Author Peter Gethers knows good food. After all, his late parents — Judy Gethers, who wrote eight cookbooks, and Steven Gethers, an epicurean at heart — exposed the family to the pleasures of eating.
As a college student, Gethers indulged his appetite at the family’s famed kosher dairy, Ratner’s, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and later binged at Ma Maison, a Los Angeles hot spot helmed by Wolfgang Puck, where his mother, at age 53, sought a second act working in the kitchen.
But the most poignant memories Gethers recalls in his memoir “My Mother’s Kitchen: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, and the Meaning of Life” (Henry Holt and Co., $28), are the ones from the end of his mother’s life. After two strokes rendered Judy incapable of cooking for herself, Peter set out to recreate the classic dishes that meant the most to her.
In between courses of salmon coulibiac and tarte tatin, the two shared vivid memories about the moments that shaped their lives and their relationship.
Gethers spoke with Newsday by telephone from his Sag Harbor home; the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Which dishes elicited the strongest memories for you and your mother?
They all did to a degree. The simplest recipe in the whole book, the chocolate pudding, was a very emotional dish to cook and then eat, for various reasons. One was because the woman who used to make it for me, Louise Trotty, was so important to me, and the connection of the dish to when my mother had cancer — I used to feed it to her to fatten her up — when she was around 40. There’s also an extreme pleasure that comes from just the idea of having a wooden spoon filled with warm chocolate pudding from a pot right now that will make me both smile and weep. The pleasure is palpable.
I did make it again for my then 93-year-old mother, her pleasure at revisiting something so simple, that I’m sure she hadn’t tasted in decades, was incredibly emotional.
The recipes also served as powerful tools to counteract your mother’s aphasia, right?
Oh, yes. It was a memory jogger for both of us. The pleasure for me was not just the cooking. The pleasure for me is what is around the cooking, the storytelling and the sharing. My mother was very aphasic, but she was also wildly stubborn. I had long, long conversations with her. Sometimes they’d take longer than they normally would have because she had trouble with words. But when we were eating and cooking, and I was interviewing her, she was kind of thrilled. We just talked about stuff. We’d talk about my father. We talked very honestly about her dying. It was kind of extraordinary.
Of your father’s death you write, “When a parent or a spouse dies there is, along with sadness and the ache of loss, a liberating kind of freedom.” Did that affect the way you and your mother coped with the loss?
I think it did. My father was sick for a few years. He had cancer. I think while [my mother] was desperately sad, because they had been together since they were 14 and had as good a relationship as two people could have, my mother was free to a degree. Suddenly she wasn’t tied to someone who wouldn’t travel and was afraid to go places or be away from his doctor. She’d rather have had him and not had that freedom, but when she did have that freedom, she took advantage of it. She used it as an opportunity to grow instead of how many people shrink from that kind of experience.
In retrospect, had you seen your mother’s reinventions, say her jumping back into the kitchen at age 53, as a coping mechanism? Or a way for her to keep living?
I think it was a combination, and it’s why my mother was such an interesting person. Even up until the minute she died she never stopped growing and being curious. I think she had reached a stage where she grew out of being the youngest Jewish daughter in a rather smothering family to being a suburban housewife. By the time she was in her early 50s it was time for her to come into her own. My mother had always been interested in food, particularly with the Ratner’s background. That’s what sparked it. Suddenly food was an opportunity to grow and become her own person. She had to seize it.