Functional Food Making in Toast
By Zishu Chen
Toast (2010) is a British TV film directed by S.J. Clarkson, and based on cookery writer Nigel Slater’s autobiographical novel of the same name (wiki). It tells a story about Nigel Slater and his stepmother (Mrs. Potter)’s culinary completion in order to win Alan’s (Nigel’s dad) heart by pleasing his stomach. The still encapsulates the culmination of their competition. Throughout the movie, Clarkson juxtaposes the two character’s relationship with the food to contrast their motivation for food making. Nigel is naturally drawn toward gourmets at a young age; his self-awareness and individuality mature as his mastery of food-making progresses. Mrs. Potter benefits from her extraordinary culinary skills to captivate Alan’s heart in hope of abandoning her working-class lifestyle. After Alan’s death, Nigel breaks free from home to become a chef and later, a culinary writer. Mrs. Potter, left with no one to impress her food with, spends her aged years alone. The distinction between Nigel and Mrs. Potter’s approaches to food symbolizes as a metaphor for issues of self-discovery and instrumentalism: the former evolves into independence and liberation; the latter collapses as a result of unhealthy attachment to utilitarian purposes.
Nigel discovers pleasure in toothsome food as an elementary school boy. He’d secretly read culinary books late at night, and sigh with voluptuousness pleasure at pictures of Spaghetti Bolognese. Nigel also insists on sticking to good taste, which empowers him to stand firm against authority and oppression. For instance, he refuses to eat his father’s nasty, half-raw cooking in faced with Alan’s physically violent threat, not even when Alan pushes him against the wall. A stubborn love for the delicious shapes Nigel’s self-identity in cradle. In high school, Nigel chooses home economics to make pastries every Wednesday, despite of the girls’ ridicule in class. By committing himself to this class, Nigel formalizes his relationship with food. It also rapidly advances his culinary skills, and gains him social recognition both at school and at home. Soon enough, girls crowd around him after class, eager to taste the scrumptious cakes and pies he makes. Even Alan approves of Nigel’s pastry by saying “It’s not bad. It’s really not bad. (Taste)” Gradually, food making transforms Nigel’s social identity from a quiet and plain school boy into a gifted cook.
Mrs. Potter takes care of housekeeping for the Slater’s after the death of Nigel’s mother. To the maximum extent possible, she embodies the adage of getting to a man’s heart through his stomach. As Mr. Slater starts to respond to her seductive signal, she bakes an apple pie for his supper, a forward move that trespasses the role of a housekeeper. After moving in with Mr. Slater in the remote Herefordshire countryside, Mrs. Potter feeds Mr. Slater with delectable food non-stop, singing “As we used to say in Wolverhampton, bon appetitie.” Noticeably, Mr. Slater praises her as the best lemon meringue maker. Indulged in scrumptious feats everyday, Mr. Slater associates Mrs. Potter as the source of pleasure, enjoyment and comfort, and soon marries her. Mrs. Potter’s dream to become a housewife in an upper-middle class household eventually comes true. Empowered by her extraordinary culinary skills, she writes her own story of upward mobility.
However, Mrs. Potter senses a dangerous sign of her dream being shattered as Nigel surprises Mr. Slater with his brilliantly made food. The lemon meringue in the still is Nigel’s master-piece after his strenuous efforts put into studying the recipe. Snowy white creamy meringue piles up on its top, covered by a baked, crispy layer; the lemon pie illuminates bright, lively yellow color; its texture is so spongy that it’s ready to jump into your mouth if you don’t take a bite. This lemon meringue pie announces a pinnacle of Nigel’s self-discovery driven by food. It has grown to a point of maturity where his culinary skills are capable of expressing his love for food. This spectacular culinary masterpiece also foreshadows Nigel’s future life trajectory. Up to this point, his individuality and competence sets him ready to make a living as a chef on his own.
In the same still, Mrs. Potter is examining a piece of Nigel’s lemon meringue with close attention and hostility. Alerted by its luring color and the tempting smell of sweetness and tartness in the air, Mrs. Potter poses like a hound ready to attack its enemy. Her nostrils enlarged, lips tightly closed into a straight line, her gaze tightly fixed on the pie, Mrs. Potter radiates an aura of tension, belligerence, and animosity. She clutches a coldness-beaming silver folk, full of eagerness to cut up that triumphant-looking piece of lemon meringue the charm of which declares her defeat. Mrs. Potter’s posture reveals her threatened inner self. Before the challenge from Nigel, she prides herself as the unmatchable lemon meringue maker, a role that represents her indispensableness to Mr. Slater. As a figure of power and authority in the family, Mr. Slater’s approval and affection signifies her erected status in the house. Therefore, Mrs. Potter interprets Nigel’s marvelous lemon meringue as a threat to what she has thrown her old life away to strive for. This insecurity reveals Mrs. Potter vulnerability, and forecasts the collapse of her life when no utilitarian end is left to for pursuit after Mr. Slater’s death.
In Toast, food functions as a device that takes Nigel onto a journey self-discovery. Across time, his identity as an avid food lover gets discovered, sustained, grown, matured, and manifested. Nigel is empowered by his love for food to become a professional cookery writer. On the other hand, food serves as an instrument to transform Mrs. Potter from a cleaner into Mrs. Slater. Recognizably, food gains her power to transcend her working class living condition; yet it can only take her this far.
Note: We need to be cautious not to have a modern Cinderella-like black-and-white reading of the film. It’s narrow to interpret Nigel as Cinderella and Mrs. Potter the stepmother (Holden). To critically understand characters, it’s critical to take their background into consideration. Nigel, born into an upper-middle class family, is financially secure to afford the freedom of self-discovery. And coming from working-class, it’s natural for Mrs. Potter to desire a life of higher-quality living standards. A moral hierarchy that tops food for pleasure over food as power tool is biased and limiting.
Holden, Stephen. “’Billy Elliot’ by Way of Kitchen, With a Pinch of ‘Sweeny Todd’”. New York Times 22 Sep. 2011: Movies.