I recently viewed the movie Toast, released in Britain in 2010 as a TV movie but more recently in the US (and available on Netflix). It inspired me to read the book it was based on, an autobiography of the same name by Nigel Slater, a food writer, journalist and broadcaster much better known across the pond than in the US.
I found the movie to be remarkably faithful to the book, although some characters and plotlines were necessarily omitted. The movie preserves the book’s almost-lubricious tone and inextricable link between food and experience, although the book contains much more detail about what went into the writer’s mouth and how he felt about it.
One might think that a chronicle of growing up in the 1960’s Midlands might be foreign enough to Americans as to be unrelatable, but this book felt strangely familiar to me – not in the particulars of the (very British) brand names of candies and convenience foods, but in the feelings and behaviors of the boy Nigel and his family. And by admission of the author in a preface to the American edition, there had been a similar reaction by much of the reading public.
The story is told in a series of very short chapters, each headed by a specific food or food reference. Yet the pace does not flag by the use of this device; each food memory serves to drive the narrative forward. We follow Nigel from a very young age through his emancipation to a career in food service. Along the way, he describes his feelings for his mother (a terrible yet tender cook), his distant, furious father (he was such a disappointment as a son), and his stepmother (a good but spiteful cook).
In the movie, Nigel’s stepmother is played with only slight exaggeration by Helena Bonham Carter, possibly the best comic actress in Britain. Her baking, however, is played with rather more exaggeration, by very a impressive array of baked goods.
His memory for the food of his childhood is amazingly detailed and specific. Although only some of these are common to both sides of the Atlantic, I feel that I could recognize many of them by sight or taste (although I admit I had to Google “gammon” – it’s what we would call “fresh ham”). There is a partial glossary in the back, which helped a bit, but was frustratingly silent on some terms.
Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger, by Nigel Slater, Gotham Books, 2004.
Toast, TV Movie, originally shown 30 December 2010 (UK) available on Netflix.