Drama abounds in a fictional British baking contest during World War II from the author of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir.
Like many admirers of coziness and food, novelist Jennifer Ryan and her daughters share a passion for cooking shows like “The Great British Baking Show” and “Nailed It.” But such competitions are hardly new, the British author explains, speaking cheerily by phone from Ireland, where she is visiting family. Cooking contests were a popular way for the British government to boost homefront morale during World War II. Local contests in churches and town halls were “basically free entertainment” that could help people cope with food shortages.
A more high-stakes affair is the centerpiece of Ryan’s third novel, The Kitchen Front, in which four women from the village of Fenley compete to become the first female presenter on the BBC’s “The Kitchen Front,” an actual World War II radio program that focused on cooking with rations. And yes, recipes are included, ranging from a delectable French pastry creation with honey caramel sauce to a not-so-savory-sounding whale meat and mushroom pie. Ryan explains that a professional cook tested and tweaked each dish, some of which were adapted from Ministry of Food leaflets, such as sheep’s head roll. “I had to include that because, of course, no one’s going to cook it,” she says with a laugh. “But I was intrigued about how it’s put together.”
“I interviewed quite a lot of old ladies in the U.K. about their war experiences, and what absolutely astonishes me is how they look back on it with such a positive attitude.”
With her previous two novels, including the bestselling The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, Ryan has successfully carved out a prominent place in the saturated realm of World War II fiction. She likes this era because “it was a very empowering time for women.” Ryan began her career as a nonfiction book editor in London, then moved to the U.S. after meeting her husband, settling in the Washington, D.C., area. After becoming a mother, she experienced her own period of self-empowerment, enrolling in a part-time master’s program in writing at Johns Hopkins University, where she began writing The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. Her manuscript won a contest, and she quickly found an agent and sold the book. “Sometimes I feel like I still don’t believe it,” she says.
For The Kitchen Front, Ryan spent about a year researching and another year writing. “I interviewed quite a lot of old ladies in the U.K. about their war experiences,” Ryan says, “and what absolutely astonishes me is how they look back on it with such a positive attitude.” After all, she says, civilian morale was crucial. “The government knew that this was going to be a long, hard-fought war. They weren’t going to be able to keep men fighting on the front line if they kept having letters from their loved ones saying, ‘I’ve had enough here.’”
Alternating chapters focus on the different contestants in Ryan’s ensemble cast, which includes Audrey Landon, a widowed mother of three who fears she may lose the family farm, as well as her estranged sister, Lady Gwendoline Strickland, who lives a lonely but privileged life with her wealthy, abusive husband in a nearby manor. (Lady Gwendoline’s character is based on Marguerite Patten, whom many consider to be the first celebrity chef.) Nell Brown, Lady Gwendoline’s kitchen maid, is such a timid soul that she seems an unlikely choice for a BBC host. And Zelda Dupont is a Cordon Bleu-trained professional who is trying to hide her pregnancy.
Each of these four women is simply trying to “put a patch” on her problems by winning the contest. “By the end of the book,” Ryan says, “they’re reaching inside themselves to discover what it is they actually want.”
As was the case with The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, part of Ryan’s initial inspiration for The Kitchen Front sprang from her grandmother, whom she calls “the best cook ever.” Many of her grandmother’s funny stories involved her wartime experiences, and often food was involved. “Whale meat stories were her favorite,” Ryan says. One favored anecdote involved a friend who served a meat pie and joked with her guests in the middle of the meal that it was made of pigeons she’d gotten in Trafalgar Square.
Among the book’s recipes are Ryan’s grandmother’s wild mushroom soup, coquilles St. Jacques, curried salt cod, Spam and game pie, Cornish pasties, summer pudding and choux pastry profiteroles—one of her grandmother’s “signature dishes.”
“She had a very different way of cooking from my mother, which I think spoke an awful lot of her Second World War experience with rations,” Ryan says. “I really wanted to bring that out in the book, this passing of recipes from one generation to another—that tradition and ritual around cooking these dishes and the love that you put into making and sharing them.”
Despite the fact that she writes about war, Ryan is the first to admit, “I like uplifting books. I don’t like unhappy endings. I know it’s very uncool of me.” She confesses that she’s become addicted to “Call the Midwife” but says she needs to wean herself off the TV series. The problem, she says, is that “quite often it’s about quite traumatic things. And if I watch it before going to bed, I don’t sleep very well. Maybe I’m too much of a sensitive soul.”