The Taste of Longing

The Taste of Longing

Ethel Mulvany and Her Starving Prisoners of War Cookbook

By Suzanne Evans


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  • Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Award Gold Medalist, Biography Adult Non-fiction, 2020 (Winner)
  • Taste Canada Award, Culinary Narratives, 2021 (Winner)
  • Ottawa Book Award, English Non-fiction, 2021 (Winner)
  • Donald Grant Creighton Award, 2022 (Winner)

Half a world away from her home in Manitoulin Island, Ethel Mulvany is starving in Singapore’s infamous Changi Prison, along with hundreds of other women jailed there as POWs during the Second World War. They beat back pangs of hunger by playing decadent games of make-believe and writing down recipes filled with cream, raisins, chocolate, butter, cinnamon, ripe fruit – the unattainable ingredients of peacetime, of home, of memory.

In this novelistic, immersive biography, Suzanne Evans presents a truly individual account of WWII through the eyes of Ethel – mercurial, enterprising, combative, stubborn, and wholly herself. The Taste of Longing follows Ethel through the fall of Singapore in 1942, the years of her internment, and beyond. As a prisoner, she devours dog biscuits and book spines, befriends spiders and smugglers, and endures torture and solitary confinement. As a free woman back in Canada, she fights to build a life for herself in the midst of trauma and burgeoning mental illness.

Woven with vintage recipes and transcribed tape recordings, the story of Ethel and her fantastical POW Cookbook is a testament to the often-overlooked strength of women in wartime. It’s a story of the unbreakable power of imagination, generosity, and pure heart.


“Suzanne Evans’s important and compelling account of a gifted and courageous Manitoulin Island woman who wanted to make a difference is a page-turner. With sensitivity, craft, and imagination, Evans significantly expands our understanding of Canadian women’s contributions to our history.”

– Dr. Laura Brandon, former historian, Art and War, at the Canadian War Museum

“The book takes the reader on a vivid journey, following Ethel Mulvany from Manitoulin Island to the prison camp at Changi, Singapore, and back again. Evans combines meticulous research with a very readable writing style to create a sweeping narrative that touches on food history, the history of mental illness and its treatment, and the experiences of civilians and POWs during the Second World War.”

– Sarah Elvins, professor, Department of History, University of Manitoba

“I loved every minute of The Taste of Longing. Evans has captured Ethel, and put her in context, not shirking (or misunderstanding!) those complex aspects of her character that both pushed her to greatness, but also ultimately caused her so much suffering at times. This is an “I-can’t-put-it-down” book, an historical biography that reads like a novel—an ordinary life made extraordinary through circumstance and an inordinate amount of courage.”

– Dr. Marie Adams, author of The Myth of the Untroubled Therapist

“Suzanne Evans brings a novelist’s eye and an historian’s diligence to the story of Ethel Mulvany, a small-town girl with audacious ambitions and boundless confidence who embarks on a quixotic tour of the Asian Pacific on the brink of WWII. Amid the perils of war, she proves a courageous and clever survivor, enduring imprisonment, starvation and torture during the war, and a creative and resourceful entrepreneur and benefactor in the life she rebuilds for herself in Canada after her liberation. In Suzanne Evans’ hands, Mulvany’s story becomes moving, inspiring and unforgettable.”

– Ottawa Book Awards Prize Jury

“As gripping as a novel, The Taste of Longing is infused with Suzanne Evans’ keen sense of psychology and language. Its plot is made all the more riveting by the historical facts of the deprivation of the prisoners of war in Changi Prison. Ethel was a remarkable and fearless woman. This vivid biography is also a uniquely female history, infused with nourishment no less important for being imaginary.”

– Nadine McInnis, author of Blood Secrets and Delirium for Solo Harp

“This is a story of hardship, cruelty, and disease—but also of endurance, indomitability, and friendship. Centred around a remarkable cookbook, Evans vividly recounts Ethel’s resilience and commemoration of the war that marked her for life.”

– Tim Cook, author of Vimy: The Battle and the Legend

“This is a story about an unusual woman in an unbearable situation. Evans has delved deep and written with great sympathy about the long drama of picking up the pieces of a broken life.”

– Elizabeth Hay, author of Giller Prize–winner Late Nights on Air

“A fascinating story that begs to be told. Ethel directs the voyage of her life from her anchor, rural Manitoulin Island, to Changi Prison, where her energy and creativity did much to sustain the bodies and spirits of the some 400 women and children interned there. Among her projects were imaginary teas and dinner parties, fashion shows and quilts, and most poignant of all, a cookbook of remembered recipes the women longed for.”

– Elizabeth Baird, co-author of Recipes for Victory: Great War Food from the Front and Kitchens Back Home in Canada

“Ethel’s experiences are harrowing and sad, triumphant yet lonely, mesmerizing and horrific. In this page-turner, the sisterhood and traitors of the POW camp resonate off the page, with the added culinary delights and comfort foods of the afternoon teas of Changi Prison.”

– Samantha George, Vice-President, Culinary Historians of Canada

“The stories of what women contribute, suffer, and carry in wartime are rarely told. With original research and an elegant style, Evans allows us to see Ethel, to realize the price many women pay in conflicts, and to appreciate their resilience and grace. Such remarkable stories of Canadian women need to be told.”

– Dr. Heather Eaton, professor of Conflict Studies at Saint Paul University and author of Ecofeminism and Globalization

“The Taste of Longing is completely absorbing, a fascinating glimpse at the struggle to survive in wartime Singapore. Ethel Mulvany was sustained by friendship, dreams of freedom, and, above all, food—real and imagined. After reading it, you’ll never look at a meal in quite the same way.”

– Dr. Jonathan F. Vance, PhD, Distinguished University Professor and J.B. Smallman Chair, Department of History, Western University


Prologue Setting the Table
Part One: Meeting the Emperor
Chapter One What’s a Manitoulin Girl Doing in a Place like Singapore?
Chapter Two The Tiger Woman
Chapter Three Bon Voyage
Chapter Four Stepping Out in Singapore
Chapter Five Guns, Bicycles, and Spies
Chapter Six Loaded to the Hilt on Benzedrine
Chapter Seven Silence of the Guns
Part Two: Getting to Hunger
Chapter Eight The Road to Jail
Chapter Nine On the Inside
Chapter Ten Shopping for Food and Answers
Chapter Eleven Shop for Some Pumpkins in Stall 38
Chapter Twelve The Logic of a Dream
Chapter Thirteen Recipes of Longing
Part Three: Dreaming It Up
Chapter Fourteen Stitching Stories
Chapter Fifteen The Red Cross Silence Hut
Chapter Sixteen The Games People Play
Chapter Seventeen Double Tenth
Chapter Eighteen Torture
Chapter Nineteen Solitary Confinement, February to August 1945
Part Four: Breaking Out
Chapter Twenty Shameful Hunger
Chapter Twenty-one First Feasts
Chapter Twenty-two The Horrors of Health Care
Chapter Twenty-three Is This Home?
Chapter Twenty-four Never Enough
Chapter Twenty-five The Gift of Food
Part Five: Putting It All Together
Chapter Twenty-six Not Fit Company for Herself
Chapter Twenty-seven Treasure Van
Chapter Twenty-eight What’s in the Bottom Drawer?
Chapter Twenty-nine A Forgiving Spirit Draws Two Worlds Together