Toast, performed at The Other Palace, is a stage adaptation of Nigel Slater’s memoir. It tracks his development as a young chef, and the story underscores the role food plays in our social interactions. It brings people together, and drives them apart.
The story of Slater’s youth is told through moments around the table and in the kitchen. It begins with Nigel and his mother baking together. It is not so much the cooking that his mother enjoys, but the time spent with her son in the process. She is presented as the ideal mother, and their relationship is happy and harmonious. All the more tragic then that during the first act, his mother’s heath steadily deteriorates (the illness is more obvious to the audience than to the nine yearold protagonist).
After her death, Nigel’s relationship with his father becomes strained, and sometimes violent. Mr. Slater remarries quickly, to Nigel’s dismay. At this stage Nigel has begun to take cookery classes at school, and is a promising baker. When he brings his creations home, his stepmother becomes jealous the praise he receives from his father, and she begins to bake in a competitive spirit. She bakes a glorious lemon meringue pie, and also some of Nigel’s mother’s signature desserts, in a malicious spirit. She is in fact the quintessential wicked stepmother—it is hard to say whether Slater has accurately depicted the woman.
Nigel begins to spend more time away from home, taking a job in the kitchen at a local hotel. There, he is encouraged by his boss, who supplants his stepmother as the nurturing force in his life. When, tragically, his father also passes away, Nigel has already developed the courage to move away from home and pursue a career as a cook in London. Food has become his solace and identity. During this time he is also coming to terms with his sexual identity and realizes that he needs to leave his small town to be accepted and find his own community.
The distinction between the audience and the players is bridged by food in this play: periodically, the audience is given food to eat along with the cast. The actors also break the fourth wall by interacting with the audience while sharing treats, which is a charming touch.
The acting in the production was very well accomplished; there were four actors playing various roles as well as the actor playing Nigel. The small cast really captured the personalities of all the characters. The mother portrayed very well the urgency of someone who knows their days are numbered, and who tries to make the most of that limited time with her child. And the staging was very professional. The set was highly mobile: what served as kitchen counters also served as a rotating dance floor
We would recommend seeing the play if you’re able; there is also the original story published in a book as well as a film adaptation.
To capture the essence of the story, of course we had to make toast. Mrs. Slater certainly isn’t very good at making toast but it’s the love and care behind it that is so comforting to him. Inspired by the dish Nigel cooks for his mentor at the hotel, we made mushrooms on toast.
Slater wrote a collection of mushroom recipes for the Guardian that gave us an insight on how to prepare our recipe and why the dish is so important to him.
“When I am asked (for the 200th time) to name my favourite food, I invariably mutter, ‘Mashed potato.’ In truth, that is more a comfort thing and has more to do with my state of mind than my tastebuds. What I should really say is, ‘Mushrooms on toast.’ But they need to be quite perfect; that is, cooked thoughtfully, tenderly and with almost obsessive attention to detail.”
Thickly sliced crusty white bread
1 tbsp. fine quality butter
1 tbsp. olive oil
2 sprigs thyme
2 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
5 cremini mushrooms, thickly sliced
one handful of salad greens; peppery arugula or watercress is nice
Flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Although this is a very simple recipe, have all of your “mise en place” ready. This is a professional term for having all your ingredients in their place, ready to use. Have your bread cut and ready to toast, your mushrooms ready to sauté, and your salad greens washed and dried. Get your mushrooms on before you toast your bread and try to time them to be ready at the same moment.
First place a medium/large sauté pan on a medium heat (You need enough room to have all your mushrooms in one layer). Drizzle your oil around in the pan, and when it is hot add your garlic and thyme. The thyme will crackle a little, which tells you when to add in your mushrooms. Give the pan a good stir, then let them brown for a few minutes before moving. Once the bottoms have coloured, add in your salt and pepper and continue to cook until the the mushrooms have released their liquid and then absorbed most of it again, remove from the heat.
As soon as the toast is ready, slather it in good butter “wall to wall”. Place a pile of salad greens beside the toast on your plate. Spoon the mushrooms and their juices over the toast; discard the thyme stems. Sit down and revel in the perfect piece of toast.