Buttery toast? Cheesy toast? Marmalade-y toast? Marmite-y toast?
Which is your little bit of guilty indulgence?
Me? I like it double sinful. Buttery cheesy toast works. Though marmalade has also been a childhood favourite.
The obsession with the word Toast comes from the fact that I have just about finished reading a book titled so. A black and white hard cover featuring a little boy casting an impish, sidelong look at his parents. The parents to my eyes look like siblings almost with their similar spectacle frames and expressions. The book is called Toast and its author is Nigel Slater, the man behind the food columns in The Observer and a few cookbooks.
A few months ago, last year actually, I chanced upon a show of Nigel Slater on a food channel. I have been enchanted by the tall, bespectacled lanky man since. That show introduced me to the traditional English sweets that I would probably spot in Marks & Spencer near its self-pay checkout aisle. Bags of mint humbugs and jelly babies have started making sense to me ever since I watched Slater as he walked down memory lane and rambled on about sweets and childhood. It was bittersweet, that show. One that tugged at your heartstrings almost immediately.
Toast itself is an easy read. It took me just two days to go through its 247 pages. Pages that lead from one food to another, from associations of those foods with Nigel's childhood, and take you through the years from his mid-childhood to his mid-adolescence in a single sweep. The chapters come with titles like Cream Soda, Jammie Dodgers, Duckling à l’orange. It follows him from the time he loses his mother to her asthma illness to the time he loses his father and thus his escape from the clutches of a stepmother he never fell in love with.
I like what writer Charles Moore says about the title of the book in The Telegraph: "Slater is right about toast - as evocative a one-word title about an English upbringing as one can imagine."
The beginning of the book goes with the title: "My mother is scraping a piece of burned toast out of the kitchen window, a crease of annoyance across her forehead". He does seem a bit harsh in judging the various figures from his childhood. His mother is adjudged an awful cook, his father rather a cold character who he once-in-a-while discovers masturbating in the greenhouse, his stepmother is a cleaner with a penchant for troubling the young Nigel. He gets his back on her, it seems, by portraying her as a gold-digger who left her husband and daughters to snag Slater Senior. Yes, Nigel is rather unforgiving in his depiction of her in the book, especially the part where he implies that she overcooked intentionally and that it led to his father's death. However veiled an accusation it might come across, it still is a veritable insult to which his stepsisters reacted strongly in interviews to newspapers. They too accused him, of lying. What probably got their goat is when the book is made into a film, when we all know that characters often always get exaggerated.
Yet behind all the bitching, I did feel sorry for the lonely little boy who never really got over the death of his mother or could accept the new woman in his father's and his life. He finds refuge in food. In mint humbugs, fairy drops, refreshers, sherbet lemons, acid drops and chocolate limes. "The price for which was mouth ulcers the size of shirt buttons..."
Holidays for him meant "sticks of rock, pink or humbug-striped with red letters running through it". I particularly loved his take on bread-and-butter pudding. When he says: "I love the layers of sweet, quivering custard, juicy raisins, and puffed, golden crust. I love the way it sings quietly in the oven; the way it wobbles on the spoon. 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".
It is this ability to juxtapose food with emotions and moments that got me. Writer Matthew Fort notes in The Observer:
"Proust was not the first to use food as the spring to memory. The genre of the food autobiography goes back at least to Apuleius and Archestratus. More recently Americans have proved to be exceptionally adept at it - Calvin Trilling, AJ Leibling, Ruth Reichl, and, the greatest of all, MFK Fisher, all revelled in la recherche des gourmandises perdues. However, in keeping with our national reticence on matters of food, we British have been more circumspect in making the connection between food and the inner person.
In Toast, however, this connection is not simply explicit: food - jam tarts and Arctic Roll, Bird's Custard and Cadbury's MiniRoll, flapjacks and lamb chops with fat 'still hot wobbly and meat juicy' and a thousand other gustatory experiences - was the boy, is the man."