Grab a cup of tea and a scone, and curl up with The Kitchen Front, Jennifer Ryan’s positively delicious novel about four British women competing in a cooking contest during World War II. The winner will become the first female host of a BBC radio show called “The Kitchen Front,” which guides listeners in creative ways to use food rations. Ryan, author of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir and The Spies of Shilling Lane, continues to excel at creating warmhearted, intriguing homefront drama.
Both the book and the contest are divided into three rounds, in which each contestant must cook a starter, main course and dessert. The stakes are high for the competitors, each of whom yearns for the career-boosting prize. There’s Audrey, the anchor of the book, a struggling war widow with three sons, as well as her estranged, wealthy sister, Lady Gwendoline, who’s trapped in a loveless relationship with her abusive husband. Lady G’s shy young kitchen maid, Nell, is also competing, as well as a professional cook from France named Zelda, a single woman who’s trying to hide an unplanned pregnancy.
Ryan uses alternating chapters to explore each woman’s personality, moving the drama steadily along with brisk dialogue and action. This is very much a book about women’s rights, strengths and abilities, and the class differences among characters add drama and a dash of complexity.
Recipes are included for each round, some adapted from wartime leaflets. They’re fun to read, and each is well integrated into the unfolding drama. Readers are likely to be more inclined to try some (vegetarian Lord Woolton pie or Audrey’s fruit scones) than others (Lady Gwendoline’s sardine rolls). Historical details sprinkled throughout are equally fascinating, such as the fact that during the war, the moat around the Tower of London was drained to grow cabbages and potatoes that fed struggling Londoners in the East End.
Though the four contestants each face personal difficulties, endure shortages and fear bombing raids, their village of Fenley feels removed from the raging horrors of World War II. Ryan injects humor into their sorrow—as well as empowerment—as the group gradually learns to band together and pool their talents instead of facing off as kitchen opponents.
While The Kitchen Front goes down like a spoonful of sugar, Ryan manages to instill substance and plenty of food for thought in its creative and ultimately uplifting story.