Judy Alter is the author of the Blue Plate Café Mysteries, the Kelly O’Connell Mysteries, and the Oak Grove Mysteries. Her fiction and nonfiction about women of the American West has won numerous awards including a Lifetime Achievement Award from Western Writers of America.
Judy’s love of cooking led her to write a memoir/cookbook, Cooking My Way Through Life with Kids and Books, complete with family pictures and recipes.
Now retired, she was for years the director of a small academic press. She is the mother of four and the grandmother of seven and lives—and cooks—in a cottage in Fort Worth, Texas with her Bordoodle, Sophie. Learn more about Judy and her books at her website and blog.
Following Mom in the Kitchen—or Gram in the Café
Like Kate, café owner at the center of The Blue Plate Mysteries, I learned to cook as a young child by following my mom in the kitchen. She let me make a mess of her kitchen because she knew that was how I’d learn. She let me follow recipes on my own, with the result I once added nine tsp. of baking soda to a cake. I had followed the recipe carefully but wasn’t smart enough to recognize an impossible typo. Mom taught me to entertain, to clean up the kitchen as I went (a sanity-saving lesson), and to love being in the kitchen, cooking, experimenting with tastes and textures.
Kate followed her beloved Gram in the café kitchen from her early years. Gram cooked the down-home food just right for a café in a small East Texas town—chicken-fried steak, fried chicken, fried catfish, meatloaf, lots of grits, lots of greens, meringue pies. Kate learned early to fix those things. But she also learned the “tricks” of cooking—put chunks of peeled potato in a dish that’s too salty, add sugar not salt to water when you boil corn, add a bit of vinegar to boiling water for hard-boiled eggs, add a pinch of sugar to “finish” tomato-based dishes like spaghetti sauce, rinse a pan with cold water before putting food in it, always start boiling potatoes in cold water.
When Kate finished high school and headed for Dallas and the life of a legal assistant and single girl, she took her love of cooking with her. She moved from down-home to gourmet, growing her own herbs in a pot garden and achieving success with such complicated dishes as Coquille St. Jacques and Steak Diane. When Gram’s sudden death (or was it murder?) calls her back to the town of her childhood and to the café, Kate revives the basic dishes Gram taught her. She can make sticky buns, and meatloaf with the best of them. At her twin sister’s urging, she even teaches cooking classes to the local ladies—Beef Wellington, chicken piccata, chicken enchiladas, quail (all those hunters in town), and shepherd’s pie. But she doesn’t serve those things at the café—she sticks to the recipes she learned from Gram.
A typical special on the chalkboard at the Blue Plate Café may feature meatloaf, Reva’s asparagus, and Louella’s rice. (Note the family connection of many recipes—says something about the café).
1-1/2 lbs. ground chuck
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 green pepper, chopped fine (Kate substitutes chopped celery)
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. pepper
18 saltine crackers, crushed
16 oz. tomato sauce
Mix well and put into loaf pan. Optional: top with an additional 8 oz. of tomato sauce.
Bake at 350° for one hour. Check and possibly cook for another 15 to 30 minutes.
2 cup asparagus (Gram used canned, but you may use one bunch of fresh, trimmed and lightly steamed.)
1 cup sour cream
1/4 cup mayonnaise
2 T. lemon juice
Arrange asparagus in a single layer in a small rectangular baking dish. Mix sour cream, mayonnaise, and lemon juice and pour over asparagus. Top with breadcrumbs and bake until topping is brown and dish is heated through.
1 cup Minute Rice
1 cup sour cream
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar
1 can cream of celery soup
4 oz. can chopped chilies
Mix and bake at 350° for 35-40 minutes.
All Blue Plate Café Mysteries include a selection of recipes.
Murder at the Blue Plate Café
Small towns are supposed to be idyllic and peaceful, but when Kate Chambers returns to her hometown of Wheeler, Texas, she soon learns it is not the comfortable place it was when she grew up. First there’s Gram’s sudden death, which leaves her suspicious, and then the death of her married sister’s lover. Kate runs Gram’s restaurant, the Blue Plate Café, but she must defend her sister against a murder charge, solve the murders to keep her business open, and figure out where the café’s profits are going. Even Kate begins to wonder about the twin sister she has a love-hate relationship with. Gram guides Kate through it all, though Kate’s never quite sure she’s hearing Gram—and sometimes Gram’s guidance is really off the wall.