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Everything You Need to Lead the Best Book Club discussion ever of The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan
Background Information for The Kitchen Front
The United Kingdom in World War 2
The U.K. was an ally of the United States and the Soviet Union in World War 2. The “Allies” fought against the Axis Powers, which were Germany, Italy, and Japan, but of course during the War nearly all of Europe was occupied by Axis powers, mostly Germany under Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.
The Germans were determined to occupy the United Kingdom as well, and to achieve this aim they bombed London for 8 months straight, in a battle known as “The Blitz”.
Imagine if you had seen every country around you get picked off one by one as the enemy moved closer. If you live in the United States, think about your surrounding states and think how you would feel if an enemy started overrunning your neighboring states, one by one, until your state is all that was left. That’s what happened to the U.K. in World War 2.
British Rationing in World War 2
Rationing in the U.K.
Jennifer Ryan explains the rationing system pretty well within The Kitchen Front. Each person had a certain number of points that had to be used when buying certain items, such as eggs, butter, sugar, tea, and meat.
For the most part, vegetables, especially those produced locally, were unlimited by rationing.
There was also an emphasis on producing your own food, but of course people in the country had more opportunities than city dwellers although every possible patch of open space, including parks and sports fields, were used to raise food, either vegetable or animal.
Travel restrictions would have made it difficult or impossible for people to go to the country to get food on a regular basis: public transportation was constantly disrupted, gas was rationed, and materials were not available to maintain even bicycles as the war progressed.
Rationing in the U.S., for Comparison
The United States also had rationing, but obviously there was less disruption to the food chain, in fact, the U.S. was assisting the U.K. and other Allied countries, which all suffered more damage than the U.S. did to their homelands.
My mother grew up during the War in the United States, and her whole life she had a horror of “hoarding” and did not understand the concept of warehouse stores. But she also told me her family also always had more ration coupons than they could use because her family had 5 children, 3 of whom were relatively young, and she said they always had leftovers: you didn’t buy what you didn’t need even if you had the coupons. For that reason, I always had the impression that rationing in the U.S. wasn’t as austere as it was in the U.K., and from the information I can find, it seems to me that in the U.S., it was more about equal distribution of resources than limits.
You can also find many reminiscences online where Americans living in the U.K. would share some of their food, such as eggs, with their British neighbors because their allowances, which they received through the U.S. government, were bigger.
The Unexpected Results of Rationing
If you are familiar with a typical British diet, and have any awareness of what many lower income people actually ate, you might have been impressed with some of the “creative” recipes used in The Kitchen Front. The British diet is starchy and fatty. As you will see in the book, they traditionally cook eat a lot of savory (meat and vegetable filled) pies and what an American might call a “turnover” (hand held pie). I didn’t thing the traditional diet was so big on fresh vegetables and herbs, so I was thinking that a lot of people’s diets must have improved. It turns out that I’m right: life expectancy actually rose in the U.K. during World War 2 for those not fighting, and infant mortality decreased. Wartime restrictions both taught people about alternative foods and cooking methods, and for the poorest, enabled them to afford nutritious foods that they had not been able to afford on the open market.
Apparently, scientists actually worked out the effect of food restrictions on the public, and they actually intended to make best use of their restricted sources to provide the best possible level of health for everyone, regardless of social class, which of course took pressure off of the health care system and other resources.
3. “The Kitchen Front”
The BBC show “The Kitchen Front” depicted in the novel was real even though the contest is fictional. Program creators realized that they did need a woman’s perspective since most of the people responsible for buying and preparing the family’s meals were female.
Who is Jennifer Ryan?
Jennifer Ryan is from England but now lived in northern Virginia, outside of Washington D.C. with her family. Perhaps her familiarity with the United States makes it easier for her to understand how to write about the U.K. for Americans?
Her novels are based on her grandmother’s stories, but her background as an editor of nonfiction books is evident in both her meticulous background research and her ability to infuse just enough, but not too much, information into her stories.
More by Jennifer Ryan
The Kitchen Front Jennifer Ryan’s third novel; her first, The Chilbury Ladies Choir is similar in that it focuses on a group of women left alone during World War 2.
Her second, The Spies of Shilling Lane, is also a friendship story but also takes a look at mother-daughter relationships on the home front during World War 2.
Discussion Questions for The Kitchen Front
Note: If the discussion falters, ask the group what they didn’t understand or what they “wondered” about. You will find out what the group is interested in.
Don’t rush the group through the questions or try to hit every single question, but don’t allow members to “take over” the discussion either. If time starts to run short, give the group a choice.
Finish on the agreed upon time so there is time for socialization after.
Opening questions for discussion of The Kitchen Front
Note: Try elicit as many responses as possible for the opening questions. If members participate with a “low risk” question now, they are likely to continue to join in throughout the discussion. No need to respond to each comment, in fact, doing so will undermine the discussion at this point. It’s fine to go around the room and get as many people as possible to share with no comment.
How do you feel about the process of providing food for yourself and your family? Do you enjoy planning meals, shopping and, cooking or not so much?
What frustrated you about the shortages during the early days of the Covid-19 Pandemic?
2. Discussion Questions for The Kitchen Front
1. The Kitchen Front is set relatively early in the entire war process in the U.K., where rationing lasted until 1954. If Ryan were to write a sequel to this book, what challenges would the characters face as they continue in their varied efforts to provide food and/or nutritional support as British subjects?
2. Hardships tend to create unexpected positives, often having to do with personal relationships. What positive changes happen to the characters in The Kitchen Front, and what do you wish we could adapt or improve?
3. Some of the changes the characters experienced during the War likely did become permanent or resulted in permanent attitude changes. What conflicts or tensions that affected these characters would be less of an issue in the 21st century? In what ways are these differences surprising?
4. What did you think when you read the recipes in the book?
Which types of recipes appeal to you, if any?
Are there any tips you might try for yourself?
3. Closing Questions for The Kitchen Front
1. After reading this book, what ideas does author Jennifer Ryan want you to take away?
2. What do you think you will remember?
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