WeekEND Reading: Celebrating Family, Food, and Dad with Dawn Lerman’s MY FAT DAD, how childhood memories are attached to food, growing up in 1970’s NYC, and so much more
By Leslie Lindsay
“Every story and every memory from my childhood is attached to food.”
Dawn Lerman spent her childhood constantly hungry. She craved good food as her father, 450 pounds at his heaviest, pursued endless diets, from Atkins to Pritikin, and everything in between—and insisted the rest of the family do the same, though no one else had a weight issue.
On the other hand, Dawn’s mother could barely be bothered to polish off a can of tuna standing over the kitchen sink, corded phone in hand. She didn’t understand why Dawn was obsessed with “good” food, spending money frivolously on expensive pears, cleaning the house, and helping her father maintain his diets.
A chaotic and lonely childhood, Dawn helped her younger sister get starring roles in Broadway plays, sending her on the road for a couple of years, and later a stint on the popular show, “Charles in Charge.”
Set alternatively in Chicago and New York City, MY FAT DAD is more than the title suggests, but a memoir of love, family, and food, It’s about coming-of-age in the 1970s, about being Jewish, about the ad men of New York, and so much more.
Today I am so, so honored to have Dawn with us to chat about her book.
Leslie Lindsay: So I completely devoured MY FAT DAD. It triggered some of my own memories of food, grandmothers, and dysfunctional family happenings. What moved you so much to sit down and write this story?
Dawn Lerman: I originally set out to write a health book for kids about snacking.While I was compiling recipes, I realized that each one of them had a memory attached to it. The memory was as important as the recipe —it was the people I was with at the time; where I was when I tasted it; and the smells that made it so important.
Nourishing yourself and your family is about the love you put into it, which led me to want to share about my family and my maternal grandmother Beauty, whose recipe cards saved me and gave me a purpose. I was able to focus less on the chaos and loneliness I felt in my day-to-day life. The story of how home cooked food had such a positive impact on my life, even in the face of my father’s 450-pound weight, felt like an important story. I wanted to provide the color and context around the recipes that were woven into the fabric of my life.
L.L.:Like you, I had a grandmother who was an amazing cook. I’m not sure that she ever formally taught me how to cook, but I watched. And we corresponded through letters, over boys and my parent’s divorce, but never with recipes. The other grandmother was a horrible cook, bless her! Still, both of their styles have influenced my cooking style today.How does one’s culture and familial heritage shape their overall attitude toward food?
Dawn Lerman: In the words of my grandmother Beauty, “Good food is not fast. Fast food is not good and if you know how to make a pot of chicken soup, you can nourish your self for life.”
It was not what my grandmother Beauty cooked that influenced me, but the love she put into everything she prepared. We spent every weekend until I was 9 years old together. We would shop for ingredients and spend our evenings creating the most wonderful soups, stews and cookies. It was in her kitchen that I learned what it felt like to be loved and nourished. After my family moved from Chicago to NYC for my dad’s life changing job as a creative director at McCann Erikson, where he would be the head writer on Coke and Nescafe, Beauty sent me a recipe card every week with a 20-dollar bill. That way the warm sweet smells from her kitchen could always stay with me. “If I am cooking brisket for Papa you can cook brisket, for your sister. Sharing recipes will always keep us connected.”
L.L.: I hate to say it, but cooking—real cooking—is almost as obsolete as other crafts like needlepoint and sewing. It’s easier (and sometimes cheaper) to go to the store and purchase a sweater than say, knit your own. Same goes with food. We can just go out to a restaurant, pick something up at the WholeFoods bar, rather than “waste” our time slicing and dicing. Can you speak to that, please?
Dawn Lerman: While I think that is true and convenience often overrides home preparation, I think cooking real food is making a big comeback.The whole organic and farm to table movementhas inspired a new generation of cooks. In the 60’s and 70’s the- women —especially my wanna-be actress mom, longed to be modern– rebelling against both the traditional family values they grew up with and the old world food. Frozen dinners were a novelty and were a luxury that the generation before them did not have.
L.L.: I love how each chapter in MY FAT DAD begins with a topic and the food that fed you—either emotionally or physically—during that time. For example,Chapter 2: My Baby Sister. Aunt Jeannie’s Apple Strudel, Chocolate Chip Mandel Bread, Russian Borscht, Sure to Make You Feel Special Shirley Temple. Plus, the food offerings were often (but not always) indicative of the social and political times our country was experiencing. Was it more about that for you, or was it more about the comfort of food? (P.S. I still remember that my great-aunt made me spaghetti with meat sauce, green beans and garlic bread the night my sister was born; and I threw it up all over her white sheets I was so excited).
Dawn Lerman: Every story and every memory from my childhood is attached to food, the food I craved, the food I was not allowed to eat and the food that made me feel loved. My father, a brilliant copywriter in the Mad Men era of advertising, was known for his witty ad campaigns—he was responsible for such iconic slogans as “Fly the Friendly Skies of United,” “Coke Is It,” “This Bud’s for You,” and “Leggo My Eggo”—and being able to solve any image problem that was thrown his way. Unfortunately, he was not able to use the same problem-solving skills when it came to his weight. My dad was fat while I was growing up—450 pounds at his heaviest. His weight would go up and down like an elevator, depending on what diet he was on or not on that month. For six months, he only ate white rice; another time, he only drank shakes; and another time he only had Special K—hoping that after a week of eating the cereal, there would be only an inch to pinch. What was most vivid to me about those early years with my parents was the constant feeling of hunger that consumed me as my obese father rotated from diet to diet.
But on Friday nights, I was never hungry. My maternal grandfather would pick me up for the weekend, and when we arrived at my grandparents’ home, the table was always set with beautiful china.There was always a pot of something cooking on the stove, a freshly drawn bath, and a fluffy, lavender-smelling nightgown waiting for me. It was at my grandmother’s house where I learned what true nourishment was. It is where my tears were dried.
When I walked into her kitchen, life transformed from processed packages of salty MSG instant soup to the delicious warm, fragrant smell of homemade chicken soup. Giant salads, fresh fruits and the aroma of just-baked muffins filled the air and my world. It was the only place I can remember feeling happy, safe and nourished. It was what I craved.
L.L.: Just yesterday, my 11 year old was sitting on the couch reading. A massive storm had just blown in, the sky was dark, claps of thunder could be heard in the not-so-distant distance. She looked up and said, “Mom! Nothing tastes better on a rainy day than homemade brownies. Will you make some?” I didn’t have all the ingredients right then (nor the time), so the brownies are on hold. Still, it got me wondering…like smell, do you believe food is connected to emotion and a certain time in personal history? I think I know your answer.
Dawn Lerman:My Papa used to say, “There’s nothing like Beauty’s soups and roasts to make all the problems of the world go away.” Before I even had words to describe the delicious, thick-as-fog split pea soup flavored with bone marrow, I knew what he was saying to be true. No matter what I felt during the rest of the week, the anticipation of Beauty’s food and of time spent in her kitchen lifted my spirits. Little Beauty is what she called me, and beautiful and special is how she always made me feel.Cooking is how she showed her love and when I became old enough that is the way I learned to show mine
L.L.: This same daughter has a list of food she loves. She created it one day at school and presented it to me at dinnertime. Quiche, chicken pot pie, corn casserole, fresh strawberries with sugar, fudgy brownies, sugar cookies. So the kid loves rich, sugar-y foods! But my other daughter is all about salty things. Angel hair pomodoro, tomato foccacia sandwiches with fresh mozzarella; she has an aversion to meat (so do I, being vegetarian). Do you think somehow we are “wired” to like different foods? How does that happen?
Dawn Lerman: I think everyone’s tastes, cravings, and food preferences are unique.Everybody always made fun of me because as a child I hated greasy and salty food. It always gave me an awful stomach. During the summer my family spent at the fat farm, I had the opportunity to speak to a nutritionist I asked why some people craved salty food while others craved sweet food.My sister craved fish and chips, the greasier the better. I loved things plain and was happy munching on cucumbers, carrots, and unsalted shelled sunflower seeds all day. My mom had an adverse reaction to all fruits. My dad seemed to be fine with all foods, but maybe that was because he was used to not feeling particularly great. As a child people were amused with my interest but no one really was able to answer my questions. This is a topic that I have dedicated my career to. What I learned is there is no one diet for everyone–bio individuality.
L.L.: I have to say, I’m a huge fan of MAD MEN. And I just loved hearing all about your dad, the ad man, on Madison Avenue creating slogans. As I was reading, I’d shout to my husband, “This guy came up with ‘Coke is it,’ ‘TaB, it keeps you light on your feet,’ ‘Leggo my Eggo,’ and well—there are more! What was his influence over you as a writer?
Dawn Lerman: I always saw my dad write and my mom was an English teacher. But the type of writing each of them did was very different from me. I wrote as an escape. As a child, my words and my thoughts were something that was very private. I used to carry around a little journal and pretend I was Harriet the Spy. Writing was my escape from my chaotic childhood. It was a place to put my feelings. It transported me into a world where I felt safe.
L.L.: It seems like there were a good deal of appearances and disappearances with your family members. You moved as a child from Chicago to New York, leaving behind Grandma Beauty. Your dad left for the “fat farm” at Duke University, leaving behind you, your mom, and sister. And then mom and April leave when April gets cast in “Annie.” And then your parents get divorced. Can you talk about that, please?
Dawn Lerman: Great question. I think the constant disappearances of my family members, is why I started cooking.It was a way to control my surroundings.When I made a chicken soup with dill as my grandmother did for me, it was like she was with me. The same with my sister.Whenever I would make her a care package of cookies, I felt the excitement she would have when she opened the box. Nourishing others was my calling from a very young age.Even as a child, I understood that my family was different, and that made me different. The pain and loneliness I often felt gave me a sense of empathy that would eventually give me a unique voice
L.L.: Since tomorrow’s Father’s Day, let me just share that when my parents divorced, my dad tried so hard to cook for us. We often had “glue” green beans (green bean casserole), instant mashed potatoes, and Jenny-O turkey loaf drenched in gravy atop of a slice of wheat bread. It was disgusting. But he tried. And I remember that. Meanwhile, I yearned for my mother’s “real” food, but somehow she stopped cooking, resorting to Tuna Helper and the like. Why the role-reversal and did your parents go through a similar phase when they divorced?
Dawn Lerman:Since we never had family dinners and my mom never really cooked, not much changed. I had already been cooking for myself and my little sister April since age 9. However my dad found a new girl friend who was a wonderful Italian chefand as much as I did not want to like her, she made the most amazing veal tonnato and tiramisu.
L.L.: And your mom. She sounds a bit mercurial at times. My own mother had a tough life as well. We had an oil-and-water relationship due to her mental illness and personality issues. Still, you seem to have broken free of that slightly toxic relationship. How can others wade through?
Dawn Lerman: As a child I remember wishing that my mother would be more like my grandmother, her own mother.My mother was not very domestic and she found the things I loved boring, but through our battles I knew my mom loved me and she did the best she knew how. I think managing expectations of our parents is important.As a mom now, I see that the things I care about are very different than what my son values. I also think forgiveness is very important.
L.L.: What advice would you give to those who are interested in writing about family and their relationship with them?
Dawn Lerman: Write from your heart. Write what you know.
L.L.: Where is everyone now? Can you give us an update?
Dawn Lerman: My dad is now 210 pounds and vegan. My actress sister is now a family therapist and my mom was recently in a play as the star character instead of being on the sidelines. And I am a writer and a nutritionist working with kids.
L.L.: What question should I have asked, but forgot?
Q: What do you want people to remember about your story?
A:I hope my story helps families create happy memories around food.I also hope that “food” is seen to be more than just the macronutrients, protein, fat, or carbs from which it is composed.I have always had a passion for taking any family recipe and making it healthier—I hope readers can see that good food can taste good and you don’t need to give up your traditional favoritesif you are willing to exchange a few ingredients (There is an index at the back of My Fat Dad that explains what you can use as a substitute for most of the basics that go into every recipe).
L.L.: Dawn, it’s been a pleasure! Thank you so much for inspiring us with your tale of food, family, and culture.
Dawn Lerman: Thank you, Leslie!
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About the Author:Dawn Lerman is a Manhattan based nutritionist, best selling author ofMy Fat Dad: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Family with Recipes, and a contributor to the NewYork Times Well Blog . She has been featured on NBC, NPR, Huff Post TV as well as several other news outlets. Her company Magnificent Mommies provides nutrition education to student, teachers and corporation. You can find dawn@dawnlerman or Dawn Lerman.net