The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

Innumerable titles devoted to World War Two have been published; many scholarly histories as well as inspirational accounts of the awe-inspiring ordeals, bravery and incredible endurance of those who lived during those years.

As the title suggests, The Kitchen Front is not in the above category. It is a story of life for young women living in a small Kentish village in the early 1940s. It is an engaging tale of four women in varying circumstances coping with the daily challenge of an England gripped by the limitations of ration books, restrictions and acute shortage of basics.

Not an unrelenting grind, however, the book is a spirited story of ordinary life and how a BBC competition is a diversion and a catalyst to their daily routine.  This is an England where for an adult to eat an orange – an extremely scarce luxury – was a crime and where whale oil was used to manufacture margarine to replace the strictly rationed butter. The smell and flavour of the substitute was universally voted ‘dreadful’.

We are introduced to life in Fenley, with Audrey, a young widow and her three sons. She grows fruit and vegetables as well as venturing into bee keeping. Hardworking, resilient but inclined to be quick to judge, she lives in Willow cottage, a rambling farmhouse.

Gwendolynne, her sister, is married to a wealthy abusive man. She is pretentious, selfish and superficial.

Zelda, formerly living in London and an assistant to a top chef, is now forced by her circumstances to be hard-headed and resourceful. Reluctantly, she is billeted in Audrey’s cottage. She is pregnant yet determined to return to her life in the capital.

Nell, the most endearing, is naive, humble and unaware of her innate talent for life and cooking.

In those wartimes, it was a constant battle to feed families with palatable meals when having to be creative with such daunting ingredients as powdered eggs!

The BBC aimed to inspire housewives by staging a Bake Off and in the process find a future presenter of the programme. This had been run by Ambrose, a dapper character whose recipes could feature, for instance, an omelette to feed four with one egg and breadcrumbs! Time for a change!

At each of the three stages of the competition, genuine recipes from that time, are faithfully presented, some with ingredients difficult to source now. They highlight how much these women strived to do the best they could within those limits, often being creative in their substitutes.

The romantic vein in a reader is well catered for with all four characters enjoying a happy ending. Nell finds love with a charming Italian POW, Audrey is reconciled with her sister, Zelda discovers a hidden depth to her feelings, and Gwendolynne makes a significant move to better her life.

Food is the mainstay of the narrative, with its ability to nourish, and in this case, create new bonds.

The spirit of the book is warm and caring. The competition, rather than driving the rival cooks apart, draws them together to become staunchly supportive friends.

In the final chapters, they are living together in Willow cottage – four women and the three boys. A modern household! War forced women to assume very different roles and allowed new freedoms and choices.

If there is one negative, it is the avalanche of descriptive words, particularly in the early chapters. Otherwise, Jennifer Ryan’s book, her second historical novel, will please many.

The Kitchen Front

by Jennifer Ryan

[2021]

Pan Macmillan

ISBN 978 152908 652 2

$32.99; 407pp

 

 

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