Best known for his memoir, Toast – both book and film – English author Nigel Slater is one of those food writers who really writes about a heck of a lot more than what’s on the table and in the mouth.
Take his stunning work in The Christmas Chronicles: Notes, Stories & 100 Essential Recipes for Midwinter.
His words grab you by the hand, as if to say, “See, this is how it is, how it was, how it can be.”
Reading during the pandemic years has challenged me, I will admit. My usual ability to concentrate and pay close attention to the printed page gave way to the anxiety of uncertainty and fear. With that came my increasing reliance on screens, geared toward short attention spans.
In fact, this turn of events – my short attention span – concerns me. And it turns out that I am right to be concerned. Why? According to literacy scholar Maryanne Wolf, deep reading enhances our brains in ways that scrolling and scanning screens do not and cannot. Author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of a Reading Brain and Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, Dr. Wolf sounds an alarm for the negative changes that occur when readers stop reading print and turn to screens alone for their reading.
The old adage, “If you don’t use it, you lose it,” seems to be Dr. Wolf’s message in an interview with New York Times podcaster Ezra Klein:
We were never meant to read. But what is amazing is that the brain does have this almost semi-miraculous capacity to make new circuits within itself using the processes that are genetically there but in new ways. So what the brain has is the capacity to make novel circuits. And the invention, the human invention of reading, required a new circuit. So the brain very gradually learned how to connect parts that were there for other reasons and made a new circuit that became the first underlying network for reading very simple symbols 6,000 years ago. But it was never the case that we were meant to read, which has real implications.
She discusses many aspects of reading and the neuroscience behind it, including her attempts to read Hermann Hesse’s Magister Ludi (The Glass Bead Game).
And basically, Ezra, what I had to do is slow myself down. I thought I was reading online and in print with the same immersive qualities as I had as an English major, but I had lost that. I’d lost my most beloved home, and I hadn’t known it. So it took about two weeks before I could get the pace necessary that would match the book. I found my home again. And then I read it another time.
Those words shocked me. I realized that’s exactly how it’s been for me these last several years. Truthfully, I cannot blame it all on the pandemic.
And that’s why Nigel Slater’s The Christmas Chronicles brought me to that home Dr. Wolf mentions.
From the first sentence, I fell into the trance that excellent writing takes me:
The icy prickle across your face as you walk out into the freezing air.
And I was off, memories of my childhood floating by me as I turned the pages. The window panes with ice a quarter of an inch thick on the inside of my second-story bedroom in Eastern Washington State. The hissing oil-burning furnace in the middle of the living room, monstrously black and as terrifying as any endless nightmare. The slippery stairs, all forty of them, meaning my descent to the street from the front porch challenged me to a virtual toboggan ride almost every December day. And even longer.
Although the subtitle suggests that Slater stuffed the book with notes and stories, and yes, recipes, of course, I found it to be a meditation on things associated with winter, the change of seasons, and the many ways humans deal with the darkness.
His meditative tone, to me, makes the book far more than a mere cookbook.
Slater imbues each section – arranged chronologically from November 1, or All Saints Day, to February 2, or Candlemas – with insights and informative asides about the food, including cultural commentary about places in Europe where festive winter dishes and traditions hold sway.
For example, regarding December 2, he describes a time when he visited Nuremberg for the famous Christkindlesmarkt. The Christkind, a young blonde girl, blesses the market, ending with these words, illuminating the reason for the season: a child:
You men and women, who once yourselves were children,
Be them again today, happy as children be,
And now the Christkind to its market calls,
And all who come are truly welcome.
As in a dream, I follow him through the maze that is the market, his words taking me right there, my feet gliding across snow-frosted cobblestones and scattered bits of straw. A whirlwind of descriptions, kaleidoscopic in scope, I find myself in the midst of the market, my eyes darting here, gazing at a thousand precisely-honed cookie cutters there, fingering wooden, hand-painted toys evoking the forest of Hansel and Gretel, stollen swollen with dried fruits once considered exotic, booty of the Crusades. Or at least the saddlebag of an adventurous merchant.
Like an Advent calendar, The Christmas Chronicles unfold, day-by-day, onto the season of Christmas. Best read in delicious snatches, under the thickness of a down comforter, this book will lull you into reading again.
It was never meant to be scrolled through.
Christmas Market (Shutterstock)
For a list of Slater’s book, check THIS out.