Close friends (Cathy, for one) have outed me as having depression-era tendencies. I do. I own that. I admit to getting a pleasant buzz over using up leftovers, finding a purpose for scraps, wearing clothing some would consider “vintage”. I can’t really explain the satisfaction it gives me to not be wasteful. This trait may come from my parents who were children during World War II and told me stories about rations and doing without. Whether you had means or not, in the 1940s people all over the world “made do” with less than they were used to. Maybe my frugality comes from my hand to mouth college days living paycheck to paycheck. But whyever… I get a thrill when I realize I need lemon juice for one recipe AND zest for another (I can use the same lemon!); or when my spring pansy containers can be used to start seeds for my summer rudbeckia; or when my thinning bath towels can be transferred to the towel supply for cleaning and car washing.
Kitchen Front, by Jennifer Ryan, fed into this personal peculiarity of mine. Set in 1942, Kitchen Front is about four women in a competition to make cooking ends meet in the most delicious way in the midst of war-torn England. It’s also about how these four very different women met, clashed, found common ground, and eventually came together as friends. Oh, I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right. “That seems excessively sentimental.” You see the end coming together just as it’s beginning: things start out rough, they get a little worse, but it’s going to be alright in the end, and maybe everyone’s gonna learn a little something…and hey, whattayaknow? It all works out.
I’m not apologizing. This book was enjoyable, and positive – which is what I tend towards right now. I don’t mean to compare 2021 with the patriotic fellowship of 1942. But for these times, whatever they are, this is just the type of read I am up for – escapism and happy endings, as well as getting a leg-up through home gardening.
Simple in its message, “we get by with a little help from our friends”… Kitchen Front is also a well-researched historical fiction of domestic life in 1940s England. The title, Kitchen Front, was the name of an actual program on the BBC beginning in 1940 hosted by a male travel writer. Eventually, women entertainers were added into the mix to share their tips and recipes for stretching and embellishing food rations. As told, a contest decides who is the new female voice of the radio program. This is an embellishment of the real story, but the Brits do love their competitions, so that’s a pretty good premise for a book. In the story, the prize comes not only with local notoriety of having a weekly spot on the program, but with regular income. Each woman selected to compete has the need for one or both of these. The characters and their circumstances are true to the historical times: Audrey, a mother of 3 is not only grieving the loss of her beloved husband who died fighting in Germany, she’s struggling financially to keep her family fed and sheltered. Her estranged sister, Gwen, married for financial security but now finds herself in an increasingly abusive marriage with nowhere to turn. Zelda is single and pregnant. And Nell, who dreams of having her own life and family someday, has been a kitchen servant since the age of 14.
Their stories unravel in chapters punctuated at the end by winning recipes such as Seared Hare with Elderberry Wine Sauce, Raised Spam and Game Pie, and Whale Meat and Mushroom Pie. These are all documented World War II era English meals (yep, Spam and whale!).
I liked this book. I recommend it as a nod to the past and an optimistic read for now. And a good cookbook if you are wondering what to do with that sheep’s head you have in the fridge.
What are you reading?