Wednesday, January 12, 2022

The Kitchen Front - Jennifer Ryan

Summary: 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.  

(Summary from book - Image from

My Review:  The Kitchen Front tells the story of four very different women, each desperate to win a cooking competition in an England ravaged by World War II and a food economy crippled by shortages.  The winner will be cast as the first female co-host of The Kitchen Front, a popular radio show that helps families throughout England make the most of their war rations with creative cooking tips. For Mrs. Audrey Landon, a war widow working her fingers to the bone as creditors loom, winning would mean the ability to feed her family and fix their crumbling home.  For Lady Gwendolyn Strickland, the ambitious mistress of Fenley Hall, winning means finally getting the recognition and respect she so desperately craves from society and, especially, her tyrannical husband.  For Miss Nell Brown, overworked kitchen maid and cook-in-training, winning means a chance at a different kind of life than the path of loneliness and servitude laid out in front of her.  Finally, for Miss Zelda Dupont, a Le Cordon Bleu trained chef who fled London after a failed relationship (and the Blitz), winning means the kind of notoriety that can secure her the position of head chef in a fancy restaurant.  As the competition gets underway, each woman adopts a different strategy for winning (some a bit sketchier than others).  Over the course of the book, the lives of these four women intersect and entwine in unexpected ways, yet there can be only one winner.

The Kitchen Front has a nostalgic atmosphere, creative characters, and some truly mouthwatering culinary descriptions. I loved the overall concept of the story and the feel of it; think Call the Midwife but with cooking! The women come from different walks of life and it was interesting to watch them become increasingly connected as the story progressed.  I felt a growing connection with them as well, to the point that it was hard to know who to root for in the competition.  The author also weaves in important details, including historical information, with an emphasis on women's issues and common socioeconomic struggles. I enjoyed learning about aspects of history that I'd never spent much time considering (e.g. war rationing, the culinary black market, the lives of those who benefited from the war, etc.).  Thankfully, I didn't feel like I was reading a textbook. Rather, it felt like I was getting to experience a slice of history within the context of an entertaining story.  

Another aspect of the book that I truly enjoyed was the author's culinary descriptions. Nearly every time food came up in the story, I was salivating.  Needless to say, it made me want to eat everything in sight.  You've been warned.  If something sounds particularly delicious, never fear.  The Kitchen Front contains quite a few of the contestant's recipes --  one after nearly every chapter -- for the reader to try at home.  For the most part, they sound doable and delicious.  I was always so excited for each round of the competition where the women would unveil their newest creation (sometimes a surprise to the reader, other times not) and described what measures they took to conserve rations or use off-ration materials.  

The Kitchen Front is a delectable read but I do have a few notes, which readers can take or leave.  The author did a wonderful job of weaving historical facts into the story in a way that felt organic, but there were one or two times where I noticed a series of historical facts crammed into a short conversation in a way that felt slightly off, as if the author really wanted to get those details in and molded a conversation around it.  For most of the book, the author struck a delicate balance between characters' bitter struggles and the feel-good sweetness of the story.  It's not an easy thing to do and I was impressed.  However, I was somewhat less enamored with the final few chapters, where the balance tipped every so slightly towards the saccharine, with eloquent expression of feelings and threads neatly tied.  I didn't hate it, but I definitely noticed the shift.  Thankfully, this isn't a deal breaker for everyone and those who love a good happily-ever-after will likely be quite thrilled. 

Taken altogether, The Kitchen Front was a thoroughly engaging read and one that I feel I could recommend to almost every reader (save those who might be triggered by anything in the 'sensitive reader' section below). I took my time with this book, preferring to nibble on it over of the course of several days rather than wolf it down in one sitting.  Whether nibbled or devoured, The Kitchen Front is an absorbing historical drama that will allow readers to sit back, enjoy the story, and learn a little something along the way.  

My Rating: 4.25 Stars  

For the Sensitive Reader:  No profanity that I recall.  Some discussion of unwanted pregnancy, adoption, some domestic violence (emotional, verbal, and physical abuse).  Some kissing, vague references to past intimacy, and discussion of an extramarital affair.  A few veiled references to a secondary character's sexual orientation. 

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