Friday, August 28, 2009

Food Memories - Toast by Nigel Slater

I have just finished Toast by English chef and writer Nigel Slater (subtitled - the Story of a Boy's Hunger). This book is about his childhood and adolescence seen through the sometimes frightening, frequently sad and often funny prism of the food he ate. How he remembers is one thing of itself but the taste of the memory he manages to evoke by his food descriptions is quite something else. Remember, this is an era of trifles, salad cream, jam tarts, tinned salmon, mushroom ketchup, tinned ham, rice pudding and steak diane. His father wouldn't have Heinz sauces in the house because he thought they were 'common'.

Nigel Slater did not have the happiest childhood. His mother (who couldn't cook) died when he was young and his father remarried. He spent a lot of his childhood feeling unwanted.
And yet he is not bitter, and this makes the book completely addictive. Here is his description of one of the many tinned products they eat:

We lived in a world of tinned fruit. There were tinned peaches for high days and holidays, fruit cocktail for every-day and tinned pears for my father who said they were better than fresh. On one occassion we tried mango but my father said it tasted fishy. I wasn't allowed to try. 'You wouldn't like it'.

And here he is in the kitchen with his stepmother :

'You can call me Auntie Joanie if you want to' said Mrs Potter. I walked straight past her and round to the kitchen door. 'I told you' she snapped at my father. 'Just give him time, he'll be all right' said Dad. There was a cake on the spotless kitchen table. A home made cake, with a thin line of raspberry jam in the middle, the top dusted with caster sugar. A perfect cake, three inches high and as light as a feather, the criss-cross of the wire cooling rack etched into its top. The kitchen smelled of baking and Dreft. Two pairs of my underpants and my school pullover hung on a wooden airer with some tea towels still warm from the iron. Mrs Potter rushed in behind me. 'Come on I'll put the kettle on. Why don't we make some toast?'.

It made me think about how I would describe my life (if I had to) by reference to, say, my top 10 food memories. And once I started thinking I couldn't stop. This is what I came up with, divided into three sections of my life:

Ages 0 to 17

1. Egg Sandwiches - okay, I know these repulse many people. And I am not so keen on them myself these days. But when I was a bookworm 9 year old my very favourite activity involved lying on the floor of my bedroom in the sunshine, reading the latest Enid Blyton book and munching on my egg sandwich. In fact, I recently found a list of every book Miss Blyton had ever written and I can honestly say I have read them all!

2. Spaghetti Bolognese. I may have previously mentioned what a great cook my mother is. And trust me, spaghetti bolognese was about as exotic as it got in my childhood. And even that would have been considered to be 'on the edge' by many. She made the sauce correctly with veal and pork, simmering slowly for hours but the cheese we sprinkled was that grainy powdery 'Parmesan'. Nothing like the big wedges we hand grate these days.

3. Snails in garlic butter. My father owned a restaurant for parts of my childhood. We ate out quite a bit. And this was my favourite dish (still is a favourite). It brings back memories of stained glass, bluestone and indoor plants and other 1970's decor features.

4. Paradise pudding . Sounds better than it is. Our school had a health food tuckshop. Pretty advanced for the 1970s. So whilst my brothers were eating Sunnyboys* and Twisties for a living I was eating health food. Paradise Pudding was a paper cup filled with layers of granola and natural yoghurt.

Ages 17 to 30

A reasonable amount of this period of my life was taken up by studying, travelling or having lowly paid jobs. It follows that my food choices were more constrained.

5. Chicken parmagiana and lukewarm tea. This is what I lived on in college at university. And it is no exaggeration to say I have not touched a chicken 'parma' since I was 24.

6. Baileys Irish Cream. Okay this is not a food. But it provided me with a lot of sustenance at university. And it does have carbohydrate, right? And I know you don't need to see a picture.

7. Singapore noodles. I worked for 2 years as a public or civil servant. Theo's cafe was in the basement of the building and every day almost without fail, I would have singapore noodles from the bain marie with lots of chilli sauce. My mouth waters just thinking about these!

Age 30 onwards

8. Venice. In 2001 we spent an amazing 2 weeks in an apartment in Venice. We drank ombras in the bars, had lunch at the Cipriani, and trawled the Rialto market for creatures from the lagoon to cook in our ill equipped kitchen. I still remember grilling some unnamed crustacean and trying to prise it out of an unforgiving shell.

9. Degustation. I admit it I am sometimes a gourmand. I have been lucky enough to have some lovely meals in various places. Most memorable perhaps was a meal at the Grande Vefour in Paris, 12 courses (including white dove, I know its shocking isn't it). We framed the bill.

10. Chilli-world. Since 2000 I have been obsessed with Asian food of all kinds, but particularly Chinese, Thai and Indian. I can't go more than two days without a chilli hit.

* Sunnyboys were in the same family as Razzes and Glug. They were basically frozen ice pyramids in lurid lime or raspberry. I think but I am not certain that they are an Australian food item? Does anyone know?

Images (1) Luis Melendez 1772 NGA (3) (4) Flickr (5) The (6) Upstate Harvest (7) BBC Good Food (8) Travels with a Gourmet (9) Channel 4 (10) Sunnyboy


Mise said...

What a great way to define a life; I must have a think about what my equivalents would be. I love Nigel Slater's recipe books: so real, and almost halfway to improvised cooking.

Anonymous said...

Hm....that book sounds really interesting. I'll put it on my list. Thx!

Sunnyboys?? Never heared of it before.

Laura said...

I love this post! And that book is really just one of my favorites. Now you've got me thinking about the foods of my life...

Jane said...

Mise- I don't have any of his cookbooks they looked very 'simple food fast' to me (not that there's anything wrong with that) I will have to check it out. CT- Sunnyboys are definitely just an Australian thing. I used to be so jealous of my brothers because we weren't allowed them. They are just icy poles really xox

jane said...

omg i love this post! now you´ve got me thinking about my food history... i read toast a while ago. i agree- great read. i remember it felt like a book on cd because i couldn´t get his voice out of my head... thank you for all your comments this month! you made me smile! sending you a big hug! jane (the other jane...)

Ann said...

Yes indeed - what a GREAT idea. You are now my food hero. Ahead of Jill D.... and see - we ALL lived on spag bol. Mum was squirming today (she is my only fan)...

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