The Kitchen Front
Kent, 1942 — the war rages on and the rural villages under the path of Hitler’s blitz on London are starting to feel the grip of food insecurity. The Dig for Britain campaign is in full swing and rationing is the only way to get meat, butter, and eggs unless you have a farm. This period was resplendent with contests and competitions to keep up people’s spirits and share advice on how to make the best out of limited resources.
In The Kitchen Front, The women of Fenley Village are encouraged to show off their best recipes and win a spot as an on-air radio host demonstrating their skills in the kitchen.
Ryan offers four contestants as her protagonists, and the story moves around to cover each of their points of view. First, Audrey the widow with three children, is trying to scrape by with a pie business and a mountain of debt. Her estranged sister Gwendoline has become the lady of the manor and doesn’t let anybody forget it. Gwendoline’s cook; the shy, mousy Nell aspires to become more than a maid and enters the contest under the guidance of her mentor, head cook Mrs, Quince. Finally, Zelda Dupont, a London chef concealing a pregnancy, adds a nice dose of ego and attitude to the mix.
The story is charming and heart-warming, but the characters and parts of the plot all feel a bit cliche — we’ve seen many similar women in stories such as the TV series Home Fires, and even with some appropriate plot twists there is nothing that stands out in terms of offering a unique narrative. Each character act as an antagonist for the others, both in terms of the contest and their general lives.
The food writing is probably the best part of The Kitchen Front, both in terms of Ryan’s beautiful detailed prose describing dishes and techniques, and in the inclusion of period recipes based on ration details of the time.
Despite the obvious cliches, each character grows and develops throughout the story and the ending is satisfactory, if a little easy and pandering, and not in any way surprising. You really can’t beat the “three generations of women” formula. But if you’re just looking for a feel-good novel about women’s relationships within a historical context, The Kitchen Front should fit the bill. Similar to Home Fires, I would absolutely watch this as a movie or mini-series.