Miss Graham's Cold War Cookbook
Historicals taking place in the WWII time period are among my favorites, and I’ve loved the fact that they’re experiencing a surge of popularity right now. Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook offers a glimpse into a unique moment of that era, examining just how the Allies handled the immediate aftermath of victory.
Edith Graham was living a double life long before she became a double agent. All through the war she was a modern language teacher during the day and in the evenings came home to care for her overbearing mother. But on her trips to visit a non-existent school friend in London she became Stella Snelling, a more glamorous version of herself who wore silk, had a lover named Leo and was a popular cookery correspondent, dishing out advice on how to make delicious meals out of meagre rations.
Once the Allied victory is achieved, Edith realizes that her time as Stella will be coming to an end and impulsively applies for a position at the British Control Commission, which oversees one of the occupation zones. Her fluent German and teaching experience quickly earn her a spot on the team. As part of The Commission, Edith will work in Germany, helping rebuild the shattered nation’s school system. But she is also drafted by Leo, who is in the Secret Service. Back in their younger days both Leo and Edith had been close friends with Sturmbannführer Kurt von Stavenow, once a student at Oxford and now a wanted war criminal. Leo needs her to find Kurt, so he can be integrated into a hush-hush British weapons facility.
Leo isn’t the only one who recruits her. Former SOE F Section intelligence officer Vera Atkins is looking for an ally in Germany, someone who will inform her when wanted war criminals such as SS Officer Stavenow are found. Vera’s (very legitimate) fear is that between Operations Haystack (Britain) and Paperclip (United States), men responsible for killing thousands of innocent civilians and dozens of British agents will be repatriated into allied nations without repercussions because of their useful scientific and strategic knowledge.
Edith concurs wholeheartedly with Vera’s desire for justice and agrees to pass information to her while limiting what she sends to Leo. This will help Vera’s team bring the Nazi officers to justice before Leo’s team can erase their war histories while benefiting from their expertise. Needing a way to communicate that won’t tip off her handlers to her new loyalties, Edith offers up the idea of using recipes as a code for hidden messages. She will embed any crucial intelligence she finds within cooking instructions she sends to her close friend Dori, another of Vera’s agents. Dori and Vera warn her that the work will be dangerous. Collaborators, black marketeers, and communist agents all abound in Germany and many are working hard to help former Nazis forge new identities but Edith is excited about the task and confident she is up for the challenge.
Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook is what I call a ‘night stand book’. The story is interesting enough that while the novel is in your hand, you will be engaged in what is happening. The pacing is leisurely enough, though, that you will find yourself easily setting it down when it is time to fall asleep. Not much actually happens in its five hundred plus pages. It’s mostly conversations – talks between friends, talks between adversaries, talks between lovers. Until the last few chapters there is very little action.
In some ways, Edith is the ideal heroine for this meandering narrative. Her calm, rational demeanor is a perfect complement for the silent, treacherous war being waged in Germany after peace has been declared. As new alliances are forged, new rivalries and priorities emerge and she deftly weaves her way through this political conundrum, remaining true to her own morals rather than allowing either Leo or Vera to fully sway her to their own far more cryptic plans.
However, I had some issues with Edith, too. She received no training in espionage at any point in the novel but through the magic of fiction, accomplished more than most professionals did. She stumbles across crucial information with ease. She and Dori are able to work out a code in one night that professionals couldn’t crack. She develops her own network of reliable, devoted helpers within a month of landing on German shores. She slips through numerous attempts to kill her with little difficulty and only minor injuries.
Yet she is naive enough to fall for simple tricks. She never asks questions about precisely how critical information came to her or why certain people always seem to know where she is. Most importantly, the whole setup of “Stella Snelling” appears at only the beginning and end of the book. Edith doesn’t use her alter-ego while working as a spy in Germany and I found that both frustrating and confusing. An ability to disguise herself and use an alternate persona seemed to be the only talent for subterfuge she initially had but it is never utilized during a time when it would seem natural for it to be.
The secondary characters, with the exception of Dori, are never fully developed and Leo especially could have used some depth. The text presents him simply as a shallow, mildly charming, deeply coercive, opportunistic sod – which might have been sufficient had Edith not been his lover at various points in her life. I was left wondering what exactly had drawn her to him. I struggled with the contrast between her seeming ability to readily spot the “bad hats” in Germany and her inability to spot the troublesome people in her own life. I also wondered why the fierce, talented, driven Dori wasn’t the heroine of this book. Intelligent, and a skilled agent, she would have made for a more interesting lead character.
One area of the novel which shone with a nuanced, detailed presentation was the setting. Germany after the war is devastated; its cities are in ruins, the country is being torn asunder by various Allied factions, the people are starving, the children homeless and without clothes to protect them from the brutal winter or food to fill out their emaciated frames. It is easy to pity them but the author also skillfully blends stories of the war atrocities committed by the Nazis into her text, which set up a contrast between the past horrors and present difficulties.
Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook won’t be a good fit for all readers but if you are someone who enjoys long, leisurely reads and who can swallow your suspension of disbelief and simply sit back and enjoy a story, it may be perfect for you.