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on 16 November 2010
It is one thing to write cookery books and a cookery column in The Observer and another to lay bare your childhood and upbringing for everyone to see. Most people would gloss over the parts of their life they don't want to confront, especially if the episodes do not show them in a very good light. It is also hard to relate that life without the effect of hindsight and the adult view of the events related.

Nigel Slater gives us his child's, and then his teenage view of his life, exactly as it must have been then, without the adult interpretation. This gives it an immediacy which is very poignant and moving. Children are self-centred and to some extent, selfish, and it is a very believable take on a child's-eye view of the world. He is unsentimental and his humour is sometimes cruel but throughout, his anger and loneliness palpable and penetrating. While we may look at his world, we are not asked to pity him.

Each nostalgic episode is given an item of food from the sixties and the story of his life is recounted as separate incidents, not in sequence.

We learn about his family, the odd uncle and aunt, his brother and adopted brother, his father's job, his mother's illness - all snippets related as they affect the infant Slater with vivid reality in a few lines of spare prose.

"It was a pity we had Aunt Fanny living with us. Her incontinence could take the edge off the smell of a chicken curry, let alone a baking cake. No matter how many orange-and-clove pomanders my mother had made, there was always the faintest whiff of Aunt Fanny."

We can see the lack of love in his life after his mother dies and can probably see that he is, indeed, a difficult child and he doesn't seek to present himself to us as anything else. His need for love is shown by his hidden desire for a goodnight hug in bed from his father, who is only to be able to manage chocolate marshmallows in substitution.

He certainly equates food with happiness - his description of Sundays making crab sandwiches after the jolly father/son experience of shelling the crab was a classic. And then, the simple phrase 'After Mum died, we never had crab again...'

Yet he was, in part, frightened of his father. "You wouldn't think a man who smoked sweet, scented tobacco, grew pink begonias and made softly-softly trifle could be scary....Once when I had been caught not brushing my teeth... his glare was so full of fire, his face so red and bloated, his hand raised so high that I pissed in my pyjamas, right there on the landing...For all his soft shirts and cuddles and trifles I was absolutely terrified of him."

As a child he was very difficult with eating, but yet he was discerning and appears to appreciate good food when it came his way, with a sophistication of taste and texture remarkable for a small boy. He was fascinated by Marguerite Patten's cookery book and used to read it by turns with Portnoy's Complaint behind the bookcase.

I found his complete recall of the `new' fast foods being presented in the 60's, fascinating. The fiasco with the grilled grapefruit, "I just thought how cool I was to have eaten grilled grapefruit. I boasted about it to everyone at school the next day in much the same way as someone might boast about getting their first shag."

Throughout the book runs the understated love for his mother and uneasy feelings about his father's new relationship with the cleaning lady, Mrs Potter.
"She was sitting there in one of the garden chairs, tight lips, tight perm, twenty Embassy and a cigarette lighter in her lap. 'Say hello to your Auntie Joan', my father said, enunciating her new name, quietly and firmly."

The culinary theme would not be enough to hold the interest and as an autobiography it must stand in its own right. There are no important people in Nigel Slater's story, no references of great significance and his portrait of middle class life is not affectionate. But he evokes time, people and place with such clarity and spare prose, with every episode linked to a precise memory, written in a vivid and energetic style. The people are just 'nobodies', and indeed, nobody would probably every want to write about them. Yet he makes them live their very ordinary lives under our microscope. That is why I think this autobiography is a fascinating read.
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on 2 February 2011
All I knew of Nigel Slater before I picked up `Toast' was that he was a rather well known chef whose recipe books seem to be in every single member of my families houses. I've never watched his TV shows and really never been that interested in cookery books, other than maybe Nigella, though I like cooking. `Toast' is Nigel Slater's memories of childhood into adulthood all told through food. I imagined this might be recipes but I was wrong as in fact it's snippets of memories with titles like `Christmas Cake, `The Hostess Trolley' and `Peach Melba' (which I had forgotten once existed and instantly wanted) each with its own memories attached.

`Toast' really is quite a collection of memories as Nigel didn't have the easiest or happiest of childhoods. His mother had health issues, his father wasn't the most comforting or friendly of role models and of course there is the cleaner Mrs Poole who soon became the bane of Nigel's life. It's never a misery memoir though some of the book is very emotional it also often leaves you in hysterics. In some ways because of the humour I was reminded of Augusten Burroughs, only in this book the addictions are cook books and ingredients rather than drugs, the other thing that reminded me of Augusten Burroughs was the way slowly but surely Slater writes about his being gay, how he noticed it and coped with it in the 60's and 70's which again makes for a very heart felt and honest book.

I knew I was going to be rather smitten with this book when I read the line in `Toast 1' where Nigel writes `It is impossible not to love someone who makes toast for you.' He is talking about his mother and how when they make it in just the right way you are `putty in their hands'. People who arrive as the book progresses are each almost given a flavour in addiction to their character and this works wonderfully. It also really evokes atmosphere and underlying tensions such as when he helps his Mum make the, at the time, novel delicacy of spaghetti for his father which none of them have tried and as soon as they add the parmesan `this cheese smells like sick' is deemed as `off' and its never talked of or mentioned again.

I loved Nigel Slater's writing, it never felt pretentious or woe is me or anything other than a down to earth account of his childhood filled with both happiness and sadness. It's a `real' memoir if you know what I mean, there are dramas and trials but they are never melodramatic. I decided Nigel Slater and I would be firm friends when he discussed `Butterscotch Angel Delight' my all time favourite too. This is someone who hasn't had the easiest start in life who rather than complain about it looks back at it fondly and asks the reader to join in and do so too.
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on 2 September 2012
Please can you help ? this book has NOT arrived on my Kindle ?

Thank you

Barbara Bates I am going on holiday at the weekend and would like this book
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on 12 June 2004
I am a fan of Nigel Slaters cookery writing and was eager to see how he fared writing a memoir about his childhood. 'Toast' is an absolute delight. One one level it is a simple, pacy read divided up into short chapters, each covering a different memory, cleverly using the conceit of food- the texture, smells, flavours to tell the story of his childhood in 60's suburban England. Yet Toast is so much more than this. Slater had, and this was unknown to me before I started the book, a tragic childhood. His mother died when he was young and he grew up enduring a difficult relationship with his father and stepmother who grated with him from the start. The use of food overlays these memories as Slater describes his mother's rock hard Christmas cake and warm stacks of buttery toast- the ultimate sign of a mother's love for her son, and the difficult times after her death as his father struggles to use ready made products to nourish his son. All the difficulties of growing up are discussed- sex, relationships, friendship, bereavement, frustration, anxiety, lonliness, love- and 'Toast' weaves these into a heartwarming story about a young boy developing what would become a lifelong gourmet passion, trying to make his way in a difficult world.
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on 19 January 2011
Im going to keep this short and sweet..... I think the contents of the book are okay, but why the constant comments about sex and related issues???

The book just does not need it :/
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on 8 July 2004
As a reader of many a book, it is hard to find a book that has to be read in a single reading. This is one of a few that have managed it.
IT is hard to grasp how such a story can be shared with the masses through the love of food. The swings that the book goes through from mothers cooking, through her untimely death, his fathers struggle to cope, his step mother and her 'uncultured ways' and finally the freedom that he find by moving out and going to college. Each twist and turn described with reference to a food that we all grew up with during the 60's and 70's.
Nigel has always had a way of describing recipes that are far from the words of Delia, this book simply highlights this skill on a page.
A simple book that you cannot put down whether it be for shock, humour and sadness. Well worth a read.
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on 16 March 2006
A real treat of a book which is very well written with poignant parts. Delicious for the stomach, and the heart!
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on 7 July 2004
This is an amazing memoir. Filled with anicdotes and surprises. A difficult childhood, such a hard way to have to grow up and yet, the author reflects on the past with humor. Very similar to "Running With Scissors" and "Dry". Yet speaks of the hardships of life-the honesty of the account like that of "Nightmares Echo". I am very pleased with this book.
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on 1 November 2007
Toast: The Story of a Boy's Hunger is an exceptionally well-written book and is truly a change from the NS norm as he relives his childhood memories and beyond.... and relates them to when food started to leave poignant imprints.

From the amusing opening piece, 'Toast 1', to his account of the annual 'Christmas Cake Make and Ice Ritual', and to whether 'his father smelled of greenhouse' or 'the greenhouse smelled of his father' - the easy-to-digest, bite-size mini-chapters, most often with a culinary related title, e.g. :-

* Bread-and-Butter Pudding
* Sherry Trifle
* Jam Tarts
* Spaghetti Bolognese
* Arctic Roll
* Rice Pudding
* Mashed Potato
* Butterscotch Angel Delight
* Tinned Ham
* Space Dust
* Heinz Sponge Pudding
* American Hard Gums
* Sherbet Fountains
* Milk Skin

are sure to bring a laugh or two...... and, a tear or two.......as Nigel recalls some of the less pleasant memories.

From 'Scrambled Egg':-

'.. "Just try it," pleaded my father, holding out a plate of particularly yellow scrambled eggs. "You won't taste the eggs, I promise."
He had become cunning of late; a promised pancake had turned out to be an omelette, some slices of hard-boiled egg had been slipped into a salad sandwich and, in a moment of spectacular deceit, he had attempted to hide the yolk of a fried egg under a mound of baked beans...........

From 'Cream Soda':-

'Nobody tells me anything. They talk in whispers over my heard; in hushed tones when I'm sitting drawing my usual pictures of Scottish hills or gluing model planes together. (I'm very good at shading heather and frankly draw nothing else, inspired no doubt by our last holiday, when we drove back from Loch Lomond with a sprig of the stuff tucked in the radiator of the car.
Friday afternoon is when the pop man comes.........'

Gosh...... yes so it did.........a memory recalled, in my own case!

From Toast 1:-

'It is impossible not to love someone who makes toast for you. People's failings, even major ones such as when they make you wear short trousers to school, fall into insignificance as your teeth break through the rough, toasted crust and sink into the doughy cushion..........'

From Toast 2:-

'... "I want to talk to you about something," says my father ominously and with one of those smiles that somehow manages to both scare and patronise me all at once. We walk out into the garden and round the rose beds, him pretending to look closely at each pink-edged Peace rose, me silently cringing, hoping desperately he isn't about to say `man to man'...........

By the end of this highly impressionable book, 'Toast 3', begins another chapter of life.....and the reader definitely needs a sequel!
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on 20 August 2012
'14 September 2003. Finish reading Toast, Nigel Slater's memoir of his childhood. It's such an enjoyable book I regret reading it so quickly, bolting it in fact, the metaphor appropriate. Food apart, it's also a very sexy book.'

From Alan Bennett's Diaries (in Untold Stories, p.334)

This entry in Bennett's diaries inspired me to read Toast (or rather, listen to Slater's recording of the book). Its distinctive feature is that Slater's childhood is seen through the prism of food, just as Nick Hornby's early years were seen through football in Fever Pitch. Slater's wonderfully observant descriptions reveal the array of meanings food has in our lives: a marker of class, an expression of love, a Proustian trigger of the past, a necessity, a pleasure, an exchange for sex, even a punishment (in one scene a teacher forces Nigel to drink milk, which he loathes). For Slater, it also finally becomes a means of earning a living.

It is a book in which, unusually, taste and smell are more important than sight.

As Bennett points out, there is also a good deal of sex. In profiles, Slater is sometimes described as being gay, but if so, he is clearly not one of those men who takes the view that this is an obstacle to having sex with women.

Concise, funny and moving, Toast is a delight.
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