Tuesday, October 02, 2007

And if young Nigel says he's happy...

I've long regarded Nigel Slater as our greatest living writer on the subject of food. In fact, let's scrub those last five words: I'm starting to get the feeling that he might be the best writer in English alive today, on any subject, in any medium or genre. He has an eye for the essence of Englishness that would make Orwell envious; his understanding of the lonely terrors of childhood, and the little things that might banish them, rivals that of Roald Dahl. And, without ever getting flowery or pompous, he knows how to do words. In his latest book, Eating for England, he discusses Marmite:

Savoury tar for your toast. As shiny as a lovingly polished army boot, saltier than a mouthful of sea water, stickier than treacle, and somehow the work of the devil, nothing quite polarises opinion like a pot of Marmite - even the advertising campaign plays on the fact that you either love it or hate it. It is sometimes used as the foodie's answer to Norman Tebbit's 'cricket test'. Though why liking or not liking a staggeringly salty, yeast-derived spread only edible in minute quantities should be a sign of one's patriotism is debatable. I am not sure the test even works, as I love the stuff beyond words yet I am hardly what you might call an Anglophile.

"Staggeringly". Exactly the right adverb, and a nice bit of alliteration, but it also tastes right. The agh! that even Marmite-lovers experience when it's spread just a little too thickly; it's right there in the middle of the word. Is there a culinary equivalent of onomatopoeia?

Then, on the etiquette of rice pudding:

The world remains divided on whether or not to add some sort of preserve to rice pudding at the table. For every person for whom a blob of raspberry jam or blackcurrant or black cherry in their pudding is a step closer to heaven (my father stirred in marmalade), there are a hundred schoolboys shouting 'Nosebleed!' at the very thought. Perhaps they are right to question the sullying of something so pure, so white, so gentle.

It's that last word that gets to the heart of things. "Pure" and "white" describe the pudding itself, clearly, objectively, but "gentle" expresses what rice pudding is all about, its emotional baggage, the comforting blandness that makes you want to sob with relief. Like all the best specialist writers, his subject matter is really a means to an end: when he appears to be writing about food, he's really writing about life itself.

And although he clearly enjoys food, and gets suitably enthusiastic about his favourites, he eschews the blokey breeziness that seems to be de rigueur among his contemporaries. At his best, his feeling for that uncomfortable emotional space located somewhere between memory and melancholy echoes Proust and Ishiguro. He's that good.



patroclus said...

Do I get points for identifying the post title?

Anonymous said...

Your post is spot-on, like his writing. I wonder if he'll venture beyond food-writing. Given our shared-obsession I almost hope he doesn't, but reading anything of his is an absolute joy.

Tim F said...

Pah, too easy, P. Damn, it must have been hell growing up in the late 70s if you were called Nigel. Or Gordon, Jimmy, Kevin... Oliver might have been OK, what with your army and that...

Thank you Silverbrow. Even if he were to stretch his wings, I'm sure he'd come back to eulogising mashed potatoes and slagging off Brussels sprouts. Why fight it?

West said...

All well and good Tim. But does he like his batter to "go large"?

I think Nigella just nudges him into second on the totty front as well. Although the question is begged; does the woman *ever* stop eating? We have a saying in our house; "...you'll be as fat as butter if you eat that..."

Must be a substitute for sex. If only I'd got to her before that bastard Saatchi. Or they were a bit more keen on having an open relationship. If only she wasn't the spawn of a hideous Tory toad...& C


Rimshot said...

damn, now I want pudding.

llewtrah said...

I loved his book "Toast" (found in a jumble sale). I'm waiting for the latest book to turn up 2nd hand so I can afford it. Unfortunately his newspaper articles tended to be horrendously snobbish. I mean, how many of us have things like duck legs or foie gras as leftovers in our fridges?

Tim F said...

Oh God, Ned, Nigel's well down the list on the oo-la-la front. You're thinking of Hugh Furnley-Wurnley-Burnley.

You shall have pudding, Rimshot. Spotted dick?

Oh be fair, Llewtrah. He also explains how to make the perfect chip butty.

Tim F said...

Sorry Bob, I called you Ned then. WTF? Must have dead Sherrins on the brain.

Momentary Madness said...

"......... he eschews the blokey breeziness that seems to be de rigueur among his contemporaries"
Who needs to be that good when you can send "Postcards form the Edge" with a simple been there stamp.
Y;-) de rigueue Paddy.
PS: Why did the French never win a battle?
They were more concerned about how to dress for the battle.