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.