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My Mother's Kitchen: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, and the Meaning of Life

My Mother's Kitchen: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, and the Meaning of Life

by Peter Gethers

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My Mother's Kitchen is a funny, moving memoir about a son’s discovery that his mother has a genius for understanding the intimate connections between cooking, people and love

Peter Gethers wants to give his aging mother a very personal and perhaps final gift: a spectacular feast featuring all her favorite dishes. The problem is, although


My Mother's Kitchen is a funny, moving memoir about a son’s discovery that his mother has a genius for understanding the intimate connections between cooking, people and love

Peter Gethers wants to give his aging mother a very personal and perhaps final gift: a spectacular feast featuring all her favorite dishes. The problem is, although he was raised to love food and wine he doesn’t really know how to cook. So he embarks upon an often hilarious and always touching culinary journey that will ultimately allow him to bring his mother’s friends and loved ones to the table one last time.

The daughter of a restaurateur—the restaurant was New York’s legendary Ratner’s—Judy Gethers discovered a passion for cooking in her 50s. In time, she became a mentor and friend to several of the most famous chefs in America, including Wolfgang Puck, Nancy Silverton and Jonathan Waxman; she also wrote many cookbooks and taught cooking alongside Julia Child. In her 80s, she was robbed of her ability to cook by a debilitating stroke. But illness has brought her closer than ever to her son: Peter regularly visits her so they can share meals, and he can ask questions about her colorful past, while learning her kitchen secrets. Gradually his ambition becomes manifest: he decides to learn how to cook his mother the meal of her dreams and thereby tell the story of her life to all those who have loved her.

With his trademark wit and knowing eye, Peter Gethers has written an unforgettable memoir about how food and family can do much more than feed us—they can nourish our souls.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"[In My Mother's Kitchen,] Gethers decides to learn to cook his mother's favorite dishes, then cook them for her.... Their relationship has always been solid, and her son's patience and love are wonderful to behold." —The New York Times Book Review

“Each [recipe] is an avenue into Gethers’ own personal memories of his family, which he tells in a funny, practiced, exuberant voice, a raconteur’s voice…. [His] depiction of [his mother’s] merciless palate, quiet feminism and courageously resilient spirit give My Mother’s Kitchen a reliable homing signal…. Its recipes may not change your life, but some dish has, somewhere along the line; if you’re fortunate you remember who made it for you as clearly and lovingly as this book does.” —USA Today

"With a splash of good humor, a twist of Jewish kitsch, and a generous sprinkling of fun, Gethers’ love and appreciation for his mother, and her spontaneous, late-in-life jump into a brand-new chapter stand as a most fitting tribute to freedom, strength, and independence – for Judy and for every woman who dares to take a leap into the unknown."—ReformJudaism.com

"A wonderful tribute to family, food, travel, and spirit.... Readers will leave feeling deeply connected to Gethers’ legendary mom, not to mention hungry for good food—and a good life.”—Booklist

"A funny, irreverent, and joyous testament to a remarkable life."—Publishers Weekly

"A very funny as well as moving tribute. A well-written and engaging memoir.... Also a great primer on second acts and living (and dying) well." —Library Journal

"Exuberant and entertaining.... A loving family portrait and a treat for foodies." —Kirkus Reviews

“Proust had his madeleine; Judy Gethers had her matzo brei. Here is a memoir—and a menu—that perfectly pays tribute to a patron saint of American gastronomy. Through his generous storytelling, Peter Gethers provides all the satisfaction and enrichment of a delicious meal.”—Dan Barber

"What a heartening love letter! A love letter to moms, a love letter to recipes, to menus, to dishes; a love letter to restaurants and other families; a love letter to the comfort and optimism that making food brings with it."—Yotam Ottolenghi

"Peter Gethers has written a hilarious and emotional memoir about his relationship with his beloved mother Judy, who, with pluck, style and chutzpah shaped the author, her loving marriage and their family life, dish by dish. There is much to savor here: and every story comes with a recipe: the glory days of their family restaurant/celeb haunt Ratner's (those onion rolls!), the Hollywood years with Bing Crosby singing that song at the piano, Judy's gutsy mid-life career as a chef encouraged by Mr. Puck himself, and her full circle move back to Manhattan. Every recipe is a love letter, mother to son, and now, luckily and generously, shared with all of us. Scrumptious."—Adriana Trigiani, author of The Shoemaker’s Wife and All the Stars in Heaven

"Peter Gethers understands the ways of cookbooks so well. But only after reading My Mother’s Kitchen did I realize his own transgenerational involvement with family and food. His was a Jewish kitchen, mine an Italian kitchen. The flavors might have been different but the sentiments and connections through food were the same. A great read!"—Lidia Bastianich

"A very personal love poem to the amazing Judy Gethers. I was one of Judy's ‘adopted’ children after I met her in 1980 at Ma Maison. She was funny, stern, serious, organized, loving and, most of all, a passionate cook. I was saddened by her passing; thankfully Peter Gethers brings back the Judy we all loved."—Jonathan Waxman

“Even if you don't have a penchant for memoirs that exhibit a son's true love and reverence for his mother, or include fascinating and hysterical old New York stories, or work in some killer recipes, you should read this book just because it contains the phrase ‘kreplach-eating hoods.’”—Tara Clancy, author of The Clancys of Queens

"I came to Los Angeles in my mid-20s, becoming head chef and partner at Ma Maison. That's where I met Judy Gethers, whom I soon came to think of as my second mother. Like my mother, Judy always looked after me—as a kind, gentle, and generous friend; as co-author on my first four cookbooks; and as director of my Ma Cuisine cooking school. In fact, I always liked to say that Judy was the Ma of Ma Cuisine. She was its heart and soul."—Wolfgang Puck

"Rare is the book that has you laughing on crying on the same page. My Mother’s Kitchen is so much more than the enticingly-written recipes or a nostalgic look at bygone dishes and restaurants. Instead Gethers posits – with unflinching and refreshing realism - that food and humor are the only antidotes to aging and illness. Gethers inherits this gift for language, for laughing, and for eating from his mother Judy, less a matriarch than a force of nature, and the beating heart of the book." —Stephanie Danler, author of Sweetbitter

"My Mother's Kitchen is beautiful and touching. It’s a must read for anyone who ever had a mother, was part of a family, or who ate breakfast in the morning. And it’s enormously moving in the best of ways--tender, perfectly seasoned, magnifique."A.M. Homes, author of May We Be Forgiven

"A treasure for feminists, foodies, people who care about family ties and values, and for smart people who love to read. My Mother's Kitchen is sophisticated and delicious, filled with fine sentiment, yet without a hint of schmaltz." —Susan Isaacs, author of Shining Through

Library Journal
Most people think their mother is special, but not many of us have a mother who starts a new career at age 53 and quickly becomes a world-famous chef and cooking teacher at Ma Maison, hobnobbing with Wolfgang Puck and Julia Child. This new memoir and paean to his mother is the work of Gethers (The Cat Who Went to Paris). His father was a Hollywood writer and producer, while his mother's family founded Ratner's deli in New York, which operated from 1905 to 2004. With this kind of background, there is no dearth of material. The book is loosely structured around a series of his mother's favorite dishes that he attempts to re-create for her before her death at age 93. Personal and family stories are interspersed with his tribulations of trying to prepare these often-complicated recipes to his mothers' still gourmet standards. All of this makes for a very funny as well as moving tribute. VERDICT A well-written and engaging memoir, particularly for foodies. Also a great primer on second acts and living (and dying) well.—Susan Hurst, Miami Univ. Libs., Oxford, OH
Kirkus Reviews
A celebration of food connects a mother and son.In an exuberant and entertaining memoir, novelist, screenwriter, playwright, editor, and producer Gethers (Ask Bob, 2013, etc.) pays homage to his mother, an accomplished cook, and to the amazing food they both loved. His goal in writing, he says, "was to cook with my mom, to share the breakfast and lunch menus with her as I went along, and to become proficient enough in the kitchen so I could make the dinner of her dreams." His mother died before he could make that dinner, but the author includes recipes for her favorite dishes along with a running commentary of his occasionally bumbling efforts to cook some complicated gourmet dishes invented by chefs that his mother admired: Joël Robuchon's mashed potatoes, for example, Yotam Ottolenghi's quail, and Wolfgang Puck's salmon coulibiac. Judy Gethers committed fully to cooking at age 53, honing her skills at the esteemed Los Angeles restaurant Ma Maison, where Puck reigned. Cooking, the author writes, "quickly became an all-consuming passion, and her life soon revolved around crème caramels and salmon mousse and various foods en croute." Although devoted to her warm and supportive husband and their two grown sons, she also found in the restaurant "a new family" among the staff (Puck became a beloved friend) and "a new kind of exhilaration." She redefined herself through cooking and reveled in her accomplishments. Inspired by his mother's new passion, Gethers edited cookbooks and produced food-related TV shows; he also began to cook, taking on some daunting challenges. When he first read the multistep recipe for salmon coulibiac, he admits he felt "borderline hysterical," but he managed to produce a dish that was, he writes proudly, "a work of art"—but not as amazing as what his mother would have made. "My mother's food," he exults, "has always been exactly like my mother: appealing, comforting, genuine, unpretentious, at times whimsical, always elegant." A loving family portrait and a treat for foodies.

Product Details

Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
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Read an Excerpt

My Mother's Kitchen

Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, and the Meaning of Life

By Peter Gethers

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2017 Peter Gethers
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-12065-6


I have two distinct images of my mother that I will always carry with me.

One is from Christmas 2007, when she was eighty-five years old. On October 5 of that year, she suffered a massive stroke that hit the absolute center of her brain. In the hospital, the next afternoon, a doctor in the ER told me it was likely she would have locked-in syndrome — she would not be able to speak or move ever again.

On October 7, the day after this dire diagnosis, my mother laughed. I walked into her room, saw her gray hair soaked with sweat and plastered against the top of her head, her skin a kind of faded yellow-green, the color of a fish out of the water for too long, the bright hues disappearing at the speed of life, and my first words were: "Lookin' good, Mom." Her eyes rolled in mock annoyance, her lips curled into a "Don't be such a smartass" expression, and she barked out a hoarse chuckle. An hour or so after that, she crooked the index finger of her left hand — the right one was curled up in a rigid fist against her body — motioning me to come closer. "A lot of shit," she managed to whisper.

The day after that, she began physical and speech therapy.

Several days later, she was moved to a rehabilitation center where she didn't just have to learn how to walk and talk again, the therapists had to teach her how to swallow and eat and drink. Their prediction: she would never be able to go home.

On December 18, five weeks or so after she entered the facility, I managed to take her out of the rehab center in a wheelchair, with the help of my lifelong friend Paul Eagle. I probably should say "barely managed to" because it was as if two of the Three Stooges had been put in charge of this maneuver, and unfortunately we were Larry and Curly; we didn't even have Moe's mental dexterity. Forget about getting her in and out of the chair and in and out of the car, we couldn't even figure out how to fold the wheelchair and stick it in the trunk. My mother marveled at our ineptitude the entire way, but somehow we moved her from West 110th Street to West 84th Street so she could attend an annual Christmas party thrown by our close friends, Kathleen Moloney and Dominick Abel. My mom hadn't missed one of their seasonal bashes since she'd moved to New York over a decade earlier.

She would not allow me to wheel her into the party — she refused to enter like that. She insisted on walking in, which, with some assistance, is exactly what she did. She had dinner, participated in the evening's conversation (she mostly listened; I don't want to make her sound like some kind of superhero), and took some pleasure in being the center of attention. Toward the end of the evening, Dominick ceremoniously brought out his glorious special dessert, which he makes every year for the party, a mound of croquembouche: pastry cream–stuffed profiteroles piled high into a cone-like mound and linked with crunchy strands of caramel. My mother was the only other person I knew who ever made them (every Halloween, while most kids got Snickers and jelly beans from the neighbors, my mom made croquembouche, and that's what she passed out to the small ghosts and princesses and aliens who knocked on her apartment door). As Dominick approached with the tray, my mom took one of the doughy balls very carefully with her left hand — her right hand and most of her right side were basically still useless at this point — and bit into it. I remember the look on her face as the taste resonated, and I watched her lick a dab of the custard that had settled on her upper lip. Our eyes met and, although she didn't utter a word, I knew what she was saying to me: This is why I refused to die.

The other is from the late 1970s, a couple of years after another life-changing event. At the age of fifty-three she had taken her first-ever real job, a low-level one, in a fancy Los Angeles restaurant. I knew that she was quite suddenly immersed in a whole new understanding of and appreciation for food, chefs, and cooking, but I had yet to see any manifestation of that.

I was in L.A. on my first business trip there from New York and, not secure enough to trust that my company would actually fork out the dough to pay for a hotel room, I was reduced to staying with my parents. They lived in a beautiful 1920s Spanish-style house above Mulholland Drive, with a glittering airplane view of the San Fernando Valley. Coming straight from the airport, I pulled my Rent-a-Wreck car into their driveway and, small canvas suitcase in hand, went through the gate that led to the patio off the garage, then through the side door that opened into the kitchen. I stepped inside to see my mother, her back to me, preparing something on the well-worn tiled counter that snaked around most of the room. I'm not sure what she was making, but it was something substantial and weighty: an onion, perhaps, or carrots or potatoes. She was chopping, the way a real chef does, slicing down rapidly and efficiently with the knife in her right hand, effortlessly guiding the blade with her left, making sure the sharp edge could only come up against her knuckles and not cut into her skin. She didn't immediately notice that I was there, so for several moments I was able to watch her closely. Displaying a remarkable sense of ease and comfort, she was at peace while she chopped. But there was also something more than that: she was in total command of this small and immediate world. Her movements showed a supreme confidence, a subtle but sublime control of her actions.

I had never seen this sort of satisfaction emanating from my mother before and I realized, for the first time, that I had never quite understood her. There were layers I had missed and a depth that had been kept hidden from me. My father was the dominant personality in our family: he was the public success, the one with the large ego, and our gregarious link to the outside world. But I had never observed this kind of quiet confidence in my father. He always seemed to be shadowed by doubt and, just beneath the surface, was clearly engaged in some sort of internal struggle.

After a few moments, my mother heard me, or maybe just sensed my presence, turned, and smiled. She put down her knife, wiped her hands instinctively on her apron, and kissed me on the cheek to say hello.

Moments later, my father came downstairs to greet me with his usual effusiveness and edgy affection. I went up to my old room to shower, change, and unpack, my dad headed back to his electric typewriter to continue working, and my mom continued preparing dinner. Even though I was now a bit of an outsider in their world, even though we were all well aware that my return was brief and temporary, life for the rest of that afternoon and evening was as it always had been.

Except I knew that, somehow, it really wasn't.

* * *

It is never easy to find comfort.

Not the kind that is lasting and true. Not the kind that confronts reality head-on rather than seeking to disguise it.

Faith is not comfort as far as I'm concerned. Faith is all about hoping to find comfort. I prefer something that will do me some good in the here and now. But the world does not seem to be designed that way. At least for most people.

My mom has most definitely never been most people.

In the early fall of 2014 I got a phone call from my mother, who had recently turned ninety-two. I could tell from her tone that she wanted to discuss something a bit more serious than the oversalted soup her aide had made or the tasteless tomatoes bought at the supermarket.

After her stroke in 2007, my mom couldn't cook anymore — a genuine lessening of the quality of her life since cooking was a true and valued personal pleasure, not just a professional one. But her superb palate was unchanged. Her ability to distinguish between good and not-so-good food was probably more important to her than at any point in her life. So not long after her stoke, I arranged to have a young chef, a lovely woman named Jenny Cheng who had recently graduated from cooking school in New York, spend one day a week cooking for my mom. Jenny soon realized that my mother was more than just a passive diner; her knowledge of food was extensive and she loved to pass that knowledge on. So before long, in addition to cooking, Jenny also started going through the many cookbooks on my mom's bookshelves and talking to my mother about food and recipes and technique, about flavors and taste.

My mother, quite aphasic after the stroke, had dismissed the idea of speech lessons and group speech classes from the very beginning of her home recovery process; she found them condescending for some reason, plus she didn't love displaying her handicap in public. But discussing food with Jenny engaged and energized her and she realized she still had the ability to teach (and to make the food Jenny was preparing a lot better, taking back some of the control she had lost). Talking about her meals — critiquing what she had just eaten, going through recipes to figure out what she would eat the following week, telling stories about her various food-related experiences, reexploring recipes from the cookbooks she'd written over the years — was more than just an important element in her recovery, it was critical to maintaining her daily appreciation of life.

In time, Jenny had a baby and she was replaced by another terrific woman (and cook), Joyce Huang, who eventually also moved on, replaced by yet another wonderful woman and chef, Cynthia Tomasini. They are all passionate about what they do, and they value the time they have spent talking food with my mother; they learned as they worked. For my mom, these three women became a link to the outside world as well as to a much younger generation, a connection she valued as much as the delicious food they prepared for her.

On the phone that evening, my mother seemed subdued. Sensing that something was bothering her, I went over to her apartment — the apartment the doctors said she would never return to but where she is living comfortably with several wonderful live-in companions (thank you, long-term health care insurance!). Post-stroke, it is difficult for my mother to walk without someone holding her and guiding her. She needs help showering and with all bodily functions. Her hearing is pretty much gone. And it's difficult for her to read and focus on anything much longer than a New York Times article. But what frustrates her the most is that her aphasia makes it difficult for her to have lengthy or substantive conversations. Her memory is perfect, she forgets nothing, and there is zero hint of any dementia, but it's an aggravating and sometimes torturous process for her to recall certain words, particularly nouns and proper names. She will struggle, for instance, to come up with the name of the restaurant she ate in the night before or what kind of cuisine they serve, but she'll tell you exactly where it is located, including the cross streets. She'll also tell you precisely what she thought of the food.

On this night, we were having an impromptu dinner of Joyce's leftovers when my mother made it clear that she was determined to say something, no matter the struggle. And she did. It was arduous and exhausting work for her, but she managed to say something she had never said to me before.

"I think ... it's ... too hard."

"What's too hard?" I asked.

A long silence and then: "Life."


I was shocked. My mother has had at least four different cancers and two strokes. When she was forty, she was given a 5 percent chance of living twelve more months due to a melanoma. When she was in her early seventies, she had her first stroke while in a tent, on safari in Africa. With the right side of her body partially paralyzed, she walked several miles, took a boat across a river, got to an airport so she could take a plane to London, spent the night at a hotel there, and then flew back to New York — I swear this is true! — at which point she called me to say she must have eaten some bad giraffe meat or something because she couldn't move her right arm or leg. As I repeated her symptoms aloud, my longtime girlfriend, Janis Donnaud, was frantically mouthing the words, "She had a stroke! We have to get her to the hospital!" Which is what we did, and she spent several weeks there until she recovered fully.

But with all of that, she had never — not once, not ever — hinted that her life was anything but enjoyable.

I was certain my mom hadn't heard me so I repeated, louder: "Really? You think your life is too hard?"

She nodded. And also made a face at me to show she knew I was talking too loud, because she hates any reference to her poor hearing and refuses to acknowledge the need for hearing aids, even though she is pretty much deaf as a stone. The only words she ever seems to hear clearly are those I mutter quietly, the ones she's not supposed to hear.

"As in too hard to keep going?" I asked.

She shrugged. The shrug said: It's possible.

"What's so hard about it?" I asked. "Can you tell me?"

She nodded. "It's hard."

"I know. But what in particular?"

"Hard ... for you."

"For me? What do you mean?"

"Hard for you ... to ... take care of me."

I couldn't help it. I had to laugh. A few days earlier one of her air conditioners had sputtered and quit working — not a good thing during a summer heat wave — and I'd quickly purchased her a new one, arranging to have it delivered and installed. My mom doesn't like that I have to handle many of her day-to-day problems — a new air conditioner, talking to the cable company when her TV goes out, scheduling her physical therapy — and it drives her crazy that I often don't let her pay for whatever needs to be done. Of course, not everything goes off without a hitch, especially in Manhattan, and there was a screwup with the air conditioner delivery — my mother had gone out for a walk (actually, she went out for a wheel, as in wheelchair, but she likes to call it a walk) during the allotted delivery time. I'd gotten aggravated that I had to rearrange the service call and I guess hadn't disguised my aggravation too well.

"So," I said, "you're talking about being ready to die because I had to buy you an air conditioner and got pissed off that you weren't here when the guys delivered it?"

"Yes," she said.

"I promise," I told her, "your being alive is not too hard on me. In fact, I actually like it."

She nodded, accepting the information.

"So other than being hard on me, you still like your life?"

"Yes," she said.

She then took a bite of the duck breast that Joyce had made for her.

"How's the duck?" I asked.

"Delicious," my mom said. And suddenly all traces of her aphasia were gone. "Very well cooked. Better today at room temperature. Outside crisp but moist inside. Maybe too much salt."

And there it was again. The same quiet confidence and discernment, the comfort that comes with knowledge, the calm that comes with understanding something from the inside.

Many months after my mother had her stroke, her doctor, a brilliant gerontologist, Mark Lachs, said something that astonished me and yet wasn't really a surprise. "There's something very odd about your mother's recovery," he said. "She never went through a period where she got depressed or angry. Everyone whose life changes the way hers has — she needs a constant companion, she's lost most of her self-sufficiency, her aphasia, everything is a struggle — gets angry or depressed. I tried to put her on an antidepressant, which is normal for people in her position, but she refused. And I spent a lot of time talking to her about it. She's not in denial, not in any way. She just seems to accept what happened and has refused to buckle under to it. She's decided to do the best she can and be happy with what she's got rather than worry about what she's lost. I've never actually seen anything like it."

I didn't understand how she'd become that person. I don't remember her being like that when I was a child. No one else was like that in my family. Not my dad, who got a huge amount of pleasure from so many things but was, at heart, angry and disappointed with a good chunk of what life had dealt him and frustrated by the compromises he'd chosen to make. Certainly not my brother, who is, as near as I can tell, unhappy to his core. My father's side of the family could hardly be called happy-go-lucky. It would be hard to even label many of his relatives as sane. None of my mother's sisters or brothers came even close to the kind of honorable and intelligent equanimity with which she goes through life. Nor do any of their children.

In some ways I come closest, I suppose. But it still isn't all that close. I get a huge amount of pleasure out of life but also understand melancholy and fury and frustration. I am capable of punishing myself with regret over poor choices and missed opportunities and just plain screwups, can seethe over the injustices I perceive in the world, all too often struggle against the inevitable future, rage against narrow-minded thinking and people who shrink away from knowledge and facts, and feel defeated by the things I am unable to affect and change. I can also be brought to a near-murderous fury, especially when talking to Verizon representatives or pondering our insane gun culture, or reading about female genital mutilation in Africa or having to live through James Dolan's reign over the Knicks, making the odds approximately a billion to one that I will ever see another championship banner in the Garden in my lifetime.


Excerpted from My Mother's Kitchen by Peter Gethers. Copyright © 2017 Peter Gethers. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Peter Gethers is an author, screenwriter, playwright, book editor, and film and television producer. His books include The Cat Who Went to Paris, the first in a bestselling trilogy about his extraordinary cat, Norton. He is also the cocreator and coproducer of the hit off-Broadway play Old Jews Telling Jokes. He lives in New York City, Sag Harbor, New York, and, whenever possible, Sicily.

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