Cooking My Way through Life with Kids and Books
by Judy Alter

State House Press, 2009. ISBN 978-1-933-33733-3.
Reviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 07/07/2009

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Food/Cooking/Kitchen

I loved Judy Alter's delightful memoir, Cooking My Way through Life with Kids and Books. This is a book about life and love, kitchens and cooking and kids. It's full of recipes (good food, stick-to-the-ribs American food), and it reflects the times and places of Alter's experiences as a daughter, wife, mom, working mom, and cook. That some of the times and places she writes about happen to be times and places in my own life is coincidental and certainly added to my enjoyment of the book, but I'm willing to bet that you'll enjoy it, too.

Alter's dining experience begins where mine did, in her mother's 1940s meat-and-potatoes Chicago kitchen. Meatloaf was on the menu, along with spinach soufflé, wilted lettuce, and cranberry relish—along with memories of her father's proper attention to food ("No fried chicken—in fact, nothing that you picked up with your hands") and her mother's belief that the only way a kid learns to cook is by making a mess in the kitchen.

Marriage to a young doctor, moves to Missouri and Texas, and children of her own brought Alter a different awareness of food, and her mother-in-law's Jewish cooking began to influence her own. But after seventeen years of latkes, chopped liver, white lasagna, Texas caviar, baked brie, marinated goat cheese, and other "entertainment" dishes, the marriage ended and was succeeded by what she calls the "casserole years." In her new life, Alter was a single, working mother who moved out of her "doctor's wife's house" and into a place that she and the children could manage together. In that house, in that time of her life, the menus featured casseroles. Gorilla Casserole, for example ("you could feed twelve gorillas with it for less than $6); turkey hash; eggplant parmesan; and Judy's Mild and Tentative Chili. By that time (here's where the "books" in the title come in), Alter had embarked on two simultaneous careers: she became editor of the Texas Christian University Press and she began writing juvenile nonfiction, eventually authoring "about sixty" books for young people.

And now we have reached the "living alone and liking it" years, when a meatball sandwich for one is perfect, or a single salmon fillet or a Cobb salad or banana crepes—and plenty of cooking-for-one shortcuts. But Alter still cooks for crowds when her family comes to visit, for "cooking and passing along its joy" are an important part of her life, she says. That's certainly clear from the many family photographs that illustrate Cooking My Way.

This is a homey book that made me hungry for similar times in my own past and present; made me think about the many ways good food and good cooking bring our families together; and made me smile at the many tender moments when Alter's pleasure in her life and her work comes so clearly through on the page. Of course there are difficult times, too. But a life well lived (and food well cooked) takes the raw edges off. If you want to go home again and remember what your kitchens have been like over the years, read Judy Alter's fine memoir. And then get out the pots and pans and start cooking.

Check out our interview with the author of Cooking My Way through Life with Kids and Books.

Judy Alter is the director of TCU Press in Fort Worth, Texas, a position she has held for 23 years. A single mother of four and grandmother of seven, she lives in Fort Worth with her Australian shepherd, Cooby and her gray cat wywy. Visit her blog and her website.

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