I originally read this memoir (London: Harper Perennial, 2003) a few years ago, and re-read it last week having watched snippets of the recent BBC4 dramatisation (I did not particularly like the bits of the TV adaptation that I saw, mainly as my memory of the book was quite different, a memory I wanted to hang on to).

I loved the book when I first read it, and enjoyed it even more the second time round.

The format is seductive. Almost all chapters have a food heading, for example ‘Lemon Drops’, ‘Sherbet Fountain, ‘Bread-and-Butter Pudding, ‘Fried Eggs’. But one soon realises that the subtext is not that of the comforting aspect of food. Rather, the narrative focuses on childhood memories, which are indeed food-related, but are not particularly happy rememberings, often the opposite, and are rarely suffused with a Proustian-like nostalgia.

Slater’s childhood, or how he chooses to delineate it in this memoir, was one punctuated by food and by mealtimes, over which clouds of silence, secrets, loneliness, and confusion hover in an adult world.

At the outset we are introduced to the author’s mother, and she features prominently in the first half of the book. In the chapter ‘Toast’, Slater speaks fondly of her:

‘It’s impossible not to love someone who makes toast for you.’ (p.1)

We share Slater’s sense of exclusion, and his increasing unease as he senses that something is not right in their world:

‘Nobody tells me anything. They talk in whispers over my head…’ (p.45).

The foreboding persists, and culminates in the premature death of his mother. I was surprised how little we learn of how this affected Slater emotionally, but then this is a book where feelings are not expressed directly, but circuitously. One does get some sense of his distress, albeit obliquely:

‘When your mum dies you notice little things more, like your senses are all cranked up a notch’ (p.114)

In the second half of the book, Slater’s relationship with his father, which was never straightforward, comes to the fore:

‘For all his soft shirts and cuddles and trifles I was absolutely terrified of him.’

Much centres on mealtime battles, on food, and time spent (unhappily) at the table:

‘Every time my dad feeds me he goes quiet, thoughtful, distant even.’ (p.89)

When his father loses the battle over porridge, Slater comments:

‘My father’s disappointment in his youngest son is so obvious you could put it on a plate and eat it.’ (p.89)

The tension created by silence, by the unsaid, is almost palpably sad. Since ‘my mother had gone’:

‘Every meal was seasoned with guilt. His. Mine.’ (p.110)

Slater’s mother is replaced by Joan, who speaks about him in the third person in his presence, and expresses herself almost exclusively through homemaking, cleaning, baking and cooking. A domestic goddess of sorts, who Slater never warmed to, or even really appeared to like, he admits to admiring her lemon meringue pie:

‘Joan’s lemon meringue pie was one of the most glorious things I had ever put in my mouth…’ (p.154)

and also acknowledges another Joan, hidden behind the making and the baking:

‘She is aware, I know, that none of my dad’s friends like her. It suddenly occurs to me that she is probably as lonely as I am.’ (p.185)

For the relationship between father and son, communication takes place through food, occasionally exhibiting a kindness that cannot be otherwise expressed. When Slater’s mother dies, for example, his father places two marshmallows on his bedside table. This nightly routine continued for two years.

On the other hand, he also tried to control who his son was, or might be, through food:

‘He always winced when I asked for fairy drops. ‘Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have some Brazil nut toffees?’ he said, trying desperately to make a man of me.’ (p.117)

I have thought much about this book, both when I first read it, and since my re-read. Food is so central to our lives, essential, yet also used as a tool, to hide behind, to disguise what can otherwise be too painful to express. The physicality of food concretises emotions, and has the potential to further confuse issues:

‘Without a word he stabs his fork into a slice of ham and slaps it on my plate. A hot wave of hate goes through my body. Hate ham, hate him.’ (p.33)

It seems as if the power of food goes beyond what it is. Perhaps it is a useful tool, at times. Not all can be expressed with words, and we do need other vehicles to channel our feelings and to facilitate how we connect. Yet we also abuse it, and give it a status that can distract us from the real business of who we are and what we truly need.

Slater’s childhood experiences clearly have not destroyed his relationship with food. His current TV series testifies to someone who truly loves food, and who also treats it kindly.

CQ

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