Title: The Kitchen Front
Author: Jennifer Ryan
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: February 23, 2021
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
In a new World War II-set story from the bestselling author of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, four women compete for a spot hosting a wartime cookery program called The Kitchen Front – based on the actual BBC program of the same name – as well as a chance to better their lives.
Two years into WW2, Britain is feeling her losses; the Nazis have won battles, the Blitz has destroyed cities, and U-boats have cut off the supply of food. In an effort to help housewives with food rationing, a BBC radio program called The Kitchen Front is putting on a cooking contest–and the grand prize is a job as the program’s first-ever female co-host. For four very different women, winning the contest presents a crucial chance to change their lives.
For a young widow, it’s a chance to pay off her husband’s debts and keep a roof over her children’s heads. For a kitchen maid, it’s a chance to leave servitude and find freedom. For the lady of the manor, it’s a chance to escape her wealthy husband’s increasingly hostile behavior. And for a trained chef, it’s a chance to challenge the men at the top of her profession.
These four women are giving the competition their all–even if that sometimes means bending the rules. But with so much at stake, will the contest that aims to bring the community together serve only to break it apart?
The Kitchen Front is a fascinating look at World War II’s impact on the women and children back on the home front, who face not battlefield danger but the perils of bombing raids and food shortages.
Set in 1942, the story centers on a competition hosted by the (historically real) BBC radio program The Kitchen Front. The purpose of the program is to promote the creative use of wartime rations, aimed at British housewives struggling to feed their families when so many basics just aren’t to be had. The competition is open to professional cooks, and the prize is a co-hosting role on the radio program.
In the small town of Fenley Village, located not far from London, life is bleak for many of the town’s residents. While rare food items can still be had through the black market, most families get by on their rations and what they can grow in their own gardens. Everything can and must be repurposed, and the creativity required to actually make edible and nutritious food is remarkable.
The four main characters of the story are all very different, and each has her own reason for wanting — or needing — to win the competition. For Audrey, a grieving war widow deeply in debt trying to keep her three sons housed and fed, it’s a chance to finally get back on her feet financially. For her sister Gwendolyn, it’s a way to boost her bullying, wealthy husband’s prestige and keep his anger at bay. For Nell, a kitchen maid who’s finally learning to stand on her own two feet, it’s a dream of a life outside of service. And for Zelda, a Cordon Bleu chef facing sexism in the world of haute cuisine, it’s a means of staking a claim on the professional respect and opportunities that continually elude her.
As the four compete, they form bonds as well, and as secrets are revealed, they come together to form a new family and envision a future that benefits them all.
The book is divided into three sections, corresponding with the three rounds of the competition — starters, main courses, and desserts. In each, we learn more about the four women, and also see the different processes each uses as she invents and creates her dish for the competition. The book includes recipes for all the meals discussed, and it’s truly amazing to learn about the substitutions needed to get by on wartime rations. Who knew that the British government promoted whale meat as an alternative to beef?
I found the aspects of the book related to how the women on the home front used their wits and resources to feed their families really fascinating, and I enjoyed the picture of village life during war, the bonds of the four main characters, and the sense of sisterhood that ultimately makes all of them stronger.
Somehow, though, the overarching plotlines felt a little predictable and bland to me. I liked each of the characters well enough, but they often felt more like types than fully-fleshed out people. Maybe because the focus was split between the four, it didn’t give any one of them the opportunity to fully blossom as a main character.
Still, I enjoyed this book very much. As with her previous novels, especially the wonderful The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, author Jennifer Ryan uses her meticulous research to bring out the feel of the era, and in this case, to bring out the flavors of family life in wartime England. The story is heartwarming, and gave me a sense of peering behind the headlines of war to see the impact on the people left behind to carry on. A recommended read!