Reviewed by MARGIE THOMSON
As anyone who has read his columns or recipe books knows, Slater is a passionate, lyrical epicurean. His recipe books and Observer column (which ran in the Herald) made him a national treasure in his native England, and now his idiosyncratic memoir, which spans mid-childhood to late adolescence, reveals him to be as vulnerable as a souffle, with all the perfectionism and devotion such a dish requires.
For him, food is synonymous with emotion, with poetry and, while he veers awfully close to gush at times, it's perhaps only because of the fearless emotional honesty with which he writes about food.
It's not everyone who dares such exposure of longing as, "Baking a cake is for me the ultimate symbol of a mother's love", or "Eating a pie is like being in love ... the whole thing tender as a bruise".
The title, too, with its rather sad double-entendre, illustrates how, even as an 8-year-old, his sense of emotional deprivation was both exacerbated and held at bay by his overwhelming curiosity about food.
Love for food is uncomplicated; love for the people in his life is easily disappointed. His poor mother is an indifferent to bad cook - the book opens with her scraping burnt toast; cake-baking simply "had to be done" - and, to his shame, the last thing Slater says to her, when she forgets to buy mincemeat, is "You're hopeless, I hope you die". By next morning she is dead of asthma.
His father, mercurial and happier with his salmon-pink begonias than with his disappointingly effeminate son, soon marries the housekeeper, who has "a mouth as tight as a walnut" and no fondness for Nigel. He despises her and, ironically, her obsession with cooking alienates him into a competitor for his father's affection.
What's unusual about Slater's memoir is its commitment to the child's point of view. Told as a series of short anecdotes, snapshots really, he never assumes the adult voice of experience or analysis.
Slater, the 8-to-18 year old speaks for himself and it's not always a comfortable voice. It has the self-obsession, at times the whiny tone, of a disappointed, judgmental child.
The adults do not come off in a good light, but he doesn't let himself off the hook, either. We are sometimes encouraged to laugh at this gangly, passionate child, for instance as he heads off into the woods for a bit of r'n'r teenage boy-style, carrying a Cordon Bleu, rather than a Playboy.
What emerges, among other things, is an extraordinary portrait of genetic predestination: Slater's in-born orientation always ensured that his was to be a life in food. His emerging homosexuality, his compendious recall of iconic brand names that absolutely typify the era of which he writes (60s and 70s) without providing any overt chronology, his attention to sensual detail - these are other aspects of personality that arise without comment.
Simple, unadorned, unsmothered, yet seared with honesty - in writing as in cooking.
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Reviewed by MARGIE THOMSON