From the publisher:
From the bestselling author of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir comes an unforgettable novel of a BBC-sponsored wartime cooking competition and the four women who enter for a chance to better their lives.
Two years into World War II, Britain is feeling her losses: The Nazis have won battles, the Blitz has destroyed cities, and U-boats have cut off the supply of food. In an effort to help housewives with food rationing, a BBC radio program called The Kitchen Front is holding a cooking contest—and the grand prize is a job as the program’s first-ever female co-host. For four very different women, winning the competition would present a crucial chance to change their lives.
For a young widow, it’s a chance to pay off her husband’s debts and keep a roof over her children’s heads. For a kitchen maid, it’s a chance to leave servitude and find freedom. For a lady of the manor, it’s a chance to escape her wealthy husband’s increasingly hostile behavior. And for a trained chef, it’s a chance to challenge the men at the top of her profession.
These four women are giving the competition their all—even if that sometimes means bending the rules. But with so much at stake, will the contest that aims to bring the community together only serve to break it apart?
This book is a heartwarming story about four women living in a small village a couple of years into World War II. The main character is Audrey Landon, a young woman widowed by the was and left with three small boys. After inheriting her family home, at least she has a roof over their head, crumbling though it is.
Audrey’s estranged sister, Lady Gwendoline Strickland, likes lording it over everyone in town. Always resentful of Audrey and how their mother favored her down to leaving her the house, Gwendoline deigns to loan Audrey some money so she can fix things up a bit. Gwendoline seems to have everything, a wealthy, powerful husband, a large estate, and some power herself – she is in charge of billeting displaced people into homes in the neighborhood. Including her sister’s home, where she sends a pregnant woman, Zelda Dupont.
Zelda is a chef who had an affair with her boss, but he had no interest in continuing it. He was a con man and a player, but she has to deal with the realities of her life. She tries hiding her pregnancy for as long as she can as she knows she will lose her job as head chef of the mess at the local factory, also owned by Strickland.
Nell is the young kitchen maid at the Strickland home, working under Mrs. Quince, the cook. Nell is gifted in the kitchen and Mrs. Quince becomes a mother figure to her. Orphaned at a young age, Nell grew up in an orphanage until she was sent to work at the estate.
These four women all end up competing in a cooking contest put on by the BBC (the forerunner of the Great British Bakeoff!) There was a real radio program called The Kitchen Front, and in this story the program sponsors a contest to get a professional cook to help out. The goal of the show is to help the housewives who are all struggling with rations, severe food shortages, and black market food. The radio show provides recipes and tips, like using all the vegetable scraps to make soup, and promoting canned foods like SPAM and sardines.
Audrey is more housewife than pro, but she’s been supporting her family by baking pies and things and selling them to local businesses. She also has a kitchen farm outside her door and has laying chickens, so is much better off than many others.
The competition between the women doesn’t seem very fierce, other than Lady Gwendoline’s husband is pushing her to win by any means possible. There is something going on in that marriage and it isn’t good.
Eventually, the women form friendships and as the war goes on, they find struggling together is much better than struggling alone. These characters were all likeable, even Lady Gwendoline eventually shows a more human side. The food history (and recipes) are fascinating, even if I wouldn’t make any of them. This was a different look at WWII from the perspective of England’s housewives, and a very interesting, compelling read. If you like historical fiction and food fiction, then this is your book; it certainly was mine.
4/2021 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch
THE KITCHEN FRONT by Jennifer Ryan. Ballantine Books (February 23, 2021). ISBN: 978-0593158807. 416 pages.