In Praise of Food Dad, Nigel Slater
I was never the target Nigel Slater readership, really. Those salacious descriptions of ripe figs, bursting raspberries and plump, fuzz-bottomed peaches weren’t meant for a scruffy ten-year-old girl. When he wrote so beautifully about trips of the farmer’s market or to the cheesemonger, I doubt he imagined that prose would sustain the hungry imagination of a kid whose parents shopped at Lidl and heaped their bargain haul into cardboard boxes they’d salvaged from around the store. It’s telling that the single most magical food moment of my childhood was in the kitchen in my friend’s dad’s pub, when my friend heaved open a grimy chest freezer to reveal row upon row of portions of spotted dick in little plastic pots, two-litre tubs of Neapolitan ice cream and sacks of frozen chips. Could anything in this world be more wonderful, I thought, than a freezer full of pudding and chips? I can’t say my outlook has changed much since.
But still, as a child I feasted on Nigel Slater’s words. I can still reel off the chapter names in his 1998 Real Food as effortlessly as if they were old friends: chicken, garlic, potatoes, chocolate, sandwiches, cheese, ice cream, sausages. I knew even then that it was a rare thing to find an adult who could see as much magic in a plate of bangers and mash as a child could. Too often, we become desensitised to the everyday miracles that manifest in a cup of tea, a digestive biscuit, a lump of Cheddar furtively eaten because it’s too small to keep on grating. When I read his book, I fizzed with excitement for all the meals I hadn’t yet eaten. Dauphinoise potatoes! Chocolate truffles! What the fuck was Camembert? I didn’t even care. Everything felt bright.
Nigel Slater has been writing recipes for longer than I’ve been alive. His first cookbook, Real Fast Food, a collection of easy weeknight dinner ideas, came out in 1992. Real Fast Puddings hit bookshelves at about the same time, and was promptly followed by The 30-Minute Cook and Real Cooking. By the late nineties, he was a near-permanent fixture of British food television, taking to the screen alongside a bright-eyed Nigella Lawson, and he appeared weekly in the Observer, in a recipe column that he holds to this very day. It was an optimistic time – the Spice Girls were on the radio, Freddos were 10p. Into this hungry, hopeful food culture sidled Nigel Slater. He channelled all the queer-coded excess of a Bacchanalian feast, but in a mild-mannered, make-it-organic kind of way to which middle England could politely aspire. Simple, unfussy dinners formed the backbone of his canon, with sillier indulgences like ice cream wrapped in filo pastry clustered enthusiastically at its fringes.
There is thinly-veiled smut for some (on eggs and soldiers: “I’ve never eaten boiled egg. I’ve had a soldier or two.”) and confident pragmatism for others (“Taste continuously, and use your finger – it’s quicker”). He’s mischievous, too, listing as a “store cupboard essential” in Real Fast Puddings “a tube of Smarties,” for sandwiching between slices of buttered white bread. “Some people claim not to like Smarties,” he muses, “I think they are lying.” There are moments of kitchen snobbery, but they rub shoulders with toilet humour and references to Golden Wonder roast chicken crisps. He is enthusiastic and hungry and has the rare talent of being able to commit that appetite to the page without losing any of its urgency in translation. What a relief it must have been for an inspiration-starved British public not to be told what to eat, but to be asked, emphatically, as in the subtitle of his cookbook Appetite: “So, what do you want to eat today?”
But this appeal to appetite has confounded me for much of my adult life. When I first left home for university, I asked myself that simple question every day. I had the freedom to make those jam tarts I had read about and to buy things like salmon fillet and carrots with the green bits still on. But again and again, I drew a stunned blank. Nothing has ever rung so true for me as the moment in Fleabag where she says, only half-lying, that she wants someone to tell her what to do. But I didn’t have Phoebe Waller-Bridge back then to remind me not to outsource the interpretation of my own appetite. All I had was Nigel Slater. He was asking what I wanted to eat and I was firing back, before my stomach had even mapped the edges of its hunger: “What do you want me to eat?”
And so I ate like him. I studied his books in my room when I should have been reading philosophy and made half-arsed attempts at bringing his culinary vision to life in the grimy communal kitchen. I started a food blog which so clumsily aped his voice that for a time, it got linked to in an online forum as a kind of comedy resource in how-not-to-write-about-food. I once woke heartbroken from a dream in which we had been walking side by side, and he had let me rest my head on his shoulder. (I’ve been to therapy, don’t worry about me.) It wasn’t a completely fruitless time. At one point, I was such an accomplished imitator that inventing Slater-esque recipe names became a kind of party trick. The key is to list ingredients as though you have just magicked the combination from the universe’s infinite larder. So macaroni cheese might be – whisper it – “Gruyère, macaroni, the heat of cayenne.”
It’s good to know that even in this chaotic world, some things – the moon, the stars, Nigel Slater’s fondness for a bacon sarnie – can always be counted on.
It is easy to parody Nigel Slater. He is precious about things like beautiful ceramic bowls and ripe plums, speaking in hushed, awed tones about the virtues of visiting an old-fashioned local butcher. He wears his culinary allegiances on his sleeve: goat’s cheese, good; stock cubes, not so good; toast, excellent; online grocery shopping, dreadful. In fact, there was a time when you could pretty much play Nigel Slater recipe bingo with various permutations and combinations of cream, pasta, cheese and pork. In a move so audacious that I don’t think any British cookery writer will ever again come close to its gutsiness, Slater included in his debut cookbook five separate recipes for what are, in effect, ham sandwiches. There is the ham sandwich, the prosciutto sandwich, the bacon sandwich, the cold roast pork sandwich and the pastrami on rye (which I take to be in the spirit of the aforementioned, and which is thus to be categorised as a beef ham sandwich).
Slater’s culinary lexicon has changed over the years. In his newest offering Greenfeast, which is split across two books – one now, for spring and summer, and a second coming out in October for the autumn and winter months – you’re more likely to find a yuzu dressing or featherweight tempura batter than the gleeful stodginess of beef in a suet crust. The shift to a largely vegetarian repertoire comes at an opportune moment, with more of us are cutting back on meat than ever before. But that’s not to say that Slater has lost his distinctive voice. He opens one chapter in Greenfeast with the rather wistful, “Nothing comes close to a bacon sandwich made with white bread.” It’s good to know that even in this chaotic world, some things – the moon, the stars, Nigel Slater’s fondness for a bacon sarnie – can always be counted on.
This unabashed Nigel-ness – the refusal, point blank, to slip into a more Delia-style matter-of-factness – can jar. For every person I know who loves him, there is another who can’t stand him. But against the backdrop of a rich and violent tradition of food writers using their whiteness as code for clear-headed impartiality, I find Slater’s transparency about the deeply personal nature of his food refreshing. His Kitchen Diaries series, which embedded recipes in diaristic ramblings tracking the wax and wane of a culinary year, was some of his most engaging writing. His autobiography, Toast, rendered his culinary coming-of-age in a vivid (but delightfully seventies) palette of Walnut Whips, Fray Bentos pies and tapioca pudding. The most bizarre Nigel Slater misconception I encounter is that because he seldom does interviews, he is a “private” man. What could possibly be more personal, more intimate, than the sharing of the food we eat? His food is an extension of the very essence of him: a seductively tactile portrait of one singular, rather peculiar man, and his appetite.
Still, there are big questions we ought to all be asking about why only the most privileged are given the freedom to write this kind of book. Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat author Samin Nosrat commented recently on the dearth of food writers of colour celebrated as “general cookery” writers – a term itself mired in some troubling narratives about what is “general”, and what is “other”. There is a fundamental paradox here: it is precisely the food writers who most embody our societal conventions who can most publicly and profitably assert their individuality. For my part, I know that I wouldn’t be allowed a fraction of the freedom to expound on the joys of following your appetite if I were not slim, so entrenched is anti-fat sentiment in the food world. All hungers roar with the same urgency, but very few are given book deals.
My friends have lost count of the number of times I’ve told them that I’m done with food writing. I have quit over and over again, sometimes quietly, sometimes setting the whole place alight on my way out the door. I get angry that food writers, particularly cookbook writers, whose work is held up as a safe space, a refuge from the world, are expected to be apolitical. I get even angrier when writers happily comply. What does it mean to luxuriate in the minutiae of your own food preferences and predilections when the bigger picture is so very bleak? I noticed recently that Nigel Slater had put a little European Union flag in his Twitter biography, a few pixels of solidarity for which I was grateful, but which sparked in me a hunger for much, much more.
And yet, like an uncle you don’t entirely understand but cannot help but love, I find myself coming back to Nigel Slater, time after time. Just when I am questioning where I belong, I remember that he has written about the grounding effect of baking. I make a dough rich with butter and eggs and spice, and I knead it, and shape it, and bake it into hot cross buns, and I’m soothed. When I am sat alone one morning in a home that is not mine, he writes, as if directly to me, “I wake, early as ever, but at my lowest ebb.” One day, after weeks of numbness, I read a passage in The Kitchen Diaries III about meditatively spooning cooking juices over “a giant velvet-gilled field mushroom” and the hot, quick tears finally come.
Nigel Slater doesn’t have the answers to the big questions. He doesn’t even have the answers to the medium-sized questions. (In response to one Instagram commenter who asked him to draw up an itinerary for a Japan trip, his response was simply, “Sorry Helena, I’m not a fucking travel agent.”) But sometimes the small things are the ones that keep us going. Everything will happen when you least expect it. Until then, there is chicken pie, banana custard, peaches with orange blossom honey. There are Mars bars, lemon meringue pie, and so much butter-laden toast. There are chips, jelly babies, apples, pieces of fried chicken, fast-breaking dates, McFlurries, wedges of Victoria sponge. There is Nigel Slater. And there is that one diminutive, fundamental, life-affirming question, the answer to which is already right there within you, if only you can find it. So, what do you want to eat today?