BBC Films' coming-of-age food comedy Toast, which is directed by S.J. Clarkson and opens at the NuArt today, might have trouble plucking heartstrings as effortlessly as it did when it aired in the UK last Christmas as a made-for-TV movie. In the first place, it's based on Toast: The Story of a Boy's Hunger, the best-selling memoir of Nigel Slater, a British celebrity chef, food writer and television personality mostly unfamiliar in America. Asides about Artic Roll and Fray Bentos steak and kidney pies that elicit heaving, nostalgic sighs from Brits will probably fly past unnoticed unless you've spent time in Blighty.
One genuinely heart-breaking moment involves Slater's fragile, asthmatic mother, a cook so ungifted she fails at heating canned braised beef and processed peas: She attempts to teach young Nigel how to make mince pie, pastry rounds which seems to hold great sentimental meaning and may (or may not) contain sticky cut-up fruit.
So Toast might not exactly succeed as a weepie in the States. It still works on another level: As we all know, plates holding crazy-looking things to eat from bygone eras, the kind that you see meticulously archived on websites like The Gallery of Regrettable Food, are hilarious. And Toast, which is set in the 60s and 70s, stars Freddie Highmore, Helena Bonham-Carter and Ken Stott, is wall to wall with retro culinary sight gags. So we contacted food stylist Katherine Tidy (Gosford Park, Four Weddings and A Funeral) to break down the vol-au-vent, the ham with glace cherries and pineapple slices and a bunch of items we couldn't quite recognize.
Squid Ink: Toast is a movie that rises and falls on the food. How was the job described to you?
Katherine Tidy: I had actually read the book. When it came out, my mother gave it to EVERYBODY for Christmas. She loved it. He's quite well known here, Nigel Slater. He's a national treasure. So when I went to meet the director she said she wanted to see all of the food from a child's point of view so it all should be slightly bigger, slightly over-emphasized, and the colors should be brighter. That was the concept.
SI: How did you achieve the intensely lurid colors?
KT: Food coloring. [laughs] I just made everything slightly brighter than it should be.
SI: In the film there is a protracted baking war waged between an insecure teenage Nigel Slater and his chain-smoking, trashily-dressed step-mother. The weapon of choice is a very tall lemon meringue pie…
KT: …[laughs] it was enormous. It was ten meringue whites on top of that pie. Mind you, we did all eat it afterwards. Get a fork and you could get round it. [laughs]
SI: Wait. The nutty-looking prop food was up for grabs?
KT: Definitely with the lemon meringue pie. They shot it several times with [young Nigel] putting it in and taking it out of the oven so I cooked it more than once. The first time I did it, they finished the scene and wrapped for lunch. So I thought, “I'm not going to waste it and put it in the bin,” so I just put it out on the table. They said, “We can eat it? We can really eat it?” Everything was always cooked properly, but sometimes it was cooked just to be shot. But the lemon meringue pie? Yes, everyone did eat it.
SI: Was there a dish that you offered up and everyone said, “Um, no thanks”?
KT: You don't necessarily want to eat crown roast at 10 a.m. But I'm sure if I would have offered everyone would have eaten everything.
SI: In one scene, Nigel Slater's mother prepares a meal by placing cans into boiling water. Was that common in England in the 50's and 60's?
KT: It was kind of like boil-in-a-bag.The point was that his mother couldn't really cook. He loved her to pieces but she burned EVERYTHING. I've never done that – and my mother certainly never has. [thoughtful pause] You can still actually buy steamed puddings in a can. The fact that you can buy them means that somebody is eating them. But I don't know who in the world would.
SI: There were many dishes that I'd heard of but weren't sure of the ingredients. Can we compile a cheat sheet for those who will go to see Toast?
KT: Toad in the Hole. That's like a giant Yorkshire pudding with sausages in it. I don't know why it's called Toad in the Hole but it is a very British dish. It's a kind of comfort food that your mother cooks for you when you're a kid. What else? Meat pies. Americans go “What do you mean MEAT PIES?” It's a very British thing, to go to a pub and have a meat pie. They serve them at football matches. It's like getting a hot dog. You can get them in London but it's more up north. It's very cold and they do serve them at football matches to this day.
SI: How does that even work? You're in the stands, pumping your fist in the air and bellowing soccer chants, with a scalding hot steak pie on your lap?
KT: It comes in a foil container. There's pastry on the bottom, meat in the middle, pastry on top. It's all encased. Meat pies, it's a weirdly British thing and it's kind of having a resurgence. Posh restaurants will do a posh version of it. I have a friend from L.A. come over here and he became quite obsessed with them.
SI: While your friend was in London did he also discover the fabulous porkiness that is all British sausages?
KT: We like a sausage, we do! My butcher is – I will give them a plug — Macken Brothers on Turnham Green Terrace in Chiswick. He makes them very good. They come in all flavors.
SI: We apologize for the digression. Let's get back to the Toast cheat sheet. Explain steamed pudding.
KT: Like a Christmas pudding. You know how you steam a Christmas pudding?
SI: According to the Internet, a steamed pudding is: a. A sweet dessert, usually containing flour or a cereal product, that has been boiled, steamed, or baked or
b. A mixture with a soft, puddinglike consistency. What's your favorite?
KT: I like something that's called Spotted Dick.
SI: Most of our readers will hopefully know that this isn't a Beavis and Butthead joke. But for those who don't…
KT: It's like a sweet sponge with currents in it and you cook it really slowly. It's slightly denser than a sponge cake. It's more like pound cake. It's called Spotted Dick because it's got currents in it. When it's cold, in the middle of December, you want a nice steamed pudding.
SI: What were your biggest challenge in terms of the food you needed to recreate for Toast?
KT: There was so much food in the movie that that was a challenge in itself. It was a low budget film so I didn't have an assistant. I did it ALL by myself.
SI: So you just cooked and cooked every day?
KT: I wasn't on set every day. But if I wasn't on set, I was in my flat making something for the next day or dropping something off. It was a pretty intense month. I live in London and they shot the film in Birmingham so they rented me a flat with a kitchen. For the scenes where they move to the little house in the country, we shot there for a week or so and they hired a mobile kitchen — a big truck with ovens — for me. So I was parked behind the house and I was cooking there.
SI: Again, you did this all by yourself?
KT: There were department runners. When there was a really big day for me, they'd give me the runner to help me do my washing up. They were great, all those girls. I don't think they were being paid much, if anything at all, and they were working their little sock offs.
SI: What did your neighbors in Birmingham think?
KT: I often wonder about that where I live in London. “What is she hauling in?” There will a procession of Victorian cakes going out of my flat and into the back of my car and being driven somewhere. This is what I do: prop foods for films and TV. It can be anything from all the 70's food on Toast to Tudor banquets or Victorian cake shops. Lots of different things.
SI: You worked on Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. What was the overlap between Tides and Toast? Do you have certain things you always make to fill a table?
KT: That was two very different time periods. There were some very large pies on Pirates of the Caribbean, but they were period pies. Sort of free-standing. Do you know what a pork pie is? It's not like it comes in a dish with a pastry on top. It stands on its own. It was all about spectacle: Look how rich I am, look how amazing my table of food looks. There were jellies on Pirates and I did do a very large jelly on Toast. I do like a jelly.
SI: Jellies as in Jello?
KT: I specialize in them more than anything else. I mean, I do anything, but I do very elaborate period jellies with fruit and flowers, 18th century things. And I did do a jelly on Toast, which was part of a montage scene and was over-sized. The little boy who played Young Nigel took one look at it and went [gasp] “Oh, my god. That's fantastic. Can I eat it? Can I eat it?” Because I'd done it for film set I made it triple strength so it won't melt and will stand up under the lights for hours and it was a bit rubbery. On his last day shooting, I made one that he could actually eat. His face, when they handed it to him, it was, “I CAN EAT THAT?” It was a good eight inches tall and seven inches wide.
SI: In Toast, there is a wedding reception with a long buffet of food. Can you identify that something that sort of looked like pineapple on a stick?
KT: That's a 70's classic — cheese and pineapple on a cocktail stick and you cut a grapefruit in half and stick them in it like a sort of crazy little alien satellite. I remember them from my childhood! That was another thing aboutToast — everybody would be going, [delighted gasp] “I remember wearing something like that!” or “My mother had something like that in her kitchen!” It was a complete going back to the 70's. That whole Nigel Slater book is about the memories of his childhood. So for pretty much all of us who were of similar age looking at the dishes, things like trifle and lemon meringue pie, things you don't eat when you get older, it was like looking at all of our childhood as well,
If you'd like a recipe for Katherine Tidy's very, very tall lemon meringue pie, check back later in the day.