Author: Caroline Beecham / Reviewer: Kelly Lyonns
Synopsis: (Allen & Unwin, 2016) When the Ministry of Food urgently calls for the opening of British Restaurants to feed tired and hungry Londoners during the Second World War, Maggie Johnson is close to realising a long-held dream. But after struggling through government red-tape and triumphantly opening its doors, Maggie’s Kitchen soon encounters a most unexpected problem. Her restaurant has become so popular with London’s exhausted workers, that Maggie simply can’t get enough supplies to keep up with demand for food, without breaking some of the rules. With the support of locals, she fights to keep her beloved Kitchen open. Ultimately, she can no longer ignore the unacknowledged hopes of her own heart, and the discovery that some secrets have the power to change everything.
This is a book historians, romantics and foodies will love, with its deeper themes of food sustainability, changing roles of women and class inequality.
Each chapter leads with a quote from the Ministry of Food and there are recipes to try at the end of the book. The lovingly researched details show without being heavy-handed or overshadowing Maggie’s story.
Set in the London Blitz of World War II, Maggie Johnson’s love of cooking and the nation’s challenges of feeding a war-weary population meet in a match made by the newly minted Ministry of Food. Government funded ‘British Restaurants’ are being setup to feed the exhausted workers of Britain’s war efforts.
This is an opportunity to not only fulfil a life-long dream but actively help her country. But Maggie is a cook, not a bookkeeper or bureaucrat and the endless contradictory rules and niggardly paperwork, coupled with food shortages, the problems of her kitchen ‘family’ as well as obligations to her real family, threaten to turn her dream into a nightmare.
Juggling history and fiction
All historical books must delicately shift the reader from the familiar to a sometimes very alien place. This is a world of sudden violent death or maiming, of uncertainty, promises, thin hope, bone deep weariness and grinding waiting.
We meet Maggie in a backyard air raid shelter – little better than an unlit small hole in the ground. But even in this cramped black freezing pocket, pressed up against the unseen bodies of her neighbours, she pushes away the very real horror of being buried alive by imagining glorious meals.
Maggie’s cooking thoughts are backdropped throughout the book by paragraph portraits of the destruction of beloved London landmarks.
The struggle all in the name of a good cause
Maggie’s struggle to keep her kitchen open is summed up in a plea to her micromanaging Ministry of Food nemesis Mr Boyle:
“How am I supposed to make a surplus when there’s not enough to sell?”
Some of her problems are solved when street urchin, Robbie—whom she alternately worries about and feeds—introduces his little-bit mysterious Polish refugee friend, Janek Raczynski. Janek helps alleviate their food supply problems with home grown Victory Garden produce, while she does a few not-quite-Black-Market deals.
The organically grown, low food mile, reduced waste, healthy eating ethos Maggie’s community embraces is not the only familiar motif. The pace of war time London echoes our own time-shrunk days and we can easily feel Maggie’s crushing seven day a week, 15 hour days.
War … and a life on hold
But the sense of a life-on-hold is more difficult to really grasp. This life is a sort of furiously paced treadmill going nowhere.
Despite the hopefulness of Maggie’s new enterprise there is a soft undersong of loss in this tale. Her cousin Rose, bemoans that she might die tomorrow never having loved. While Maggie herself is slow to respond to her growing feelings for Janek, in some way still waiting for her fiancée, Peter, to come home. Maggie has already lost her Mother and a brother; Robbie hangs around waiting for news of his Navy engineer father; and Janek has lost almost all of his family. Even Mr W.G. Boyle of the Ministry with his “smell of emptiness” has his losses.
Here in Maggie’s Kitchen, food expresses power: the power of love, of health, of unity, of feminism, of hope. As Rose admonishes Mr Boyle:
“Think about what you are taking from everyone; it’s not the food from their plates – it’s hope.”
Ordinary everyday Maggie finds the stubborn courage to wield all the power of her fulsome Lancashire Hotpot and golden Apple Charlotte for her family, her neighbours, her customers, her country and eventually for her own heart.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Connect with the publisher, Allen & Unwin – here
Connect with the author, Caroline Beecham – here