Dad overindulged, mom wasn’t interested in cooking, but with her grandmother’s help, My Fat Dad memoirist Dawn Lerman found a path through a difficult childhood.
by Sue Tomchin
“Everyone has a food story to tell,” Dawn Lerman said when we spoke recently about her new book. But the story she tells in her affecting memoir with recipes, My Fat Dad, is a far cry from the usual fare. She writes about her hunger as a child as the lonely child of distracted parents who weren’t equipped to create nourishing meals or a conventional home life.
Learning to cook healthfully gave her a focus and direction—and ultimately a professional calling. “Eating healthy and cooking for myself even as a young child brought me a sense of stability in an environment that was very chaotic,” she told me. Today, a certified nutritionist who coaches families and individuals in healthy eating through her company Magnificent Mommies, she also contributes to the New York Times Well blog and offers “Girl Power,” a class on self-confidence and empowerment for teens.
Lerman’s dad is now a vegetarian who has his weight under control. But when she was growing up, he was constantly fighting a war against obesity. At his heaviest, he tipped the scales at 450 pounds. A brilliant ad copywriter who created such iconic slogans as “This Bud’s for You,” “Coke is It.,” and “Leggo my Eggo,” he often worked late or had to be out in the evening wining and dining clients. That meant indulging in the “Mad Men” diet of martinis, steaks, and blackout chocolate cake. He also felt he needed to use and believe in the products for which he was developing ad campaigns, “testing them excessively—especially when he was working on Kentucky Fried Chicken, Schlitz Beer, Sprite and Pringle’s Potato Chips,” Lerman writes.
The pounds packed on and he became a yo-yo dieter with shirts of every size to accommodate his ever expanding and contracting girth. He tried one plan after another to reduce: Atkins, Pritikin, the Cabbage Soup Diet, the Grapefruit Diet, the Metrecal shake diet, et al. He even spent six months at Duke on the legendary Rice Diet, which had as its centerpiece small servings of white rice and fruit. At one point, he insisted that to keep him on track, Dawn and her mother adapt to the saccharine-laced, freeze-dried food plan he was trying.
Lerman’s mom’s attitude toward food veered to the opposite pole. She was happy to subsist on tuna eaten out of the can with a plastic fork while she talked on the phone. She had minimal interest in preparing meals, rebelling against her mother’s life centered on cooking. Showing affection didn’t come easily to her. She longed for adventure, and preferred to be out in the world, taking drama classes, pursuing her interest in various causes and accompanying her husband when he entertained clients and traveled for business. The family almost never had meals together, Lerman writes, and, “in fact, never ate sitting down.”
Having one person who loves and believes in you can help you “feel good inside and grow up strong,” Lerman’s maternal grandmother Beauty told her. Her grandmother was that person. Spending weekends with her grandparents became a weekly ritual that Dawn looked forward to and her parents depended on since they liked staying out until late in the evening. Beauty always had “a pot of something cooking on the stove, a freshly drawn bath, and a fluffy lavender- smelling nightgown” ready for when her “precious Dawn” arrived.
They would sit down together for Shabbat meals at a table that was beautifully set with gleaming silver and an embroidered cloth. The food was made-from-scratch and delicious. Together, they strolled through Beauty’s Chicago neighborhood, visiting the bakery, fish market and fruit stand, sampling as they went along, returning home to put on a pot of chicken soup or measure the ingredients for a batch of matzoh balls.
“My grandmother taught me how to nourish myself emotionally and nutritionally,” Lerman related. “She would say ‘If you know how to make a pot of chicken soup or a noodle kugel you’ll be able to nourish yourself for a lifetime.’”
Years before healthy eating advocate Michael Pollan penned his Food Rules, Beauty taught her granddaughter that when you use fresh and healthy ingredients, you are never disappointed in the results. Food “needs to be made in nature, not in a factory,” she would say.
“One day she held up one of my dad’s chocolate crumb doughnuts and said ‘smell this,’” Lerman told me. “‘What does it smell like? Nothing.’ But when she would make a homemade muffin the whole apartment would be filled with the aroma of chocolate, vanilla, and bananas.”
When Lerman was nine, she and her parents and younger sister moved to New York City where her dad had been offered a position as creative director for the advertising firm, McCann Erikson. Despite being far apart geographically, Beauty didn’t waver in her devotion to her granddaughter. Each week she sent her a recipe card and a $20 bill so she could buy ingredients. Those, “recipe cards saved me and gave me a purpose,” Lerman said.
Today, Lerman works to teach others what her grandmother taught her about eating healthy and nourishing families. “I come into my client’s home and the first thing I do is what I call a ‘kitchen raid,’” she said. “I go through the cupboards and find out about what foods family members crave.”
After learning about the family’s schedule and the foods that everyone enjoys, she takes both parents and children on a field trip to Whole Foods or a health food store to explore healthy ingredients that can be swapped for less healthy ones. (At the back of My Fat Dad she includes a “Swap Chart.”)
If brownies are a favorite, Lerman makes a healthy version with pureed garbanzo beans instead of flour, sweetened with dates, and using coconut oil as the healthy fat. “They have protein, a complex carbohydrate and healthy fat and taste delicious,” she told me. Even chicken nuggets can be reinvented. In a few minutes you can take pieces of boneless chicken, dip them in beaten organic eggs, roll them in almond flour and then fry them in coconut or olive oil.
As a mom herself, Lerman recognizes that families are time-challenged. “I can make a healthy version of anything you love and you’ll be able to prepare it in 10 minutes with a baby in one arm,” she said and supplies clients with recipes for five easy breakfasts, lunches and dinners based on their food preferences. She checks back with them to offer suggestions and more recipes.
Lerman even revamps kugel by using Ezekiel pasta, replacing sour cream with yogurt, adding flax seeds and apples, and using coconut oil instead of butter. She has never forgotten her grandmother’s chicken soup and usually makes a pot once a week. “It takes 15 minutes to prepare and makes 10 meals. I keep adding water to it and and chopped kale or spinach before serving.” She sometimes adds ginger or turmeric to give it an international flair.
“Prepare once a week on Sunday for meals the rest of the week,” she advised, by making up batches of muffins, mini quiches, French toast and soup that can be frozen and then popped in a toaster oven or microwave. Each thing takes a few minutes to prepare, “less time than it takes to wait in line at Starbucks.”
“If you can’t do family dinner every night, do it once a week or Sunday and Wednesday or have a picnic together while on your way somewhere else,” Lerman suggested.
“Know that food does matter,” she said. “Be conscious of what memories you create. Your kids will remember that their mom picked them up from school with a homemade banana muffin.”
Beauty’s Salmon Patties
(used with permission of the author)
At the insistence of her daughter, Dawn Lerman included this recipe in her book. “This was the first recipe my grandmother taught me to cook, and it was the first recipe she taught my son Dylan and my daughter Sofia to cook,” she writes. It was also the dish Lerman served at her grandmother’s shiva. “When the traditional Jewish ritual was over, I made sure that everyone left with a recipe card,” she writes. “That way a little bit of Beauty and the traditions that were so important to her would continue to live on.”
- Oil, for frying
- 18 ounces canned wild salmon in water
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 1 cup finely chopped onion or ½ cup onion and ½ cup green or red pepper
- 1 cup tomato sauce
- 1 cup bread crumbs
Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly oil a baking sheet. Drain the liquid from the salmon and put the fish in a large bowl. Mash with the back of a fork until the fish is in small flakes. Add the eggs, onions, tomato sauce, and bread crumbs. Mix well and form into patties. Fry the patties till brown. As soon as they are brown, move them to the prepared baking sheet and bake for 15 to 20 minutes. Flip carefully with a spatula. Cook another 5 to 10 minutes.