Trigger warning for brief domestic violence and emotional abuse.
In her note at the end of The Kitchen Front, Jennifer Ryan explains that rationing began in Britain in 1939 and lasted through 1954. Rationing included fuel, cloth, rubber, paper, and a whole host of food products. For people used to a worldwide empire of sugar, spices, grains, and more, women (mostly) had to scale back on what and how much they could cook. Privation and stress play major roles in this novel, as four women compete for a job on a BBC/Ministry of Food radio show, a job that could change their lives forever.
Set in Fenley, a small town somewhere outside of London, four women decide to compete in a cooking competition set by The Kitchen Front, the aforementioned radio show. The prize is to become the co-host along with Ambrose Heath (a former restaurant critic whose scripted advice makes it clear that he’s not the person who has to tuck into the spam, whale meat, and endless boiled vegetables advocated by the Ministry of Food). Ambrose will judge the women as they create a starter, main, and dessert out of whatever ingredients they can scrounge up. Extra points are awarded for thrift and cunning use of rationed ingredients. Recipes are included in the novel.
The first woman we met is Audrey Landon, a war widow in straightened circumstances. After the death of her pilot husband, Audrey turned her knack for cooking and large kitchen garden into a bustling pie business. She works every hour in the day and then some to keep her crumbling house intact and her boys fed. The second woman to enter the contest is Lady Gwendoline Strickland, Audrey’s sister. Gwendoline is a character readers will hate at first. Her inflated sense of self and ambition grated. Thankfully, she softens over the course of the book. Third is the ruthless Zelda Dupont, who worked at a London hotel until it was bombed. She might be the one who struggles most with the restrictions of rationing. She longs for the elegant dishes of pre-war haute cuisine. Lastly, we meet Nell Brown, who works in Gwendoline’s kitchen. Nell is a gifted, overworked cook who wishes for a better life.
Over the course of the novel, the four women start to realize that they’re better friends and allies than they are enemies. Once that process starts to happen, The Kitchen Front improves a lot. The characters are a little wooden at the beginning of the novel, with a bad and unrealistic habit of verbalizing their thought processes. One thing that is consistently good throughout the book is the descriptions of cooking during World War II. These range from frankly unappetizing (never reuse tinned sardine oil to make pastry) to mouthwatering (roasted hare in elderberry wine sauce) to transcendent (mushroom soup and a surprising croquembouche made with honey instead of caramel). I kind of wish I had read this book yesterday; The Kitchen Front is a perfect book about food and friendship.