Book editor turned novelist Jennifer Ryan talks with Zibby about the inspiration behind her latest WWII-era novel, The Kitchen Front. She shares memories of her grandmother, discusses testing ration recipes (she’s a fan of the mushroom soup!) and reveals how she carved out time to write a novel while raising young children. Jennifer recently wrote an essay for Zibby’s Medium publication Moms Don’t Have Time to Write called “When the Novelty of Writing Your Novel Wears Thin.”


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jennifer. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Jennifer Ryan: Thank you so much for having me, Zibby. It’s really great to be here. Thanks.

Zibby: I’m really excited to talk about your latest novel, The Kitchen Front, which really has a genius device, plot, and structure. Could you please tell listeners what it’s about? Then we’ll talk about what inspired you to write it.

Jennifer: It’s about a cooking contest in second world war Britain when there was a lot of rations and food shortages. Basically, the premise of the book is that there’s four contestants and they’re all trying to win one prize. The cooking contest runs in three different parts, the starter, a main course, and a dessert, but all of them have to run strictly by the rations that are available to them and also using as many little techniques as they can to use the rations in a very good way. I came up with the idea because I wanted to showcase all of these amazingly creative ways that housewives and cooks in the second world war got through the whole rationing system. That was how it all started.

Zibby: It’s so neat because it’s like you made it Top Chef, World War II version. You create the show and then you see, even with the rations — I couldn’t believe. You listed them somewhere. Of course, now I can’t find them, but just how little people had to work with. It was really crazy how little a whole family would get for a given week. You said per adult, so I think it was per a child older than eight or twelve. They would get a certain amount of meat and a certain amount of sugar and a certain amount of everything. I think about how impossible it is to feed my kids now with all the food in the world. I mean, not really, but you know what I mean, with the supermarkets full of options. Did you make these recipes? Sorry I’m rambling a little here because I’m really excited. One of the things I thought was so cool about this book is that you have recipes at the end of every chapter when you’re talking about the different women like Fenley Factory’s Curried Salt Cod and Homity Pie and everything. Where did these recipes come from? Let’s start with that.

Jennifer: Most of them came from the Ministry of Food. That was a scary-sounding thing in the second world war. Right at the beginning of the second world war, the British government, they realized there was going to be a food issue. I think everyone in Europe had almost the same problem. They dealt with it in different ways. The British government, they were all over this. They were like, we don’t want people to starve because that’ll lose us the war. They put an awful lot of effort into it. It was very Draconian, really. They basically took over all the farms, told all the farmers what they had to produce. Then they took over all the shops and basically said, right, this is what you have to sell. Everyone had a ration book. They had to very strictly abide by the whole ration book system. I came across, there was an awful lot of leaflets and recipes that they printed in order to try and get the whole population on their side with the whole rationing thing. A lot of them are Ministry of Food originals.

Zibby: I know in your bio it said that you and your daughters love to cook. Did you actually make any of these yourself?

Jennifer: Of course. There’s nothing so bad as writing a book without cooking because you just end up thinking, I wonder what that tastes like. Lunchtime, I had mushroom soup for so long. The mushroom soup recipe is so tempting. There were other things as well. We did all of the cakes plus more. We trialed an awful lot of extra cakes that never made it into the book as well. It was great fun. I also got a couple of recipe checkers as well to recipe check some of the more complicated ones just to make sure the balance of ingredients worked well and everything so that people could actually make them.

Zibby: You should take some of the ones that didn’t make it into the book and put it on your website.

Jennifer: I should. That is a great idea. That’s brilliant.

Zibby: Bonus content.

Jennifer: Definitely. There was an awful lot of eggless cakes in different guises. That was quite good. One thing that I didn’t try is some of the more unusual ones like Sheep’s Head Roll. I don’t think you can even buy a sheep’s head these days. Where would you go? Whole Foods?

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I know that your grandmother used to tell you stories about World War II. Is this right?

Jennifer: Yeah.

Zibby: Did she inform some of the backdrop for this novel?

Jennifer: Very much so. She just loved cooking. She was renowned in our family as the big cook, the one who could make the gravy that’s just perfect and everything. We called her party granny, actually, because she loved hosting parties and things. She would make the most amazing spreads and keep everyone very fed. She very much had this idea that you nourish who you love. Giving someone food and feeding is how she demonstrated her love for us as a family, but everyone, I think. She talked about cooking a lot and did a lot of cooking. Her cooking was very different from, say, my mother’s or what we would cook today. A lot of that was because rationing went on in the UK until 1954. She would cook an awful lot with offal. There was a lot of offal recipes. There was an awful lot of meat fat as well, so lard. She would cook a lot with lard and suet and things and put it into pastries and puddings and things like that. It was just a very different type of cooking that she would do. It always sort of intrigued me. Then when I started looking into the second world war, I was like, of course, this is exactly what she used to cook. These are the reasons why. I suppose in a way, there’s an element as well in the book which is there’s a legacy of passing down traditions from generation to generation. Her recipe book, her cooking book, my mother has it. It’s just this wonderful feeling that there’s this knowledge and tradition that is passed down. I really wanted to bring that back to life.

Zibby: In my kitchen, I have a little container case with all of the notecards of my grandmother’s handwritten recipes and all the things that she pulled out of magazines and newspapers back in the day. She would be probably ninety-something at this point. You can take them out. They’re all yellowed. They’re probably not things I would necessarily want to eat, but there’s cakes in there that are amazing and I remember her making. It’s just so nice to have that record of another time and place. I should put it in a book. I should do something cool with it, but I haven’t.

Jennifer: That is so cool. Her recipe book, it’s got all these extra bits tucked in and everything. Her handwriting is really badly spelled.

Zibby: Yes, my grandmother too. She doesn’t seem to know how to do a lowercase letter for some reason. You used to be a book editor. Tell me about going from being a book editor to writing these three novels. How did that happen? Did you always want to write? Tell me your whole story.

Jennifer: I always did want to write, I think particularly after I became a book editor because there’s something about writing and editing somebody else’s work. It just makes you think, I can do this. I think it’s something, in the background, I’ve always wanted to do, but I was like, no, but I would never be able to that. Then when I became an editor, I thought maybe I could. Right back in my twenties, I started writing little bits and pieces and everything and writing novels that never got finished. Then after I had my first daughter and I thankfully gave up work for a little while, suddenly, I was like, this is it. This is my chance to do something. I was doing a bit of part-time editorial work at the time. One of the books that I was editing freelance was a book on the war in Afghanistan. The information inside and just the details of the war and how it affected the society there, it got inside me. I just thought, this is it. War is such a big moment in time culturally, particular for women, the women involved. I’ve always had this love for the second world war because of my grandmother.

Those two things came together. I thought, this is it. I need to write a book about the second world war, a novel. It’s about women and how they changed, how they had to change, but how that change was for the good, how much freedom and excitement and challenge it was for them. That’s how it started. My second child was just born and I thought, I’m going to do this. It’s a difficult time to start writing a novel. Luckily, my youngest daughter, she slept well. I had every naptime. You just sat ten minutes here, ten minutes there, and do the best you can. I set up my desk at the end of the dining room table where it still is today. Because we live in an open-plan house, you can keep an eye on everything when you’re there. You can coordinate some kind of playing activity and come back, have a quick — or you can have people at the other end of the table doing their homework or some sort of art project and everything. There’s been an awful lot of that. The big moment for me was when my youngest went to preschool. Suddenly, I had these three sacrosanct hours. I would never let anything get in the way of those three hours. Now they’re a bit older, so it’s easier now.

Zibby: How old are they now?

Jennifer: The youngest is eleven. The eldest is fifteen.

Zibby: I thought this was going to be my year. This was my year when my littlest was starting kindergarten. I have two seventh graders and a first grader and a kindergartener. I was like, wow, I just have to get this guy to kindergarten and I’m going to have the whole day to myself to work and do whatever. I can pursue anything. I’ll have all this time. Then of course, this pandemic happened. I’m like, okay. Half the year, they’ve been all in the next room. It’s been crazy. Maybe eventually. Then of course, I’ll miss them. All to say, the time when they’re actually out of the house and in school is the only time — I mean, I keep my ringer on because you never know — that I feel like I have the freedom to pursue something. Do you know what I mean?

Jennifer: I do. I do. In a way, that’s what I had to do, is kind of walk away from that idea and just say, right, I can do it with them just over there. I can come here and just quickly do a little bit and then go back. I always think writing is a little bit like reading. You can just pick up a novel. I’ve always been able to go in and I’m just there. I always think that’s a bit like that. You kind of go back to where you were with the writing. You’re like, oh, yeah, that’s where I was, and carry on and everything. I’m an editor by profession as well. I think that’s quite helpful knowing that I’m going to go back over it again.

Zibby: I know there are some authors who need to have a sense of quiet or a place. That’s fine. Everybody’s got different preferences. Anything I’ve tried to write, even if it’s just an article or whatever, it’s in the doctor’s waiting room or it’s on the floor while they’re playing. I can’t be precious about it. I’ve got all these kids. Sometimes I think, and I don’t know if you agree or not, the more chaos, the more material is floating around and you’re kind of inspired. I feel like the days when nothing goes on, I can’t even write one article. I’m like, I have four hours free without podcasts. Oh, I should get that thing done. Then the time goes by. If I only have thirty minutes to get it done, I’ll get it done.

Jennifer: I completely agree. When my little one was at preschool and I had those three hours, oh, my goodness, I was writing those thousands of words. They were just all coming out. In a way, though, writing, it takes a lot of emotional energy out of you, I think novel writing particularly. If you know that at that point at midday, you’ve just got to drop everything and go and do errands with your daughter for the rest of the afternoon, you could put your all into it with the knowledge that the rest of the day, you have a different type of taxing.

Zibby: What’s your favorite thing now to both cook when you’re in your own kitchen front and what is your favorite thing to read?

Jennifer: I really still love that mushroom soup. The mushroom soup really goes down well here. Just all sorts. I think it’s to do with creativity. It’s the same sort of thing as there. This is a moment to try different things and just really spread your wings and find out what works. Reading, I’m a historical fiction fan. That’s what I love. I’ll always go back to it. Every so often, I read a bit of nonfiction, but it’s normally World War II related.

Zibby: There is no lack of that. There is so much good, amazing historical fiction based on World War II. I feel like every day I get five different emails about a new one popping up. What you’ve been able to do, too, is stand out. With this book, for example, The Kitchen Front, it’s a new take on a time that has been written about over and over and over again. It’s not just the cooking. It’s also the relationship you make with the sisters and how one sister is struggling and the other sister is having this more lavish lifestyle and what the war does to a family. There’s always a new way to package up a topic to make it relatable regardless of when it happens.

Jennifer: I think that what that comes down to is not so much that it’s based on the second world war, but I think you can kind of drop down in any period of time and create a good story with some of those storylines. I think what the second world war does, as I mentioned earlier, is that it’s such a — actually, there’s a sociologist, Francis Merrill, he said that war is the biggest instigator of social change. I think that’s such an important message. You’re in a situation where there’s this huge change that is going on. There’s massive implications for you and your family and everything. You’re put in these familial situations like the two sisters in a situation that is already complicated by the situation of war, if you see what I mean. In a way, I think that that makes it different. A lot of the war books, novels, that are coming out are to do with the war itself, whereas this is more of a home front kind of take on it. The war is bubbling in the background. There’s all these cultural and social implications that are filtering through to women like these.

Zibby: Do you watch cooking shows yourself?

Jennifer: Oh, yeah. Could you tell?

Zibby: I could tell. I just thought I might ask.

Jennifer: I love cooking shows. I have to say, I don’t really have a huge amount of time to watch them. One of my daughters loves cooking. She loves watching these shows as well. We spend a lot of time watching particularly The Great British Baking Show and some of the other dessert-orientated shows.

Zibby: We were trying the other night to find something — it’s tough having kids that range in age from six to thirteen to find a family movie. It’s tough. It takes half an hour just to find something, but everybody loves these cooking shows. Everyone loves Nailed It! It’s one of the only things we can agree on and that everybody likes. A friend of mine was like, “Why is everybody sitting around watching cooking shows?” His five-year-old loves cooking shows. I was chatting with him. I think it’s, in the olden days, maybe, everybody was cooking all the time. Everybody learned. Feeding ourselves, that’s the most important human thing we do. Without food, that’s it. We have to rely on food. Instead of being by the ankles or the apron skirts or whatever you call it of parents as they cook, since we’re ordering in or we’re taking out frozen dinners, I feel like there’s this evolutionary reason why younger people are drawn, not just younger people, but people in general are drawn to cooking shows. It’s how we survive. Yes, it’s fun and entertaining, but I do feel like there’s this very deep reason why we all are drawn to these shows. That’s my theory.

Jennifer: Actually, you know what? I think this is why the government in the second world war, the Ministry of Food, wanted everyone to have cooking contests in the second world war. I think it’s exactly that reason. Contests are just interesting. Before long, even with Nailed It!, me and my daughter are there going, who do you want to win? Half-hour show, but we both are like, what’s going to happen? What’s going to happen? There is definitely an element of, are they going to make something that’s really nice or is it going to be a complete disaster? In a way, though, that’s the thing about cooking shows. If it is a disaster, it’s not the end of the world.

Zibby: No, it’s often very funny, which is a good lesson to remember for my own cooking foibles and disasters and a good metaphor for life. You can try. Sometimes it just turns out badly. Hopefully, you laugh and you move on. It seems like a good lesson for these trying times these days. So are you working on a new novel now?

Jennifer: I am, yeah. I am working on a new novel. I shouldn’t really talk about it, though. It is set in the second world war again. It’s also home front based, really. It’s just such a fascinating time. As I said before, I think that the lengths the government went to to standardize rationing and control people’s lives — I once read that it’s the most controlled situation that you can get rather than being completely communist. Once again, some interesting and intriguing characters.

Zibby: Excellent. Ooh, I’m excited. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Jennifer: Finish. Finish something. It was a promise I always had. I think a lot of it was because I was working full time. It takes such a long time to write a novel. You are bound to have other ideas that you think are better than the one that you’re writing. The other thing is that once you’re starting to write something, after a certain amount of time, it loses its novelty, so you instantly think, I quite like this other idea over there, let me have a look at this other idea, when really, you need to just focus on one thing and finish it.

Zibby: I just started this online publication for Medium. It’s called Moms Don’t Have Time to Write. I think you should write a piece for it called “When Novels Lose Their Novelty” and how to stay focused, if you’re interested, or if not for me, for someone.

Jennifer: I will.

Zibby: I think that would be a very inspiring piece of writing advice. Think about it. Jennifer, thank you so much. This was so fun. I’m so glad we got to talk about your book. I’m contemplating mushroom soup now even though it’s not normally a favorite. You’ve sort of sold me on it. Maybe I’ll put this in the rotation. Thank you. I’ll be thinking of you next time we all watch Nailed It!

Jennifer: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been really fun meeting you and talking about the book.

Zibby: You too. I hope our paths cross in person one day.

Jennifer: Yes, absolutely.

Zibby: Have a great day.

Jennifer: Thank you. You too. Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

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