Saturday, 18 July 2009

the food of love

by Nigel Slater

Having recently moved to Hertfordshire it seemed like the right thing to attend some kind of fete on Mayday of this year and Aldbury holds one each year which comes close to the chocolate box image one might have of village life. We arrived too late to enjoy the Morris dancers and indeed to find any cake (hungry lot those village folk), but after enjoying the petting zoo and other delights we were there for the frantic closing moments where stall holders, looking to reduce the amount they had to carry home again, went to increasingly desperate measures to clear the trestle tables. One book stall owner simply cried out 'free books' inviting me to take anything that took my fancy. Unfortunately I don't think Len Deighton or Wilbur Smith are for me, and the uses I might conjure up for Jeffrey Archer don't bear mention on the clean white screen before you. Just as I was giving up hope of indulging myself I spotted a small hardback of Nigel Slater's memoir. I have always enjoyed Slater's food writing in the Observer as there is something honest and somehow wholesome about his appreciation of simple foods, even whilst licking his lips with lascivious glee, which puts the suggestive pouting of his female namesake Ms Lawson to shame.

The format of the book is perfect for Slater, a series of short pieces, each headed for the most part by the name of a particular foodstuff, revelling in its particularity and slowly revealing various elements of his upbringing and maturation. It's the perfect format for us too, bite size chunks which are steeped in a nostalgia of food from the past, recognisable brand names that will have you sighing (and sometimes groaning) in recognition and quite possibly salivating too. It will be different for every person, which is the beauty of course, but I certainly will never forget butterscotch flavour Angel Delight (for all the right reasons) or Fray Bentos pies (for all the wrong).

The passing time highlights the seasonal importance of food and the part it plays in the ritual of our lives.

The entire Christmas stood or fell according to the noise the trifle made when the first massive, embossed spoon was lifted out. The resulting noise, a sort of squelch-fart, was like a message from God. A silent trifle was a bad omen. The louder the trifle parped, the better Christmas would be.

That trifle was always made by Slater senior, a contradictory figure who had a passion for growing pretty flowers and yet seemed to terrify his family with his tempers (his fierce aspect at one point reducing his son to a pee-sodden mute when catching him going to bed without having brushed his teeth). Running underneath his relationship with his father is the man's fear that this son isn't as manly as the others. His attempts to redress the balance include hiding the eggs that he won't eat (and his other son devours, thus eggs=macho) in and amongst his food and the clear disapproval of sucking the chocolate from a Mars bar (whilst the tongue-led excavation of a Walnut Whip becomes close to a family pastime!). The young Nigel is all too attuned to his father's discouragement.

My father sighs one of those almost imperceptible sighs that only fragile boys who regularly disappoint their father can hear.

Food becomes a great way for Slater to relay a childhood which is far from unhappy, but marked by moments of sadness. It provides a distance from the raw emotion of some events but also the opportunity to show the humour contained within those milestones we reach when growing up and his burgeoning sexuality in particular. There is a great moment of realisation at school where he didn't want to drink the milk he was issued: food can be used as a bargaining tool. His plan to offload it on any girls who would flash their knickers at him stalls when they won't keep up their end of the bargain. It's the boys which come to the rescue, quite happy to flash their own bits for an extra carton of the white stuff.

There are moments of tender emotion too. Marshmallows left by his father at bedtime are loaded with significance, and nothing it seems has the power to bring people together quite like food, even when it is at the expense of the food itself. The parade of shameful recollection in the dawn of convenience food is one of the guilty pleasures of this book. But beyond the kitschy appeal of those recognisable and easy targets Slater excels when describing the pleasure of great food. You know when he's really worked his magic when you find yourself heading straight out to the shops for ingredients.

Then something came along that was to change everything. It was the simplest food imaginable, yet so perfect, so comforting, soothing and fragrant. The dish contained only two ingredients. Potatoes, which were thinly sliced and baked in cream. There was the subtlest hint of garlic, barely present, as if it had floated in on a breeze. That pommes dauphinoise, or to give its correct title, pommes a la dauphinoise, was quite simply the most wonderful thing I had ever tasted in my life, more wonderful than Mum's flapjacks, Joan's lemon meringue, and a thousand miles away from anything I had made at college. Warm, soft and creamy, this wasn't food that could be a kiss or hug, like marshmallows or Irish stew, this was food that was pure sex.


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