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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?
Under the Cover
An excerpt from The Kitchen Front
Wartime food rations for one adult for one week
4 ounces bacon or ham (around 4 rashers of bacon)
Meat to the value of 1 shilling and tuppence (2 pounds mincemeat or 1 pound steaks or joint)
2 ounces cheese (a 2-inch cube)
4 ounces margarine (8 tablespoons)
2 ounces butter (4 tablespoons)
3 pints of milk
8 ounces sugar (1 cup)
2 ounces jam (4 tablespoons)
2 ounces loose leaf tea (makes around 15 to 20 cups)
1 fresh egg (plus 1 packet dried egg powder, making 12 eggs, every month)
3 ounces sweets or candy
Sausages, fish, vegetables, flour, and bread are not rationed but often hard to get. Canned food, like sardines, treacle, and Spam, are on the new Points Plan, and can only be bought using your extra monthly 24 points.
Source: A compilation of Ministry of Food printed materials
Mrs. Audrey Landon
Willow Lodge, Fenley Village, England
A glorious spring morning poured its golden splendor through the tall kitchen window as a whirlwind of boys raced in, shooting at each other in a ramshackle reconstruction of Dunkirk.
“Get out of here!” Audrey whooshed them out with a dishcloth.
The aroma of bubbling berries—raspberries, strawberries, red currants—filled the big old kitchen as a slim woman of forty added a touch of cinnamon, a touch of nutmeg. With a man’s sweater tucked into a man’s trousers, she looked hassled and unkempt, her old boots muddy from the vegetable garden.
The wooden clock on the wall chimed the half hour, and she wiped the back of her hand on her forehead. “Oh nonsense! Is it half past eight already?”
She strode to the kitchen dresser to turn up the crackling wireless radio, which sat among a jumble of pots and a pile of freshly pulled carrots. While most people kept their radio sets in the living room, Audrey had hauled hers into the kitchen when she began furiously baking to make a few extra shillings—that had been just after the war began two years ago, when her husband Matthew’s plane was shot down over Düsseldorf.
No trace of him was ever found. In various moments, she tried to stop herself picturing his body—so intimate and dear to her—broken on treetops or burned by an engine fire, his lifeblood spilled over the enemy’s seventh-largest city.
Ever since his death, she had been run off her feet.
Audrey had long given up trying to be like a normal person. Every spare moment was given over to baking, anything to make extra pennies, and she often worked long into the night. With three needy boys, debt demands coming weekly, and an old mansion house falling apart around her, normality had flown out the dusty windows years ago. And that didn’t even take into consideration the pig and the hens, her sizable garden now given over to fruits and vegetables, the precious extra ingredients that made her pies and cakes.
Exhaustion, disillusionment, and that panicky feeling that everything was running out of control had set up home in her heart.
For the sake of the children, she worked hard to keep her anguish at bay, hugging them through their grief while thrusting her own down into her belly until the middle of the night. It was deemed bad spirit to show tears—Mr. Churchill had drummed that into them: Collective despair could bring the nation to its knees.
Things weren’t going well for Britain. Even with the propaganda, the BBC radio news couldn’t hide the desperation. The British hadn’t been prepared for war. Her cities had been pounded by the Luftwaffe, her troops were fighting hard in North Africa, and Nazi U-boats were blocking imports of arms, metals, and—most crucial—food.
The upper-class voice of the presenter, Mr. Ambrose Hart, drawled through the high-ceilinged old room. “Presenting The Kitchen Front, the cookery program helping Britain’s housewives make the most of wartime food rations.”
“Let’s hear what nonsense Ambrose Hart has to say today,” Audrey said to herself, tasting a drop of her bubbling berries. They oozed with ripeness. The tang from the red currants pulled the sweetness back, and she had added a teaspoon of sugar to help it along. The government let you have extra sugar for “jam making” if you chose to forego your jam ration. Most of this went into the pies Audrey made to sell, much to the boys’ dismay. Often they had to go without sugar and jam for weeks at a time.
But she needed the money.
A few months ago, the bank had called in the loans, threatening to repossess the house. It was a sum far beyond her means, even with her widow’s pension. She couldn’t sell the house, it was her home, and Matthew’s. And besides, it was in far too bad a state—part of the roof had collapsed.
In the end, she had been forced to seek help where she least desired—and ever since she had been nudged by regret as to what it had cost her.
“A bread omelet,” Ambrose Hart on the wireless explained, “will stretch a single egg to feed a hungry family of four for breakfast. Soak two capfuls of breadcrumbs in milk made from powder for ten minutes, stir them into a beaten egg—or the equivalent in egg powder—and then cook as usual.”
“Bread omelet? Is that the best Ambrose can come up with?” Audrey said as her eldest son, a gangly fifteen-year-old, strolled in, his nose in a book.
Alexander was the eldest of her boys, the A of the ABC Landons, as they were known. B was Ben, a boisterous eleven-year-old, and C was eight-year-old Christopher, who’d been petrified of everything since a bomb came down over a neighbor’s house a year ago. The other boys had recovered from the shock, but little Christopher still slept with her every night. He showed no interest in altering this arrangement, even with the nightly air raids dwindling. Their fraught trudges down to the makeshift Anderson shelter in the garden, armed with a few oatmeal buns, were subsiding into memory, where Audrey hoped they’d stay.
Audrey knew she relied on Alexander too much, and that it was only a matter of time until he would be called up, too. It was impossible to stop him from going. He would follow his father’s footsteps into the air force—she prayed not also to his grave.
She unthinkingly etched his face into her memory.
“Darling,” she said, chopping scrubbed carrots, including their feathery greens. “Can you fetch the ration books and tell me what we have left for this week?”
Alexander pulled four small black booklets out of a cloth bag. Since everyone in the house was over six years old, they had identical “adult” ration books, issued from the local Food Office in the nearby town of Middleton. The boys got extra milk, concentrated orange juice, and an orange when available—it was illegal for an adult to eat an orange. Less popular was the cod liver oil all children also received, although Ben patently refused it. Audrey had heard that some mothers used it to fry fish when cooking oil was very low.
Leafing through each book, Alexander found the right week and checked the boxes that had been stamped or cut out. “All used except margarine and some of that nasty dried egg powder. Thank goodness we have the hens.”
Audrey strode over to check. “Oh dear, I need more butter. The Women’s Voluntary Service needs homity pies for the mobile canteen. I can’t use margarine. That stuff tastes dreadful now they’re putting whale oil into it.”
“No one will mind, Mum. It’s only the WVS.” He picked up the margarine. “No one expects haute cuisine for snacks from a van. In any case, everyone knows homity pies are just vegetables and leftovers in pastry.”
“They still need to be edible.” A thought occurred to her. “How much milk do we have left?”
He looked in the pantry. “Two pints, although one smells a little sour.” His head poked out. “We should get a refrigerator. Apparently the one at Fenley Hall is massive.”
“Where would we get the money for one of those? We barely have enough to keep going as it is. Now, find a jam jar—there are some on the dresser over by the wireless—and pour in the cream at the top of the good bottle, then screw the jam jar lid on properly and shake it.”
Alexander followed the instructions, and it was only when he got to the shaking the bottle part that he asked, “How long am I supposed to shake this, Mum?”
“About twenty minutes. Don’t move. A blob of butter should appear soon. You can watch it grow until it’s collected all the fat from the milk. Then you can strain off the extra milk—keep that for your brothers to drink—and I can use the butter for my pastry.”
“How very makeshift!” He scooped up his book with his spare hand as he shook with the other.
Jennifer Ryan is the author of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir and The Spies of Shilling Lane and lives in the Washington, D.C., area with her husband and two children. Originally from Kent and then London, she was previously a nonfiction book editor.