Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Food, glorious food

Toast, Lee Hall's adaptation of chef Nigel Slater's memoirs, is so called because that's what his mother serves up for dinner when her rudimentary attempts at cooking - rarely much more than placing tinned goods in a vat of boiling water - turn out badly. It's not something the young Slater has to endure for too long, though only because his mother succumbs to illness.

Her place in the solidly middle-class family home is usurped by Mrs Potter, a common-as-muck cleaner who firmly believes that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach. Despite despising this interloper who becomes his stepmother (a slightly miscast Helena Bonham Carter), Slater - who has already been yearning for the culinary sublime rather than the customary stodge - finds her an inspiration, spurring him on to pursue his own ambitions in the kitchen in an attempt to rival hers.

If Toast were a meal, it wouldn't be a light, low-calorie snack; on the contrary, it would be a heavy, rich, rewarding, slow-cooked stew. It's a sensitive portrait of the troubled childhood of a kid who was "different", certainly in the context of 1970s Wolverhampton, both in terms of his culinary pretensions and his sexuality, and who had to cope with the death of one parent, the emotional reserve and clumsy if sometimes well-intentioned actions of the other (brilliantly played by Ken Stott) and the jealous enmity of another woman.

Not that the film is entirely sympathetic to Slater. His snootiness towards Mrs Potter grates (even if it's motivated by a deeper resentment and attachment to his mother) and there are a few nods to the enormous sacrifice she has made in giving up her old life for the new, which is left in tatters by Slater Sr's death and then by Slater Jr promptly walking out in pursuit of his own dreams.

Toast is, of course, also a love letter to food - a celebration of variety and creativity in the kitchen, capturing that feeling of satisfaction and triumph when you remove something you've handmade from the oven and it meets with approving eyes and mouths, but also the joy in something as simple as a slice of hot buttered toast. Needless to say, it's best watched on a full stomach if you don't want to be in danger of drowning in your own drool. The lemon meringue pies in particular look sensational...

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