such written entirely from Slater's point of view, it's unusual to feel so strongly that you are dealing with an unreliable narrator.
It is though well written, often funny and a wonderful trip down memory lane, for those who grew up in the '60's & 70's, conjuring up the culinary 'delights' of yesteryear. Surprise peas, Frey Bentos pies, Angel Delight and many more are vividly evoked, the author may be petulant and bitchy but he's good literary company nonetheless.
Profile Image for Kirsti.
2,567 reviews102 followers
February 19, 2011
About tapioca: "This is the most vile thing I have ever put in my mouth, like someone has stirred frog-spawn into wallpaper paste."

I love my library's used-book sale because I find random things I never would have heard of otherwise. This is a sad and funny memoir about growing up obsessed with food. At first I thought it was going to be a male, foodie version of Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life or A Girl Named Zippy . . . an entertaining memoir of a childhood in which nothing much scary or tragic happens. I was wrong.

"I don't want porridge. You can't eat it because it's so hot. Then you can't eat it because it's so cold. The difference between the two is barely three minutes. When you catch porridge at the right moment it is like being wrapped in a cashmere blanket. A food so comforting and soul-warming you imagine there is no problem on earth that it could not solve. And then, when you are halfway through the bowl, it cools."

Profile Image for Bethany.
225 reviews46 followers
April 15, 2008
An enjoyable collection of memories linked to food.

I felt sad for Nigel as a young boy. He seemed to lack so much. Gladly, he was able to find happiness as an adult.

When I finished this book, I immediately began to read Orxy and Crake. I was amazed at how many similar themes the two books shared. Mother leaves at a young age. Father is too distracted with life to pay attention to young boy. Many memories around food.

I think the two books make an interesting pair.
Profile Image for Jacinta Butterworth.
Author 1 book7 followers
September 11, 2013
"Toast is food writer Nigel Slater’s story of a childhood recollected through food. The book is divided into bite-size chapters named after the foods of post-war England (Arctic Rolls, tinned ham, Jammie Dodgers). I enjoyed the book’s unconventional format—it reminded me of a running joke about my sister, who has a terrible memory but can recite entire menus from restaurants we went to as kids. That said, there were times when the food-related memories in Toast felt a little shallow and the narrative began to wander.

Obsessed with eating from a young age, Slater’s incredibly evocative descriptions of the food he loved and detested as a child are one of the greatest pleasures of the book. Slater’s recollection of his stepmother’s lemon meringue pie left my mouth watering (especially as this is my mum’s signature dish). He writes, “Joan’s lemon meringue pie was one of the most glorious things I had ever put in my mouth: warm, painfully sharp lemon filling, the most airy pastry imaginable (she used cold lard in place of some of the butter) and a billowing hat of thick, teeth-judderingly sweet meringue. She squeezed the juice of five lemons into the filling, enough to make you close one eye and shudder. The pie was always served warm, so the filling oozed out like ripe Vacherin.” That said, I wish Slater had elaborated on what it was about food that consumed him from such a young age and saw him pursue a career as a cook, especially as many of his food memories are tinged with sadness.

In popular culture food is often credited with bringing people together, but in the case of Slater and his father, this was almost never the case. His father’s attempts to force him to eat eggs (in order to turn a “nine-year-old nancy boy” into “strapping son-to-be-proud-of”), his embarrassment when Slater chooses fairy drops at the sweet shop and eats shocking-pink fairy candyfloss at the seaside, and his stern warning after finding dozens of Slater’s Walnut Whip wrappers amongst the used condoms in the lay-by where couples park their cars for privacy after dark, speaks volumes about the connection (whether real or imagined) between food, gender and sexuality.

Like some other readers, I felt Slater was judgmental at times and tended to let his adult perspective leak into the story. That said, I admire his honesty—there are both extremely unflattering and excruciatingly embarrassing moments in the book that Slater could’ve easily opted to omit.

For me, the ending of Toast was a little dissatisfying. It felt slightly abrupt and there were so many unanswered questions—questions I felt needed answering in order for me to fully understand Slater’s character ( Did he outgrow his food fussiness? Did working as a cook relieve his emotional hunger?). Despite this, Toast is an easy and interesting read that food lovers will appreciate for its honest voice, humour and obscenely delicious descriptions of food.
Profile Image for Melody.
2,644 reviews270 followers
January 30, 2013
While I enjoyed the food part of this memoir, I didn't like the tone. I came to it with no prior knowledge of who Slater is, I picked it up primarily because I needed an audio book, my library had this available, and it was a memoir.

Slater lost his mum early on, his brother was much older and left home soon after, which left Slater alone with his dad for awhile. Then his dad finds a new woman with whom to share his life, and his son is resentful and angry and bitter about this still. She admittedly sounds like no prize at all, though she's an above-average cook.

I think this would have worked much better for me if I had read the print version, or if it had been narrated by someone other than the author. He was unable to keep a whiny, aggrieved tone out of his voice when recounting the tribulations of his adolescence. I was unable to keep from rolling my eyes when he complained that no teenaged boys (save him) were ever required to do such onerous chores as tidying their rooms, picking clothes up from the floor & etc.
Profile Image for Hannah.
137 reviews24 followers
July 11, 2016
Plot: This is the really creative auto-biography of the TV chef Nigel Slater. It was a wonderfully written story which was a times hilarious and at times heart breaking. It was really insightful and was really interesting to the see the kind of character he was as a child especially when you then look at the TV chef now. It also explains where his own love from food arrived and I found that really interesting to read about.

Structure: I loved this structure, I seriously think it was one of the best ways I have seen to structure a book. Each chapter focuses on a different type of food and he tells his story as it progresses in his life with the relevant food of the time. It was so genius and it made the story flow beautiful it was a real treasure to read.
Profile Image for Plum-crazy.
2,241 reviews40 followers
August 12, 2020
On the whole an entertaining & enjoyable read about Slater's childhood & his discovery of food.

However, I wasn't comfortable with the hints of sexual abuse (or maybe I read incorrectly between the lines) & some of the later sexual escapades seemed inappropriate & out-of-place, though when you're talking about a teenager boy they shouldn't be! Maybe I'm getting prudish in my old-age but something about some of the comments didn't sit well with me.

That aside it's an amusing read with the format being the same as "Eating for England", short paragraphs headed by the food in question....& at last I have an answer to why he doesn't eat boiled eggs!
January 1, 2016
The food of love

An odd book in that you start reading it and only realise after a while what it is. An autobiography told through the medium of food. Which is only logical, I suppose, given that the author is a food critic for The Observer. But I thought it was nicely wrapped – the thing about writing an autobiography and publishing it is that you either have to just write down what happened on the assumption that everyone wants to know about your life, which works if you are Mick Jagger or Hillary Clinton or Paul Auster (assuming you like these people – you've certainly heard of them, which is the start-the-ball-rolling point of (auto-)biographies). Or, if you are not quite so famous, or maybe you’re writing primarily for yourself, to set your life in order, or pick over stuff that bothers you… you have to wrap it up a bit.

So Slater wraps it up in a) understatement (which is why you don’t quite get that it’s an autobiography at all for a few pages) and b) food. Experiences are accompanied by tastes and associations with dishes that his mother served up or which he found out about when he first became interested in making a profession out of… food (first as a cook, then as a critic)

He also wraps it up in a deceptive tone. The voice of the book is sometimes dead-pan, frequently comic, often elusive, and always subtle. The elusiveness is sometimes due to the trick that here is an adult man recounting events from a child’s perspective. As in one of the reasons why the young narrator likes Josh, their gardener:
I liked the way he would let me choose a biscuit … and the way he never turned his back on me when he was drying himself with his frayed green-and-white-striped towel. Exactly. The understatement or the missing information has to be filled in by the reader, which for me is the mark of a good writer. One that lets his readers think for themselves. That’s at the centre of good writing for me, always. It’s what makes writing a fuller, more versatile art form (in many ways) than television or cinema or even theatre. Here, it is clever how Slater tells what he knew then rather than what he knows now. Clever because it re-captures more closely the autobiographical events than if he had written, say, at the time I only realised xxx; what I know now is …. That is more interesting for the reader, because it is interesting to read through the eyes of a child, and then work out for yourself what is, or was, going on. It adds a dimension to the narrative that is very valuable in the sense that it is more realistic, as well as more moving. (And, one suspects, it helps the author work things out, what was going on).

It also, often, adds comedy. As a boy, he wonders why, when he walks the family dog in the late evenings, the cars parked in the car park are occupied, emit grunting noises and jiggle. Of course we know why (there are people shagging in them), and it makes the scene much funnier than if Slater had written something like: at the time I didn’t realise what was going on; what I know now is that the cars were all full of people shagging (LOL) …. Not.

Everything is told through the medium of, or at least with strong reference to, food. So when his mother dies when he is nine (beautifully and movingly described, through the lens of a young boy who didn’t really know what was going on – he didn’t go to the funeral), he describes how his father, touchingly, brought him marshmallows to eat before he went to sleep, because he knew that his son had desribed marshmallows as the nearest thing to kisses, and that it was his mother’s goodnight kisses that he missed most.

I enjoyed this autobiography, partly because elements of it, particularly the descriptions of middle-class dinner parties, morals and food of Britain in the 1970s reminded me of my own childhood, and partly because it was cleverly and sensitively written. I’m not into food or cooking, which the author obviously is – it became his profession and indeed the most important thing of his adult life – but that didn’t matter.

Slater has managed that very difficult thing – an autobiography which, once you have read it, you feel you know its author, but that there had not been too much of the author in it. Nobody likes having a one-sided conversation, when the person who’s talking just never stops talking about themselves. That person is inevitably a crashing bore. Slater manages to talk (write) only about himself, but there is enough in what he says about how he interacted with the world, and what the values and morality and social mores of that world (middle-class Britain in the late 60s and through the 70s) were to make it interesting and entertaining.

With the right voice, autobiographies of relatively unknown people can be interesting. If they are written well. And Toast is such a book.

Profile Image for Hilary G.
326 reviews12 followers
August 14, 2013
Oh dear! Hils on Toast sounds a bit like a recipe.

I wasn't immediately engaged by Toast, although I certainly related to the burnt toast in the opening line. Toast isn't really toast unless the whole flat is filled with thick, black, choking smoke [I have no sense of smell and a bad habit of wandering off to do something more interesting]. At first, the little chapters on food that is rather unexciting (Arctic Roll, Sherry Trifle…) was too much like snacks. You have one but it doesn't fill you up, so perhaps you have another, but never really feel satisfied. I must say, though, that little by little I got quite involved in the world Nigel Slater was creating (or recreating) and the life of this very lonely little boy, whose brothers were much older than him and whose mother died. I found some of the chapters very sad and moving such as the incontinent old auntie and the spaghetti and the game with the babysitting uncle. In fact, thinking back (it is about a fortnight since I finished reading the book), my major impression is that Slater used food principally, or maybe uniquely, to communicate sad memories. Was there any joyful food? The most I can remember is the farty noise made by the jelly and even that seems rather a sad sort of pleasure since it wasn't shared with playmates.

How strange that a mother that couldn't cook and food so evocative of sadness it was almost palpable should lead Slater to the career he subsequently followed. Perhaps the fact that I don't cook and am not hugely interested in food as a subject is because my mum was (and is) a good cook, who makes delicious meals out of good, wholesome food and who knows what everyone likes and caters to them [I always get pate, Stilton cheese, fish and liver – all my favourites – but not all at once]. I associate many foods with happy occasions – bonfire toffee and parkin at the Guy Fawkes parties we had in our back garden, shrimps, mussels, cockles and whelks at the seaside, chips with mayonnaise on our days out in Holland. How terribly isolated this little boy was. In fact, how the family isolated itself with its airs and graces and notions of appropriate and inappropriate foods. I suppose the "better" food they ate (like grilled grapefruit!!!) was that time's equivalent of today's designer stuff. In fact, though I love things like lobster and champagne, some of the best foods are much plainer and more plebian – faggots, rabbit stew, Yorkshire pudding with treacle for afters.

I thought the book was original and was a good attempt at recreating a past time which was both communal and personal. I was surprised by some of the foods that were obviously commonplace at the time but I had completely forgotten. Surprise Peas! I don't think I ever ate any, but I can certainly recall them, perhaps from advertisements. I seem to think they were freeze dried (or dehydrated?) and alarmingly chlorophyll green? Angel Delight! My mum says you can still get it, though I have never tasted it because it was made with milk. I thought Slater was quite successful in creating an atmosphere of the past, though there were one or two jarring moments. One I can recall was the expression 24/7, which I am sure was never heard before the 1990s. The book was so dependent on its readers relating to its particular time frame that I think it risks being almost inaccessible to younger readers.

The book had its own charm and I enjoyed it. I must confess I had never even heard of Nigel Slater, so I had no preconceptions. I thought his book well written, quite original and worth reading. And sad. It made me feel terribly sad.

Finally, I must say I think the little boy on the cover of the book is delicious. He reminds me so much of my brother who had the same sticky-out ears, freckles and bashful look. I think that was part of the sadness I felt because we've all grown up and we are old now!
Profile Image for Sandra Lawson.
47 reviews2 followers
October 14, 2011
Nigel Slater is my favourite cookery writer and TV food presenter. I refuse to call him a television chef, because he isn't, but he understands food and how different flavours and textures work together. His cookery books aren't at all fussy or precise and he makes it very clear that cooking is a very personal practice that can be varied as the cook wishes. But his recipes draw in the reader, make your mouth water, and make you want to rush off to the kitchen to start trying the dishes for yourself.

In this memoir he revisits his early and teen years using the sensory memories of different foods. I was amazed at his recall of so many different items, especially the sweets. I'm only a few years older than him, but I'd forgotten about some of the sweets he clearly remembers. However he managed to sweep me back to my younger days of 'Beatlegum' (and the smell returned with the memory), Clarnico Mint Creams (my grandma used to eat them), pear drops smelling of nail varnish remover and the original Walnut Whips. Back in the 1960s we weren't very sophisticated on a culinary level, and I also remember when puddings tended to be fruit out of a tin, and when school dinners were atrocious, but you were forced to eat them regardless, including drinking the lukewarm school milk.

His food reminiscences work in tandem with his home life, his mother's illness, his father's remarriage, and later his father's death. He evokes experiences and encourages the reader to share his own teenage and adolescent growing pains, his mother's loss, his difficulties with his stepmother, his early sexual adventures and his realisation that cooking is all he wants to do. Each section (they're hardly long enough to be chapters) bears the title of an item of food and it's as if he's sharing memories and experiences with the reader, and not recounting a linear autobiography.
7 reviews9 followers
April 16, 2013
This book caught my eye while on holiday in a book shop and I decided to read it for some unknown reason (maybe it was the name?). I think I generally enjoyed the book although some of the themes puzzled me, it made me dig deeper to discover the roots of them.

This goes under the category of "a diary, autobiography or biography" as it is narrated by Nigel, the author, and how he looks back at his life through food. This intrigued me as it was a point of view I hadn't explored before and it entertained me the whole way throughout the novel.

My favorite person in the story would be Nigel's Mother as she wasn't your average run-of-the-mill classy 1960's Mum, despite her efforts to be. The thing I think that really brought Nigel's story to life was that it had to levels to the story; on the first it was about Nigel's growth and social awakening, and on the other it was about the social status of food. Slater was very clever about how he referred back to food and how each bite he took made all the difference in his life.

My favorite quote in the novel would be “Food has been my career, my hobby, and, it must be said, my escape.” It shows his vulnerability towards food in an abstract way as he describes that he is devoted to food along with its advantages and disadvantages. Food became his life.

I wouldn't exactly say I learnt anything from this book apart from learning about Nigel Slater's life; but I definitely think it was an enjoyable book. If it taught me anything, it taught me that food isn't just a basic need, but maybe a devotion for others? Or maybe an exciting activity?
Profile Image for Louise.
Author 13 books637 followers
March 8, 2010
It's stating the obvious, but Nigel Slater is a chef and a cookery writer, and for the most part this book is about food, and the parts that were just about food I thoroughly enjoyed. It was like taking a trip down memory lane reading about foods and sweets from my childhood that I'd forgotten all about - the ice creams you used to get from the ice cream man in slabs wrapped in paper for example, Birds custard and that horrible, horrible milk all primary school children used to be given.

The book is broken down into very small chapters, each with a food theme, such as 'peas', 'apple crumble', 'bread and butter pudding'. While recounting his memory of each food and taste he also give a little taster of the story of his childhood - his mother's illness, his relationship with the adults in his life, school, and his sexual awakening.

And sorry Nigel, but I thought you were really hard on your parents! He keeps saying in the first half of the book how his mother couldn't cook, but would a nine year old really know what the consistency of a crumble topping should be? And to have a father who cooked anything in the sixties was something of a miracle. Also Nigel doesn't seem to appreciate the effort that goes into shopping, preparing, cooking and cleaning up after a family, day after day after day. It's really hard work and he does seem a bit snobby and ungrateful.

But it's well worth reading this book, I really did enjoy it most especially the food parts.
48 reviews3 followers
January 11, 2009
I guess I love British celebrity chefs so much because I don't have to watch them on TV.
I hate all the German famous cooks because they're everywhere in the media around me, whereas somebody who only exist on the internet and in cookbooks can't get on your nerves.

So I had never really heard of Nigel Slater until about a week ago when I picked up one of his cookbooks in the library.
Even though it was a translated copy, I instantly fell in love with both his style of cooking (no-fuss, easy "recipes" that are more like broad guidelines) and writing. Plus, there are rumours he's gay.

Then I found out he's written a foodie biography of his childhood and that it was super cheap on Amazon. My copy arrived on Tuesday and I read "Toast" on Wednesday night in one sitting.

It's a journey through the Midlands of the 1960 and 70s and all the class-awareness thing that's so significant of the English. It's about traditional English food, both bad and good.

Instead of chapters, there are short stories that Slater connects with certain foods. Somehow, the jigsaw comes together to make a proper story. #
A very different yet classical coming of age story centered around food- all I could've asked for on a freezing weekday night!
Profile Image for Sutter Lee.
126 reviews17 followers
June 5, 2014
Delicious coming-of-age story. Early childhood with delightful working atypical mom, who died young. Full of surprises, suspense, colorful characters, sex, perversion, evil step-mother, clueless father who feared his son was gay. All they had in common, other than love for the mother, was their sweet tooth. Way too much detail about candy bars.
I just read a The New Yorker article by Ian Parker about Edward St. Aublyn that there is such a glut on the publishing market in Britain about memoirs from people who've been traumatized in early childhood that there are now Painful Lives sections in many bookstores.
This could be categorized as such. His traumas were not of molestation, but of the coldness of his peculiar father and bizarre stepmother, and his severe isolation, lack of stimulation and mind-numbing boredom.
His recall is impeccable for details, his emotions and thoughts during that period.
His writing is excellent, descriptive, filled with humor, honesty. Each chapter seems to work as a short-story
How he turned out to be so mentally healthy, well adjusted, successful, is astonishing.
I'm not interested in books by chefs, as I'm not a foodie; but glad I read this.
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