War is hell. But it's also pretty crummy on the homefront — especially if you're a woman with few options (read, a woman) in World War II-era England. But what if you could cook your way to a better life?
That's the basic premise of The Kitchen Front, the third novel from Jennifer Ryan, and the third to be set in England during World War II. As in her best-selling The Chilbury Ladies' Choir, the story concerns itself with the struggles and resilience of village women, but this time around, the action revolves around a cooking competition.
It's 1942, and Britain is reeling from the hardships of war. German U-boats are cutting off food imports, and women are being urged to keep calm and carry on in the kitchen. That isn't easy when staples like butter, sugar, cheese, eggs, milk and meats are being rationed. (You know it's bad when even tea is in short supply for the Brits.)
To help housewives get creative with limited ingredients, the BBC runs a radio program called The Kitchen Front — hosted by a man. The Beeb decides the show needs a woman's touch, so it launches a three-part cooking contest, and the winner will become the new female co-host.
For the four competitors, the stakes are high (and the steaks, hard to come by.) First, there is Audrey, a war widow with three children to raise, a dilapidated home and a mountain of debt who is barely scraping by with her pie business. Also in the running is her estranged sister, Gwendoline, a snobbish social climber whose marriage to a wealthy factory owner is not all it appears to be. Then there's Zelda, an unmarried, London-trained chef resolved to claw her way to the top of a male-dominated profession — with a secret pregnancy that could derail everything. And finally Nell, an orphaned kitchen maid with more talent than faith in herself.
When we first meet our contenders, it may seem obvious who we're supposed to root for. But as the story unfolds, Ryan peels back the layers of her main characters like an onion, revealing each to be multidimensional, flawed but compelling in her own way.
The novel is structured around the three rounds of the competition. Each round takes place once a month and offers an opportunity for ingenuity and intrigue. (What can I say? Cheaters gonna cheat.) Ultimately, though, this is less a wartime version of Cutthroat Kitchen than what I think of as "the sisterhood of the travelling pans:" a heartwarming story of four women determined to make their own way in the world, who find unexpected friendship — and strength — in each other.
Though the story can at times dip into the treacly, Ryan knows how to keep the pace moving, with subplots involving a handsome, caddish chef, an abusive husband and a romance with a prisoner of war. The end result is a charming tale that will satiate a lot of different tastes: historical fiction lovers, cooking competition fans, anyone who revels in girl-power lit. There are even ration-era recipes for food history geeks like yours truly (though I can't say I'm tempted to try whale meat pie anytime soon).
Toss it all together and you've got a comfort-food read I gobbled right up. It seems fitting that I finished reading the final pages while chopping celery for mirepoix in my kitchen — this story had me so hooked, I literally couldn't put it down to cook.