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British World War 2 Home Cooking on the Rations and Jennifer Ryan’s “The Kitchen Front”

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Geoff Charles via National Library of Wales, public domain

The Kitchen Front is a light, enjoyable read for times when you want to learn a little something but don’t want to mentally tax yourself too much. 

The opening situation struck me as a bit implausible, but Ryan managed to get me interested enough in the different characters that I didn’t really care: Four women in one particular village in England compete to win a place as a co-host on a BBC radio talk show during World War 2.  Since the subject of the talk show is cooking under the rationing system, the BBC wants a female cohost, and they decide to run a contest to see who wins. 

Once I got past the beginning, Ryan manages to pull of some surprises that aren’t TOO far fetched. They are a bit contrived, but even I was charmed by the themes of the novel, which center on working together to make the best of wartime conditions.  The female characters are engaging and reasonably developed.  The male characters are a bit one dimensional and somewhat clichéd, but men are beside the point in this novel anyway.   

Jennifer Ryan also pulls off the somewhat unlikely feat, in my American opinion, of making British cuisine sound appealing.  It’s ironic that inventiveness fueled by wartime restrictions on almost everything but plant based foods, and the meat and dairy that individuals can produce privately, is what drives some of the mouthwatering concoctions in this book.   

And that almost every chapter includes a recipe is a happy bonus. 

This novel also brings home exactly how difficult life was for British citizens was during the war…long after it, in fact, since food rationing continued into the early ‘50’s in the UK.  I also had not realized how close their society got to practices I associate with communism: young women were conscripted (drafted) to work on farms or factories, and workers could be billeted into your home without your permission.  And all the while, people are watching the sky because of the constant German bombing.   

Things were much less difficult in North America. 

Jennifer Ryan’s background is as a nonfiction book editor, and her short afterword explains the research she did in the U.K. by studying archives and interviewing people in the U.K.  The story is invented but is historically accurate in that there was a cooking show for which a female presenter was purposefully brought in, and, in addition, contests of all kinds were popular, especially earlier in the war when things weren’t going well, as easy morale boosters for the public.   

While the historical accuracy of the book is evident, Ryan does a good job with restraining the “historical” so that it doesn’t interfere with the “fiction”, an issue that’s often a struggle in similar books. 

The Kitchen Front is a great choice when you want a relaxing summer read that gives you a chance to learn something and leaves you feeling a little bit better about the world.

It’s a great book club pick because there’s something for everyone: it’s well written enough to satisfy the picky readers, educational, practical (interesting recipes), and short enough for busy folk to get through.

For more background information, discussion questions, and Ryan’s other books, check out our book club guide. If you liked The Kitchen Front and want more, check out our related books list!

 

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