The Story of
A Boy's Hunger

Nigel Slater
(Gotham Books)
Slater's father was a chilly one. Nothing in the way of hugs and approval but lots of complaints, calling him "little bugger" and occasionally slapping him around. His mother was more caring but she died of asthma when he was nine.

Dad brings home Joan, a lady who paints her nails, complains forever and a day about her step-son's laziness and deviousness and dirt. Unlike Mum, she smokes, wears clear nail polish and "brushed nylon," and sometimes says "bleedin'" and "arse."

With hard-bitten Joan, Slater brings to life the traditional wicked step-mother, even though she does cook large and somewhat unwieldy meals: "ham with tomato water lilies, tinned salmon with wafer-thin cucumber in vinegar, a dish of sliced beetroot, salad cream in a sauce boat, and a veal-and-ham pie with an egg in the middle." There's a hint that all these carbs undo Dad's ticker.

§     §     §

Lists of dishes, meals, drinks, sweets, deserts, treats begin to threaten the reader's ticker, too. Slater's life's story gets squeezed in between all the peas, ham, beetroot, cucumber, boiled potatoes, prawn cocktails, deviled kidneys, chocolate buttons, Parma Violets, Spanish chicken, deep-fried fish and chips and those weirdly named English foods:

    Crisps, Candyfloss, Bridge Rolls, Cheese Football, Fairy Cakes, Gammon (ham), Gobstoppers (jawbreakers), Maltesers (malted milk balls) and Soldiers (WWII ... I mean, toast cut in slivers.)

Toast is a semi-sweet story of a growing child's life peppered with enough food to stock a Midwestern American root cellar with enough verbal lashings left over to be something out of Dickens. It may be the middle-class English version of Laura Esquivel's Like Water For Chocolate. There is a baby-sitting uncle who fondles the young Slater (and is never caught); there is a motorcycle-riding gardener whom he loves dearly and innocently. The gardener is fired the moment Dad finds out he strips out of his work clothes into his motorcycle outfit in front of the boy.

Although this is a growing-up story, food turns up all over the place. Slater thus becomes the General Accounting Office of English food, good and bad. He cannot describe his salty old man without

    a Murray Mind, a humbug, a toffee eclair, or a Payne's Popper. There were Toffos in the greenhouse, Liquorice Allsorts in his bedside drawer, and a bag of Fox's Glacier Fruits in the glovebox of the car ...More to my taste were chocolate bars such as Peppermint Aero and Curly Wurlys, the ill-fated Summit bar, and Cadbury's sickly Aztec.

If Slater is the CPA of awful English food, this writing of his life's story is his way of settling the accounts. His sweet mother's death is muted, puzzled; the death of Dad is stark:

    I walk upstairs, close my bedroom door, and sit on my bed. I get the feeling I should be crying. Yet no tears can come. There are excited butterflies in my stomach and I can feel something welling up inside me that isn't tears. I feel tingly and warm, like something wonderful is happening. Like I have pins and needles in my limbs. I bite my bottom lip hard, not to stop the tears, but to check that this is really happening.

After we put dear old Dad in the ground, Toast gets quite lively. In fact, your reviewer would have preferred that we had planted the old bastard around page 20 instead of page 200. Whatever it is, towards the end, Slater starts cooking with gas --- literally. He gets accepted to cooking school, works in a variety of restaurants and English Inns. The best of them all is straight out of Orwell, whose story of working in a French restaurant with chickens being rescued from the slops and slutswool at the bottom of a dumbwaiter to be brushed off and delivered to the customers' table with nary a word was enough to make us forever swear off the Guide Michelin of Paris restaurants.

In Toast, the Sun Hotel is not very different: a country inn that, unknown to the customers, specializes in unsavory doings in the kitchen. Jim the head chef has "a sour, beery breath" which comes "as a shock so early in the morning."

"Right, ladies," he says to the gathered waitresses, "don't forget to bring in all your dirty panties tomorrow. I need to make the fish stock." I'd go on but you and I would probably stop eating out forever, at least in those places where we couldn't see directly into the kitchen.

The last few pages of Slater's oeuvre are a kick-in-the-pants and I'm sorry that we (the author and the reader) spent so much time getting there. At one point we find him housed with the waiters and cooks and clean-up crew of a big hotel that specializes in elaborate weddings. The living quarters are a paradise for the young would-be Escoffiers, but not necessarily in the food department: "To say there was an atmosphere of promiscuity at the hotel was like saying they make a bit of cheese in Roquefort."

    The staff quarters ... was planet party, a place where the strains of Pink Floyd and Madam Across the Water were to be heard twenty-four/seven and where you were most likely to get a dose of the clap than a decent night's kip.

Much as On the Road ends up with Kerouac and friends in the paradise of the southern Sonoran desert with whores and fat joints, so Toast ends up with Slater in London, in food heaven, quelling his appetite at the Inn on the Park, Harrods Food Hall and a pine bistro "with low ceilings and pretty waiters who flirted with everyone, regardless of age or sex."

    Campari sodas followed triangles of fried Camembert in breadcrumbs with a redcurrant and orange dip, then portions of saltimbocca the size of Jersey. We finished with profiteroles and hot chocolate sauce.

The book ends at a perfect dumping ground for a food-filled biography: Slater interviews a guy who "is emptying rubbish bins in the dark ... hosing down his vast garbage skip.

"'Stand around at Swan & Edgars,' says the old man. 'There'll be someone who'll ask you if you want a bed for the night soon enough.'"

--- Jean-Louis Parmentier
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