The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan – a wartime cookery competition challenges four women in so many ways

The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan 

1942 was a difficult time for those living in Britain. Food and many other things were rationed or impossible to find, and nearly everyone had to struggle to put good food on the table. “The Kitchen Front” was an actual programme broadcast by the BBC which had ideas to help the mainly female audience cope with food rationing. In reality it began with a male presenter, and only gradually introduced female voices. This novel is formed around the idea of a competition to choose a woman presenter for the programme, and the four women who entered from the area where Ambrose, the existing presenter lived. For Audrey, Gwendoline, Nell and Zekla, the competition and prize it offers represent a whole change of life, an improvement in their various circumstances. This is a book of four women and the challenges that they face in wartime Britain that go beyond cookery, and how they try to survive. It includes recipes of the time, suitably checked to still work, and generally the descriptions of the food made with them made me wish I was more of a cook! The characters are brilliantly drawn, even if fairly minor, and made me really feel for them. The rural setting is beautifully described, especially in terms of the amount of food that can be found in nature. There has been a substantial amount of research into the food available at the time and much more, but the research never gets in the way of the story.I really enjoyed this book, and was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it.

The book opens with a description of Audrey Landon. Her much loved husband Matthew was killed in action early in the War, leaving her in debt, with a large house, three boys and much to contend with when others are also struggling. Happily she is an inventive and resourceful cook, and her large garden offers the opportunity to grow fruit vegetables and more to supply the local area, especially when baked into pies and other foodstuffs. Unfortunately she is estranged from her sister, Lady Gwendoline, after a childhood in which Audrey was favoured over her younger sister. Gwendoline is married to Sir Reginald, a successful if somewhat shady businessman, who seems to take delight in insulting her. Gwendoline has found some independence in being an official Ministry of Food demonstrator, and in many ways tries to criticise Audrey whenever possible. Nell, a kitchen maid works for her, with the guidance of Mrs Quince, a renowned and kind cook. Nell has become an excellent cook herself, though lacks confidence in speaking. Zelda is an excellent chef who until recently worked in a London hotel which was destroyed in the blitz. She has been sent to work as chef at St Reginald’s pie factory, but is desperate to return to London as a head chef in due course. When the competition is announced all four women decide to enter, hoping to achieve the dream job of presenter on the national programme. For Audrey it would mean the end of her debts and increase her self worth, Gwendoline could assert her independence from her domineering husband and improve her social profile. Nell would receive a much needed boost to her confidence, and Zelda would be able to achieve her ambition of a highly successful chef. While two of the women try some strategic manoeuvres, the other two just try to produce their best food. All face difficult challenges, and the outcomes of their efforts all hang in the balance. 

This is a completely captivating book which encompassed some fascinating themes including some mouthwatering food descriptions. I recommend this novel not only to those who enjoy female led wartime stories but also those who are interested in unusual and historic recipes