Tuesday, December 6, 2011


This is a 2010 movie directed by cookbook author Nigel Slater whose work inspired me as I wrote the 'Care, Cook, Connect' cookbook in 2010. The movie is mainly autobiographical.

Like Nigel Slater, I grew up with a similarly reticent mum who spent much time in a banal kitchen. In comparison, neighbours’ kitchens were always alive and robust with the aroma of coffee in the morning and the industrious firing of the stove at lunchtime. But because my mum cooked primarily Cantonese food, aroma of any kind never really materialzed in our kitchen.

Perhaps every kitchen is an expression of the woman who runs it. One who is reserved and quiet will not draw any attention to herself and will carefully keep her kitchen activities quietly below all expressions of enjoyment, while one who’s energetic with culinary skills to match will make every meal time an overt expression of her talent and an event for the family to look forward to!

The young Nigel witnessed his mother’s fair share of kitchen failures – cake that flopped so badly that even elaborate icing could not salvage or conceal it, and canned food that dried up in the pot! Such scenes are also common sight in my kitchen where I lack not epiphanies and inspirations but the knack for timing and interest in the scientific processes involved in cooking.

In the midst of the adversities in her kitchen, Nigel’s mum was also battling breathlessness as chronic asthma tightened its grip on her. The movie was very telling of the psychosomatic nature of her COPD [chronic obstruction pulmonary disease] with her reaching for the inhaler each time tension escalated between Nigel and his hot-tempered father.

In one scene, when burnt toasts re-appeared on the dining table to replace Nigel’s first attempt at spaghetti bolognaise – rare real food to him for a change – which was rejected by his father, the forgiving young Nigel gazed adoringly at his mother and thought: “No matter how bad things get, it’s impossible not to love someone who makes you toast. Once you’ve been through the crispy surface and get to the soft underneath, and taste the warm salty butter, you’re lost forever.”

Helena Bonham Carter [the Red Queen in ‘Alice in Wonderland’] was the stodgy and formidable Mrs Potter who came to work after Nigel’s mum passed on and the kitchen came to a standstill. Complete with net stockings, she ‘scrubbed, polished and bleached her way’ into Nigel’s household and his dad’s heart.

The contrast of cooking talent between Mrs Potter and his late mum was hard to ignore in all senses – one could see, smell and be excited by the sight of Mrs Potter's food. It was her snare, trap and strategy to hit on his dad. Her flirtation was palpable - first with an apple pie; right from the kitchen that had only seen canned food and burnt toasts.

In one of the several confrontations Nigel had with her, the measure of her covert-aggression was obvious.

YOUNG NIGEL: “What are you doing?”
He was addressing her unspoken goal to seduce his father.

MRS POTTER: “I’m darning your father’s socks.”
She hid her real goal behind small issues.

YOUNG NIGEL: “Why are you doing it?”

MRS POTTER: “They have holes in them.”

YOUNG NIGEL: “I know what you’re up to…just off his socks!”
He stuck to addressing her real motive.

Finally, she revealed her candidacy for the spousal position with his dad.

That officially launched her open aggression towards Nigel…while looking good to the father in the process. So typical of covert-aggressors [see my book review for ‘In Sheep’s Clothing’]. Their war zone is the kitchen. Their ammunition – food.

Round 1: Nigel’s first success from home economics class were scones; after his father tasted it, the score was 1-0 in favour of Nigel. His father then declared that Nigel would take care of desserts on Wednesdays.

Round 2: The next week, he brought back trifle. But stepmum counter-attacked with lemon meringue pie and served dinner and dessert earlier before he came back. The father declared it ‘the best lemon meringue ever’. So the trifle was put away. The score now is 1-1. But he was determined to also make a perfect a lemon meringue pie.

Round 3: He studied recipes and spied on his stepmum for the lemon meringue, and finally, created one of his own. But once again, timing was not on his side, and his dad who rejected the perfect lemon meringue that he made. The stepmum accused him of stealing her recipe and threw a slice of the pie to the floor, triggering the father’s rage towards Nigel. He promptly announced that he and Mrs Potter were going to marry, and if Nigel didn’t agree to it, they’d put him into foster care. In concession, Nigel made the wedding cake: a conciliatory move that the father observed was a ‘lovely gesture’.

Meantime, the father’s growing waistline and lassitude from the war of food was becoming an increasing burden upon his heart – literally. As things came to a head, he pleaded with Nigel and his new wife, “Just stop it, enough is enough…enough fighting, enough food…this is miserable!”.

As his father wept in the front yard, and his stepmum sobbed in the kitchen, it was Nigel - now a teenager- who approached each one to show his concern. Finally, his father died presumably of heart problems while mowing the lawn.

Music and lyrics from Dusty Springfield provided powerful narrations for two poignant scenes.

Soon after his mum died and the dad had gone out dancing with the maid, “If You Go Away” provided solace for the grief that he could not express as he danced with one of his mum’s dresses.

If you go away on this summer day,
then you might as well take the sun away.

Then, after his father died and he decided that he could now leave the family home, “Yesterday when I was young” was the theme song to mark the end of chapter and the beginning of a new one for him.

The thousand dreams I dreamed,
The splendid things I planned…
Yesterday when I was young,
So many lovely songs were waiting to be sung,
So many wild pleasures lay in store for me,
And so much pain my eyes refused to see,
I ran so fast that time and youth at last ran out,
I never stopped to think what life was all about.

This is a beautiful movie, with beautiful songs and beautiful food.

Freddie Highmore [the adorable boy from August Rush] as the teenaged Nigel, is once again the linchpin of a story about parents and family. (There is a certain intensity in his gaze that bears an adorable resemblance to my nephew.)

*Warning: one gay kissing scene.

Available on DVD at Rida Video, Serene Centre.