What's in a Page: Jennifer Ryan on the very necessary snacks of The Kitchen Front
Thanks to her latest novel, Jennifer Ryan knows more than you could imagine about wartime cooking. The author, who originally hails from Kent and London, crafted a story about a cooking contest, run by the BBC's wartime cooking program, built entirely around food rations. The winner will become the first-ever female cohost of the TV program The Kitchen Front, so four women decide to enter the cured-meat-heavy fray. Here, Ryan answers EW's burning book questions to tell us about the inspiration behind the novel and, of course, all of the delicious (and inventive) meals that went into her writing.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What is the first thing — ever — that you remember writing?
JENNIFER RYAN: The first writing I remember clearly is at the age of 11. One weekend, I watched one of my father's favorite movies, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. It obviously made an impression because the following week at school, when we were given a list of titles to choose from for a descriptive essay, I selected "The Sunset," already knowing what I wanted to write: an eerie desert landscape, an empty grave with a bag of money and a discarded gun.
First the teacher, then my class head, the school matron, and even the principal asked me, "Is everything alright at home?" After that, I took a lot more care about my choice of subject matter!
What is the last book that made you cry?
The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah. The tale of two sisters in Second World War France was incredibly moving. The Second World War was such an extraordinary time in history: so many horrors, atrocities, and evils, but also the bravery of those who fought for freedom and justice — for humanity — that is what makes this the very best and the very worst of times.
Which book is at the top of your current to-read list?
The Great British Baking Show has a new book just out: The Big Book of Amazing Cakes, and I can't wait to try out the recipes. I adore baking, and I am addicted to the show — hence the grand cooking contest in The Kitchen Front.
Where do you write?
I have fitted in writing while traveling, [doing] full-time work, college, and then children. While my preference is to write at my dining room table, I jot down ideas wherever I am — in planes, trains, buses, and boats, in playgrounds, beside soccer pitches, swimming pools, and athletic grounds, on a swing set (when locked out), and in a cottage on the west coast of Ireland in the pouring rain.
Which book made you a forever reader?
I read Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen at school and miraculously fiction came to life. It was the historical setting, drama, and romance, all wrapped up in the most beautiful, witty prose.
What is a snack you couldn't write without?
As you can imagine, The Kitchen Front saw me gain a few extra pounds, with the focus on food and all those wonderful recipes. I tried out some of the recipes, and Mrs. Quince's Special Occasion Cake became a staple, delicious with a good cup of tea. The full recipe is in the book.
Homity pie, also in the book, makes a wonderful snack. It was invented by Land Girls, made from chopped meat and vegetable leftovers covered in pastry and baked. They cut it into slices and took it with them into the fields for lunch.
If you could change one thing about any of your books what would it be?
The cooking contest in The Kitchen Front has three rounds: Round 1 is a starter, Round 2 is a main course, and Round 3 a dessert. I always wished that I could put in an extra round — possibly a cake round? — because I so much enjoyed the cooking contest element of the book. In the end, three rounds seemed to work the best, so three rounds it is.
What is your favorite part of The Kitchen Front?
The cooking contest parts were simply amazing to write. I love cooking, and I am addicted to baking shows. It was so much fun to create a Second World War version: four cooks making a starter, a main course, and then a dessert, all using only ration-free ingredients. All the tricks of wartime cookery came into play as each used their imagination and cooking dexterity to gain the highest points for each round.
The recipes are fascinating — they are fully written in case you'd like to try them. Whale meat, Spam, salt cod, and sheep's head were all intriguingly gruesome. Sugar shortages led to the use of cooked carrots and parsnips in desserts, as well as fruit and home-grown honey. Fat and oil rationing posed a mammoth problem for cooks, and you'd be amazed how dexterous chefs got around it.
What was the hardest plot point or character to write in this book?
Getting the right blend of characters for the four contestants took a kind of writing interview process. I wanted to showcase female cooks with different skills, lives, and experiences. The final four are:
Audrey, 40, is a grieving widow desperate to keep her three boys and ramshackle home afloat with her baking business.
Lady Gwendoline, 38, her snooty sister, is married to a wealthy bully. She is determined to prove her worth as a government cooking demonstrator.
Zelda, 30, is a trained restaurant chef desperate to become a head chef while dealing with an unwanted pregnancy.
Nell, 19, is the kitchen maid in a manor house who is desperate for love, recognition, and freedom.
Who will win?
Write a movie poster tag line for The Kitchen Front:
Rivalry, drama, and whale-meat pie in a cooking contest in Second World War Britain.