Jennifer Ryan cements her reputation for World War Two fiction about the women stuck at home with her third novel, The Kitchen Front. Her previous books, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir and The Spies of Shilling Lane, similarly threw together unlikely allies and mined small-town prejudices, keeping up appearances and the difficulties of maintaining anything like normal life when there’s a war on.
Ryan has a knack for discovering interesting story threads in the archives of wartime social history and memoirs. Here she’s latched on to the concept of cooking competitions that encouraged housewives to make rationed ingredients stretch further and items like whale meat (ugh!) which weren’t rationed somehow palatable. Here we’ve four main characters each vying for a radio slot on The Kitchen Front hosted by fastidious bon-vivant, Ambrose Hart.
Lady Gwendoline Strickland seems a likely candidate as she already hosts wartime cooking demonstrations in Fenley Village Hall. But she doesn’t get all that much cooking practice in, having all the trappings of a manor house kitchen, a cook and kitchenmaid. And a wealthy husband – a not very nice wealthy husband, but still, she’s got a lot of clout.
Then there’s Audrey, Lady G’s sister, who is toughing it out as a war widow, raising three boys and keeping the wolf from the door by baking pies and cakes that sell locally. She barely makes ends meet, and to make matters worse, she’s in debt to her sister for a mortgage on her home, the home she and Gwendoline grew up in. Without the house and grounds, she wouldn’t have the garden and orchards for her ingredients. So Audrey’s under a lot of pressure.
Also in the running is the Stricklands’ cook, Mrs Quince, one of the most famous manor house cooks in the country. But Mrs Quince is getting on and relies heavily on Nell, the kitchenmaid, who’s been learning at the cook’s elbow ever since she left the orphanage at fourteen. The two enter Ambrose’s competition jointly, and Mrs Q encourages shy Nell to speak up and come out of her shell.
The final entrant is London chef, Zelda Dupont. Zelda (not her real name) has always been on struggle street, but has worked her way up to be sous chef at a top London Hotel. When it’s bombed and she finds herself jobless, alone and pregnant, she winds up in Fenley, overseeing the staff canteen at a pie factory. Few know she’s in the family way, although her landlady has twigged and makes her life hell. If her boss finds out, she’ll be out of work too. Winning the competition could save her bacon.
The competition nicely shapes the plot of the novel and Ryan throws in lots of recipes and wartime tips for making those rations go further (Sheep’s Head Roll, anybody?). But really, this is a story about friendship and family, about pulling together, facing up to the truth and making a go of things. It’s a lovely, warm-hearted story, with a couple of villains you love to hate, and a touch of romance. It has that feel-good factor in spades, but there’s enough humour to keep things from getting mawkish. A charming, relaxing read, getting a four out of five from me.