World War II! Rationing! Making do in trying circumstances! From the moment I learned about The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan (Ballantine Books, 2021), I knew I would enjoy it. I’m fascinated by all things rationing (check out a review I did of a book about the subject, Make Do and Mend: Keeping Family and Home Afloat on War Rations, forward by Jill Norman) and have been ever since I was introduced to the subject as a young girl in one of my favorite books in the world, Back Home by Michelle Magorian. The Kitchen Front didn’t disappoint; it was as charming as I suspected it would be.
It’s wartime Britain, and the BBC has introduced a new contest on its show dedicated to helping housewives learn to deal with wartime rationing. The Kitchen Front’s contest is looking for the best rationing chef, and four women are desperate to win. Audrey is a widowed mom to three boys, struggling to stay afloat ever since her husband was killed in the war. Gwen, Audrey’s image-obsessed social climber sister, is hiding her unhappy reality behind an icy-old façade. Nell, an orphan-turned-maid, is scared of her own shadow, but cooking brings out the best in her. And Zelda, a professionally trained Cordon Bleu chef, will do just about anything to win – but will the secret she’s carrying ruin everything for her?
A ruthless beginning eases into something with softer edges as the women are forced together and begin to understand each other’s stories. Rifts will be mended, new bridges forged, and brand-new paths forward will appear amidst the strain and struggle of wartime. The Kitchen Front is full of charm, friendship, and the can-do attitude that gave British women the reputation for strength and fortitude of character that pulled them through the long years of rationing.
What a lovely book. The characters are all with their own personal struggles, but each is so determined to triumph despite them, that you can’t help but root for every single one, even when some of them sink to some truly low levels to win. The research put into this story is evident, with characters foraging for wild-grown ingredients, substituting local ingredients for little-known ones, and utilizing cooking techniques and recipes known to the era. (A few of the lines mentioned in the book, particularly about manner of dress for women at the time, I had learned just days before while watching episodes of Horrible Histories with my daughter!) This was very obviously a labor of love for the author, and it shows in her respectful treatment of all of the characters and how they came together in the end.
If you’ve read other books by Jennifer Ryan, I’d love to hear if you enjoyed them! I don’t read as much fiction as I’d like, and I tend to be kind of picky about the fiction I do read, so if you’ve got recommendations here, I’d love to hear them! Her The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle looks particularly interesting!