The Kitchen Front
The Kitchen Front is a soapy, engrossing book in which the narrative follows a cooking contest held during World War II. But a few plot choices meant it didn’t quite reach DIK status.
They come from a variety of backgrounds, but they all want one thing – to win a contest that will allow them to become the co-host of a popular BBC radio program called The Kitchen Front, which passes on recipes, tips and tricks for expanding the repertoires of ration-hampered wartime cooks.
First is hardscrabble but judgmental Audrey Landon, mother of three boys, a working class wife whose artist husband became a pilot in the RAF and was killed in action. Even though she has no professional cooking experience, she’s encouraged to enter the contest by her enthusiastic and somewhat shell-shocked children, seeing it as a way to pay off her late husband’s debts and secure their house from the clutches of the tax man.
Her sister, Lady Gwendoline Strickland, is a little snobby, a lot lonely, and completely abused by her cruel husband. She married into the upper class and is fabulously wealthy but has paid for it with a cold marriage; she has a plan to bring attention to her husband’s position in the Ministry of Agriculture and to put on a proud and charitable good face by winning the contest and working with various social groups. She’s long resented Audrey for being their mother’s favorite, and thus has no compunction about beating Audrey in the competition, effectively taking money out of her sister’s pocket and food from her nephews’ mouths. Gwendoline is no chef herself, but she knows how to put on an appearance – and can always get her own cooks to put forward their work as hers.
Or so she thinks. Mousey, clumsy Nell Brown works as a maid at Fenley Hall, where Gwendoline lives, and her yearning to change her circumstances draws her to the contest. Planning to team with Fenley Hall’s head cook, the grandmotherly Mrs. Quince, Nell learns and grows under her tutelage and begins to dream of a life away from Fenley Hall’s kitchens.
And then there’s sharp-tongued, pregnant but unmarried Zelda Dupont, the head chef at the cantine of the Strickland’s “Rations Efficient” pie factory. Planning to give birth, give up the child and move on with her life, she wants to live in London, and the contest’s fat fees and guaranteed job will do nicely to start her on that path. After her mother threw her out, she worked in a number of lowly, menial positions, working her way up through the ranks to become a celebrated chef, and she’ll be damned if she’s going to go back. Zelda thus seeks to beat the competition by any means necessary.
These women – good and ruthless, bad and generous – find their already linked lives intertwining ever more closely as the months go by and they prep for the contest. As time passes, Zelda develops an attachment to Audrey, Nell comes of age and falls in love with a PoW, Audrey and Gwendoline’s relationship begins to mend, and Gwendoline finds self-worth in a new job. But who will win the BBC job, and what will happen to the women left behind?
I liked all of the different women in this book, though – for different reasons, and in different ways. Poor Nell definitely attracted the lion’s share of my sympathy, but brittle Zelda and Audrey’s mother love also made me like them.
The way the book delves into Wartime cooking – both the way chefs were limited by their rations and the way modern conveniences were transforming the way old-world recipes were made – is fabulously interesting. The recipe index includes a receipt for a boiled sheep’s head sandwich roll and a mock-marzipan cake that uses soya flour. That is ingenious. The rest of the research Ryan has done into the period is great too.
However, I really didn’t like the way Ryan handles Zelda’s pregnancy with a trite and pat sentiment. Sometimes sisterhood can’t fix anything – can’t make a woman a mother if in her soul she doesn’t want to be. In fact, the whole ending is too chirpy and pat and it really needed a bit more grit. It borders upon syrupy triteness.
The Kitchen Front is an excellent examination of the different lives lived by women on the British home front, and is only marred by a simplistic rah-rah ending that does a disservice to the book at large. To wrap everything up in simplistic sentiments after the realistic portraits that guide the first half of the book is rather disappointing. But otherwise, it’s an excellent piece of World War II fiction, and a fine way to spend an afternoon.