Today I’m very pleased to be part of a blog tour by writer and producer Caroline Beecham, whose debut novel, Maggie’s Kitchen (Allen and Unwin), a most engaging historical novel about a most unusual restaurant, set against the background of World War Two, has just been published. In this interesting post, Caroline writes about one of the inspirations for her novel: and as a bonus to readers, provides a delicious recipe from the book!
|How working in restaurants inspired Maggie’s Kitchen
by Caroline Beecham
Maggie’s Kitchen’ follows the fortunes of Maggie Johnson as she sets up and runs a British Restaurant in London during the Second World War. The story focuses on the relationships that develop with the community and in particular with Robbie, a twelve-year-old runaway, and Janek, a Polish refuge. Together they struggle through government red-tape to open the restaurant and then battle food shortages and community crisis to keep open their doors.
Real events inspired me to write ‘Maggie’s Kitchen’; I was intrigued by these British Restaurants that the Ministry of Food set up during the Second World War to help with the food shortages. I felt that there was a story there, but my first thoughts were that it would be too difficult; how would you approach writing about people living on rations and not getting enough to eat and make it appealing? It was my experience working in restaurants while I was growing up that gave me the answer; you become like a family, working as a team, building relationships with regulars, dealing with difficult personalities and daily dramas—even when its not wartime! You become part of a community and I realised that it was through this microcosm that Maggie’s story could take hold.
I still had to keep a check on the food descriptions though; it didn’t seem appropriate to give mouthwatering accounts of the food so I had to restrain myself there, and I hope that I got the balance right. The research for the book took a long time as I read other fiction and non-fiction books, trawled the National Archives in London and visited Islington where the novel is set. Working through the original Ministry of Food recipes was also time-consuming as they all had to be checked and I wanted to make them so that if anyone asked me I could say that I had tasted and tested them all. With the help of friends and family, they were all tried and some adjustments made; there is no powdered egg these days!
One of my favourites is the Crisp Coated Scotch Eggs recipe below. There was a requirement for fast food that could be eaten in a hurry, hot or cold, and the humble Scotch egg fitted the bill. The recipe is also appealing because it evokes the nostalgia of childhood. That’s one of the reasons that food can be so comforting; if it’s a dish we ate often as children then it can take us back. This theme of memory and food, and courage and food, is central to the book. The comforting nature of food is emphasized through Maggie directly nurturing Robbie with food, in the same way that she is able to offer comfort and food to the community through the restaurant.
For Maggie, the simple act of cooking is nurturing for her senses; even when she is trapped underground in the air raid shelter she is: ‘rubbing the sodden dirt between her fingertips, feeling the same cold coarse texture as if she were simply making breadcrumbs for shortbread or the topping for a fresh fruit crumble.’ And again, later on: ‘By the time she was at home in her kitchen and had taken the potatoes from her pockets and washed them, she was beginning to feel more settled, soothed by the restorative act of cooking.’ In a moment of self-doubt, when she is questioning her abilities, it takes Janek to remind her that: ‘In crisis we focus on what is real. What can be more real than providing people with their most basic need?’
450 g sausage meat
Preheat oven to 200°C/390°F. Hard-boil eggs and coat with sausage meat, moulding them into neat shapes. Dust with flour and roll in bread crumbs. Line a baking tray with baking paper and bake eggs until crispy. Serves 4.
More about the book:
Amid the heartbreak and danger of London in the Blitz of WWII, Maggie Johnson finds her courage in friendship and food.
They might all travel the same scarred and shattered streets on their way to work, but once they entered Maggie’s Kitchen, it was somehow as if the rest of the world didn’t exist.
When the Ministry of Food urgently calls for the opening of British Restaurants to feed tired and hungry Londoners during World War II, 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, and the help of twelve-year-old Robbie, a street urchin, and Janek, a Polish refugee dreaming of returning to his native land, the resourceful Maggie evades the first threats of closure from the Ministry. As she fights to keep her beloved Kitchen open, Maggie also tries desperately to reunite Robbie with his missing father as well as manage her own family’s expectations. Until she can no longer ignore the unacknowledged hopes of her own heart, and the discovery that some secrets have the power to change everything.
More about Caroline Beecham:
Caroline Beecham grew up at the English seaside and relocated to Australia to continue her career as a writer and producer in film and television. She has worked on numerous productions including a documentary about Princess Diana lookalikes, a series about journeys to the ends of the earth, as well as a feature film about finding the end of the rainbow. Caroline decided on a new way of storytelling and studied the craft of novel writing at the Faber Academy in 2012. She has an MA in Film & Television and a MA in Creative Writing and lives with her husband and two sons by Sydney harbour. Maggie’s Kitchen is her first published adult novel.