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Baum On Books

Book Review: 'My Mother's Kitchen'

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At an age many people retire – or expire – Judy Gethers who never worked a day in her life became a renowned gourmet chef. The granddaughter of a famed dairy restaurant owner on the Lower East Side, Ratner’s, she loved to eat well, but that was it. And then one day, sitting with her husband in Ma Maison, Wolfgang Puck’s upscale restaurant in Los Angeles, she suddenly decided she wanted to learn how to cook. She was 53.  

Puck put her to work as an unpaid intern in his kitchen: “You’ll be our slave,” he told her, “but after a year, you’ll be a real French cook.” Her loving husband was totally supportive, proud of the little lady from Brooklyn’s desire to be her own person. She found an identity and whose generosity and warmth that made her the confidante and loving colleague of many a leading culinary light, including Julia Child.

As for her younger son, Peter Gethers, 22 at the time his mother made her life-altering move, he was at turns shocked, disbelieving, amazed, challenged and finally inspired by his mother’s determination, taste and rise to stardom. All of which he lovingly chronicles in his memoir, My Mother’s Kitchen: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, and the Meaning of Life.   

A testimony of admiration not only for his mother but also for his father, a failed actor turned successful playwright, TV producer and wine expert, the book celebrates with charming self-deprecating humor, the importance of passion and perseverance, and the connection between family and food. After getting imminent death sentences from the age of 40 on, eventually for four kinds of cancers and succumbing to two major strokes, Judy Gethers at the age of 93, defied the odds, even going out with her hospice nurse weeks before she died last February at the age of 93 to eat a pastrami sandwich. With mustard and pickles.

The book is a bit too long and not that revealing about the author’s own life, but it’s full of engaging anecdotes, augmented by easy-to-follow recipes and folksy family photos, and it makes a strong case for food as the ultimate prompt to learn about others…and ourselves.

As Gethers puts it, quoting Orson Welles, “Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch.” Gethers’ comments are shrewd and down-to-earth. After detailing how to make Italian country breadcrumbs, he adds that it’s okay to buy store-bought stuff. “If you serve them in a little bowl with a sauce, people will think they’re better than they are.”

Of course, not everyone is blessed with loving parents, who loved each other as well as their children and grandchildren, and Gethers does acknowledge family tensions, some of them ugly. He says, “Love can fade. Families can break apart. Nothing you do in the kitchen can really alter that.” But what My Mother’s Kitchen shows, joyously, nostalgically, is that cooking can give hope. “Hope that by combining different ingredients we can somehow create something newer and better. Something magical. It gives us hope that if we try again, maybe we’ll get it right.”