Food in Films: Toast

2 Dec

A little boy peers longingly through market display cases at some larger-than-life Technicolor cheese and meat pies. He begs for fresh food to brighten a colorless landscape of mealtime horrors that his culinarily-challenged mother serves up.  This is the opening scene of the movie Toast, based on the memoir of the same name by British chef and food writer Nigel Slater.

Slater’s gentle, well-meaning and (ultimately fatally) asthmatic mother tries really hard, but her kitchen experiments are only destined to fail. Dinner routinely comes out of cans, which aren’t even opened; rather, they are plunged into boiling water until heated through. The one thing Slater’s mother can make is a perfect piece of buttered toast, which, for Nigel, becomes a beacon of love.

Try as he might, Nigel just can’t make himself understood. In one particularly humorous scene, you think his father has caught him masturbating under the covers. Turns out, the lad’s “pornography” of choice is cookbooks; he moans over the photos of all the delectable treats that are out there in the world but beyond his reach. His brutish father looks askance at his son’s delicacies as well as his perceived “delicacy.” He unfeelingly ridicules the first dinner Nigel lovingly prepares–a spaghetti Bolognese with parmesan on the side– and fires the handsome young gardener when he suspects his son’s first crush.

After Slater’s mother dies, some semblance of tenuous understanding sprouts between father and son. While still not overly affectionate or warm, father needs son and he throws Nigel some nods of appreciation. There is a tender moment when Nigel takes pity on his father’s tragic attempts at cookery. He buys some fish but accidentally incinerated it under the broiler. His father comes home late to a plate full of blackened-beyond-recognition-and-cold-as-the-dickens fish. And yet he insists on eating it and pronounces it just the thing.

The father-son bonding doesn’t survive for long; a destructive force is destined to darken the Slater door. With the introduction of the OCD perfectionist housekeeper Mrs. Potter (Helena Bonham Carter), the movie transforms into something of a Cinderella tale. Mrs. Potter is comically vulgar and opportunistic (more of a caricature than a character who is blatant in her true intentions as she cleans house), but man, is she one hell of a homemaker. Nigel vacillates between feelings of disgust and betrayal and grudging awe and admiration for the culinary feats of the declassé dame.

Nigel’s adolescent years are indeed painful to watch. His father dishonestly whisks him away to the countryside so that he can live in ignominy with his new wifey. Slater is ridiculed by the girls for joining the home economics class (although he ultimately triumphs in producing unrivaled desserts). He is mostly ignored by his father, who is preoccupied by Mrs. Potter’s smothering love. And then there is the showdown over the towering and somewhat-sinister-in -its-perfection lemon meringue that is Mrs. Potter’s crowning glory. She refuses to share the recipe with Nigel, who then takes up the challenge to recreate it on his own. But the victory is hollow when his pie comes together–his father refuses to take so much as a taste. He doesn’t have room in his stomach (or in his heart) for Nigel now that he is consuming Mrs. Potter’s food (and being consumed by her).

Nigel ultimately liberates himself after his father succumbs to a heart attack (it is suggested that Mrs. Potter fed him to death). He grabs his suitcase and gets to stepping (his theme song the  Dusty Springfield tune Yesterday When I Was Young). He talks his way onto a restaurant line (the chef who gives the young kid a break is actually the real Nigel Slater in a brief cameo),  and the rest, as they say is history.

While Toast may not be ground-breaking or particularly original (it pretty much follows the formula of the coming-of-age genre), it is heartfelt and at times amusing. And those who appreciate a well-crafted period piece (the aesthetic is ’60s-70s kitsch) with a soulful soundtrack will enjoy the ride.

For a behind-the-scenes look at the food in the film and some of the tips and tricks used (e.g., the notorious lemon meringue pie required 10 egg whites and scads of food coloring), read an interview with Toast’s food stylist, Katherine Tidy. To get your hands on her lemon meringue pie recipe, click here.

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