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Paperback (HarperCollins), Rating: 🍕🍕🍕 (3/5 Slices)
Recipe: Friday Night Chicken (slightly adapted from Jennifer Robson’s recipe in the book)
Told from the perspective of three different characters and switching back and forth between past and present, the reader is taken back to London in the time just after World War 2 and the wedding of Princess Elizabeth to Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten. Two embroiderers, Miriam and Ann, working in dress designer Norman Hartnell’s studio give their accounts of the happenings in their lives during the time they are helping to create the iconic dress. In between the perspectives of Miriam and Ann, is that of Heather in present day Toronto as she searches for the truth about the unspoken past of her grandmother and her life in London before she emigrated to Canada from England just after the War.
Historical fiction is one of my preferred genres. The time period of both World Wars especially attracts me and while this story actually takes place just after World War 2, the shadow of it is still present in England during the time period of the book. One of the main characters, Miriam, a French Jew and talented embroiderer has recently escaped into England and has left behind a horrific past. She carries with her fresh scars similar to many Jews of the time. Aside from her being an integral character in the story, bringing her in as an outsider was a particularly skillful and useful addition. It allowed the author the chance to use her outsider status to help explain a phenomenon that some people don’t quite understand: Brits true love, admiration and fascination with their Royal family. As someone who adores British culture, I feel that I (mostly) understand and appreciate this phenomenon, but I still found it to be an extremely thoughtful addition to the story.
The writing is strong although I had a little trouble connecting with the present-day character, Heather, and her part of the story. That seems to be a common problem with me when reading historical fiction containing perspectives of present-day characters. In the end, I always want to hear more about the past characters and their experiences, especially during such a tumultuous and fascinating time in history. There is a bit of a twist at the end that I totally did not see coming which added to the story for me. I won’t give anything away but just want to put it out there that the nature of this twist could be a little upsetting for people who have faced personal trauma.
Diving into this world just after the war with so many shortages and especially as it pertains to food, I did not expect to find particular recipe inspiration here. However, early in the book, Miriam talks about her Grand-Mere’s Friday-Night Chicken (click this link to see my slightly adapted recipe). And then later she actually scrapes together the ingredients and makes it for her close friend, roommate and coworker, Ann. As I was reading, I started recreating the dish in my head and especially was inspired to look through my cookbooks and find a famous old recipe for Chicken Marbella, a similar chicken dish, although Spanish in origin, that is in The Silver Palate Cookbook (a copy of which I have on my cookbook shelf). I was delighted to find that Robson actually included a recipe in the back of The Gown for her version of the dish. So, the corresponding recipe to this post is printed pretty much verbatim as that is the one I followed. I found it to be pretty flawless.
I cannot express how delectable and fragrant this dish was when I made it for my family. Boring chicken thighs are transformed into a beautiful mix of savory and sweet that is also really quite simple and easy to make, not requiring a ton of preparation or ingredients. The flavors all come together in a truly delicious sauce-y broth that collects at the bottom of the casserole.
I especially love a dish like this that serves to comfort and transport one to a different place while eating. Where the presence of the book characters are felt at the table alongside while you eat. This dish must have felt so comforting for Miriam and her family, living in a world with so many horrors, injustice and uncertainty. And then when she makes it for Ann, she is able to remember her family and a different time. It is dishes like this that highlight the power of food not only to comfort and soothe, but also to heal.