Toast: A Slice of Nigel Slater’s Life Comes to the Screen

by Sarah Henry on October 13, 2011 · 20 comments

in bay area bites,food books,food films

Gosh the Brits know how to do misery, don’t they? Miserable weather, miserable class distinctions, miserable food, circa 1960s at least.

(The Anglophiles among us need not get their knickers in a twist: Word that there’s now fab fare to be found in Britain has leaked out.)

But the grim, gray food of an earlier generation is on full display in the autobiographical film “Toast,” based on the memoir of the same name by popular English cookbook author, food writer, and TV show host Nigel Slater.

(Regular readers may recall a recent review of his latest tome, Tender, an homage to the humble veg, in a delightful Stephanie Rosenbaum post.)

Victoria Hamilton as Nigel's beloved Mum and Oscar Kennedy as young Nigel, who fancied cooking early on.

There’s no sugar coating it: Slater’s early years were incredibly sad and lonely. The untimely death of his beloved mother, a simply awful cook who adored her boy and he her. Her only culinary saving grace: Toast with lashings of butter served up for dinner after another canned-food failure. Slater had a difficult relationship with his father, who made cheese sandwiches for days on end after the death of his wife. Something of a bully, the father also made it clear his son was a huge disappointment to him. Add to this equation the evil stepmother, played with trollopy gusto by Helena Bonham Carter, who wormed her way into their lives, first as an obsessive cleaner and then with her culinary (and, we’re given ample evidence to believe, sexual) prowess.

The woman may have been cheap as chips but she knew how to cook — and bake. Oh my, that lemon meringue pie!

In the film, with screenplay by Lee Hall who wrote “Billy Elliott,” the adolescent Slater (Freddie Highmore) is locked in a culinary clash with his despised stepmother for the attention and affection of his father. He loses, of course, and blames his stepmother for the early death of his father. Moviegoers will get the sense she literally fed him to death; the cakes, pies, and roasts just keep coming out of the oven.

The role of food in families — as both a comfort and a weapon — is at the heart of this movie, which makes great use of the anguished music of Dusty Springfield for its soundtrack. Dinner time in the Slater household was a desperately unhappy affair. Still, the young Slater finds refuge in food, sneaking cookbooks under the covers to read up on recipes, excelling in his Home Economics class, and triumphing over his stepmom by perfecting his own lemon meringue pie, which pops off the screen as a bright yellow gelatinous mass with a mound of white peaks expertly browned on top.

Nigel's father (Ken Stott) and his son face another nightly feast.

As in many children’s fairy tales, his stepmom also provides his liberation: Following his father’s death he simply walks out of her life and flees to London, where a future in food is his for the taking, and he never sees her again.

In a sweet end note, Slater appears in a cameo as himself, reassuring his younger self, who is desperate to find a kitchen job (at the Savoy Hotel, no less) that everything will be fine.

Fortunately for the food world, it is. Slater is the author of ten books, many bestsellers, including Real Fast Food, Appetite, and The Kitchen Diaries. A food columnist for The Observer for almost two decades, Toast the memoir, which won several major awards, including British Biography of the Year, began marinating as a column.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the adult Slater is not fond of fussy food, he prefers simple suppers made with care and thought, using quality ingredients. And despite his upbringing, he believes that making something good to eat for yourself or for others can lift the spirits in the way little else can.

(In an interesting twist, the daughters of Slater’s now deceased stepmother denounced his portrayal of her in the British press earlier this year. The very different accounts of their childhood years serves to remind us that every person’s version of the truth can vary wildly. On this much, though, all parties seem to agree: Slater’s early years were full of rejection and loss. Indeed the subtitle of his book “A Boy and His Hunger” is both a nod to his need for real, nourishing food and genuine, nourishing love.)

When asked what’s missing from the movie, Slater responds without missing a beat: The sex. “Toast is a sexy little book, there’s a lot of adolescent sex in those pages and they form an integral part of the story,” he said in an interview yesterday. “It doesn’t really matter in the movie but honestly I would have liked to have seen a bit more of it. “Toast” was made for prime-time viewing in Britain at Christmas, and I think they wanted a film that the whole family could watch, not something adolescent boys might squirm at.”

The movie only hints at the teenage Slater’s emerging sexuality; it reveals his crush on a family gardener and a first kiss in the woods with a local boy.

Fans of the food writer’s memoir should not hold their breath for Toast: The Second Slice. Here’s why: “I’m a very private person and tend to keep to myself, in part because I don’t think I’m that interesting,” Slater said. “That memoir was the most intimate of memoirs and to this day I don’t really know why I did it. But I was writing as a little boy and I was somehow able to differentiate it from my adult self. I stopped at 18 and I’ve protected myself ever since, I went back into my shell.”

There’s more. “In practical terms, if I were to do a second book, it would be more a conventional memoir,” he said, adding, “and I’d have to write about other people’s lives, people who are still alive, and I don’t want to intrude on their privacy.”

At a time when many of us wax on about the pleasures of the table (this writer included), “Toast” reminds us that food can cause major misery in many people’s lives. Audience goers will likely find themselves reflecting on their own childhood food memories while watching the film. Thankfully, this being a decidedly British film, there’s a lot of black humor amid the sorrow.

Just as well, too, because this writer, who wanted to rush home and bake her teenage son a cake after seeing the film, found herself wincing at the pain of it all at times.

“Toast” opens in Bay Area cinemas this Friday.

This post originally appeared on KQED’s Bay Area Bites. You might also like:

Eat, Pray, Love: Still Hungry
What’s Cooking with Julie & Julia
10 Top Documentary Food Films
Favorite Food Films
Corner Store: Film Explores Community Hub and Home


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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Living Large in our Little House October 20, 2011 at 4:21 am

We’re all products of our experiences, some of them not so happy. It sounds like such was the case here. Thanks for giving the low-down on the movie, I don’t think I would have picked it before, but will now!


Sarah Henry October 20, 2011 at 8:58 am

Curious to hear what you think of it, LLLH.


Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart October 20, 2011 at 10:18 am

Terrific review. Thanks so much for the insights. I just saved the movie in my queue. It’s funny that the title reminds me just how much TOAST I ate on my one and only trip to the UK in 2001. I mean, I like toast just fine, but there was something about being there and having tea and all that. I simply ate a lot of toast. Pretty happy about it then (and now).

But, I can see how it’s such a powerful symbol for a deeper hunger.
Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart´s last [type] ..Keep Kids and Pets Safe This Holiday Season


Sarah Henry October 20, 2011 at 3:02 pm

I think you’ll enjoy it, Rox. Maybe over a cup of tea and, ah, toast?


MyKidsEatSquid October 20, 2011 at 12:35 pm

I hadn’t heard about this–looks so good. What a contrast–Helena Bonham Carter played the mom in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to Freddie Highmore’s Charlie Button. Another movie arguably about food, poverty, and family (although not autobiographical).


Sarah Henry October 20, 2011 at 3:03 pm

I didn’t make that connection MKES, so glad you did. And great insight on CCF too — the hunger in that family was palpable too, you’re so right.


Jennifer Margulis October 20, 2011 at 1:07 pm

This sounds SO GOOD! I actually stopped reading your review because I don’t want to know any more about it. I just want to see it!!! Thanks for telling us about it.
Jennifer Margulis´s last [type] ..So What’s Your 7-Year-Old Bringing For Snack?


Sarah Henry October 20, 2011 at 3:04 pm

Oops! Did I give too much away? I’d likely never get a job as a traditional critic. Maybe I need to insert a spoiler alert in there somewhere. But if you’re like me, you’ll put this in your movie queue and promptly forget the plot lines until you see it!


Alexandra October 20, 2011 at 4:52 pm

Thanks for this review. I will rent this film when it becomes available as a DVD.
Alexandra´s last [type] ..Let’s Talk Mattress Pads


Sarah Henry October 22, 2011 at 12:53 pm

I think you’ll like it, Sandy.


Felicity October 21, 2011 at 10:00 am

Thankyou Sarah, as a True Brit, I will watch out for it. Yes, we do do misery very well, especially the culinary sort! I love Nigel Slater’s recipes – they usually involve a heck of a lot of butter!


Sarah Henry October 22, 2011 at 12:54 pm

Glad a real Brit weighed in here. Love your assessment of Slater’s recipes — sounds like they work for you, Felicity. Nothing wrong with a bit of butter.


merr October 22, 2011 at 7:33 am

I heard about this move but never heard of the person it was about! Sounds interesting.


Sarah Henry October 22, 2011 at 12:55 pm

The family dynamics are likely to appeal to you, merr, methinks.


sarah, simply cooked October 23, 2011 at 6:07 am

Ah, I do love Nigel. His TV shows are inspiring and I could read his cookbooks all night, too. He loves to cook with cream (and butter, as mentioned) but his food is usually very veg-centric, simple, and delicious. Thanks for your great review. I can’t wait to see this.
sarah, simply cooked´s last [type] ..Potato Chip Flavours


Sarah Henry October 23, 2011 at 9:17 am

Nice to see you here, Sarah. And yes, Slater, the author of Tender, a beautiful homage to the humble veg, is a simple yet elegant cook. Enjoy the movie.


Jane Boursaw October 31, 2011 at 1:32 pm

Oh wonderful review. I have a stack of food films here to review, and I’ll definitely add this to the top. And the cast is terrific.
Jane Boursaw´s last [type] ..Happy Halloween! What’s the Scariest Movie You’ve Ever Seen?


Sarah Henry November 3, 2011 at 7:21 am

Agree re the cast, Jane. And as the professional film critic in the mix, I look forward to reading your thoughts on the film.


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