Q & A With Katherine Tidy: Buttering Up the Food Stylist From BBC Films Toast
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.
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.