Nigel Slater loves all kinds of toast, from his mother's burned slices to the "cold and bendy" hotel version. After his mother's death, one of Slater's many complaints about Joan, his lower-class, cleanliness-obsessed stepmother, in Toast: The Story of a Boy's Hunger (Gotham; paperback, $14), is that she won't let him make toast because the crumbs will mess up the kitchen.
This is the story of a life told in a series of vignettes, each centering on things sensory and sensual -- food for the most part but also, as Slater hits his teens, sex. He also describes his ambivalence toward his father, whom he loves and who seems to him alternately threatening and vulnerable, and the terrible food his mother cooked -- which he nonetheless often found delicious -- before her slow death from asthma. He shows how Joan entered the family's life, her glorious cooking tainted by her hard-eyed determination to use his father for financial advancement. It was Joan's feasts (walnut cake, lemon meringue pie, mashed potatoes with parsley sauce as well as the endless supply of chocolates she and Slater's father shared in front of the television) that contributed to the latter's fatal heart attack. Although Slater's rage is unshakeable, he does acknowledge that Joan had moments of kindness.
The text is filled with references to cheap treats, some of them things middle-aged Brits will remember with nostalgia, like packets of crisps with a pinch of salt in twisted blue paper. We also hear about trifle, Fry's peppermint cream, sherbet lemons and sticks of rock. Then there's the family's first brush with that dangerously foreign dish, spaghetti. "Daddy," says young Slater, after he's shaken boxed parmesan over the dish, "this cheese smells like sick."
Slater, now a well-known cookbook author and columnist for the London Observer, doesn't focus on his own childhood griefs; he displaces these emotions onto the food he describes. The result is a sweet, funny book, which, as they say in England, goes down a treat.
-- Juliet Wittman