- Paperback: 336 pages
- Publisher: Berkley (September 29, 2015)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0425272230
- ISBN-13: 978-0425272237
Nutritionist, New York Times blogger and author Dawn Lerman grew up consumed by food, witness to her 450-lb. father’s see-saw obsession with diets. A man controlled by his own battles with eating, her father’s struggles took a toll, forcing his family onto the roller coaster of fad diets and an overall unhealthy attitude toward food. Yet, no one else in the family was overweight, a minor miracle.
If it’s true the kitchen is at the heart of the traditional home, Lerman’s family’s adversarial relationship with food was at odds with their family’s rich Jewish heritage, filled with meals to comfort the soul. Fortunately, Dawn’s maternal grandmother, Beauty, came to her rescue, both in providing a sense of love and stability and teaching her how to cook wonderfully flavorful, traditional dishes, essentially rescuing her from starvation and a childhood deprived of much in the way of nutrition. Even more powerfully, Beauty’s legacy set Dawn on the path that would carry her into her life’s calling, founding Magnificent Mommies, a company providing nutrition education to students, teachers and corporations.
To read about Beauty is to love her; she was the sort of grandmother we all wish we’d had, or at least I do. Coming from a family fragmented, cut adrift from extended relations, I grew up in an environment devoid of nutritious foods. The Deep South formed my heritage, a world filled with biscuits and fried chicken and heavy, carbohydrate-dripping meals held together by animal fat. Though not as extreme, my own mother fad dieted her way through most of my life, reinforcing my own love-hate battle with food. And, ultimately, I never learned to cook, having watched my mother pull pre-packaged foods out of the freezer, plopping Banquet fried chicken, instant mashed potatoes and canned green beans in front of us, more often than not. Had I been blessed with such a grandmother as Lerman’s, I can only imagine how different my relationship with food could have been.
Thanks to her maternal grandmother, by high school Dawn had acquired a vast repertoire of dishes she’d become expert at creating. Her mother and little sister away, her sister performing in a production of Annie, she was finally able to introduce her father to the wonder of home-cooked meals. Though her father had, by this point, lost a staggering 175 lbs, the weight was beginning to creep back up on him, as it almost inevitably does. And for a while it was great, cooking for her father. Then, he began drifting away again, leaving her alone while he spent more and more time at work. Undeterred, she kept studying and practicing her culinary art, turning what could have been seen as a failure to convince her father into totally embracing a healthy way of eating into a test of her convictions, a test she passed with flying colors.
My Fat Dad is essentially a collection of essays, columns about aspects of Dawn Lerman’s life. Each is accompanied by recipes, a combination of hearty meals and nutritionally-packed dishes, all of them unintimidating foods the average reader would feel comfortable making in their own kitchen. That’s part of what makes the book so wonderful, not only is it the story of one very determined woman’s path from misery to a successful career as a nutritionist, it’s also a cookbook filled with the love her maternal grandmother instilled in her, which she, in turn, passes along.
It’s like one big group hug, from Beauty to Dawn to us.
Dawn was kind enough to agree to answer a few interview questions for me:
1). What were your concerns in writing a book about your family? Were there discussions about what was off limits?
Whenever you’re writing about family members or real people, there is always a fear that you will offend someone or feelings will be hurt. It is hard not to censor yourself when you know the people who you are writing about will read it. But in reading my book, “My Fat Dad: A Memoir of Food, Love and Family, With Recipes.” , you will see very little is off limits in my family. And it turns out both my parents loved the book. My dad, always an ad man, remarked, “You’ve come a long way baby”. My mom, the ultimate stage mother shares passages from the book where ever she goes. She just wishes there were more pictures of her in the center of the book.
2). At what age did you become interested in writing and what inspired you to write this book?
I have written for as long as I can remember. 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.
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 itself—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.
3). Who are some of the biggest creative influences in your life, in writing and the culinary arts? Whom do you admire?
In terms of food memoirs, I read every one of Ruth Reichl’s books. I loved how she weaved food into the tapestry of her life. In terms of straight memoirs, I adored Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt and as a child, I must have read Anne Frank a hundred times.
4). How would you sum up your philosophy toward food and nutrition? What message are you hoping to get across?
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 favorites if 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).
5). What are Americans doing wrong in relation to healthy eating? What’s the biggest, most prevalent issue we should be paying attention to?
As a holistic nutritionist, I believe it is important to know your client before making any blanket statement. However, I do think drinking beverages other than soda, like Green Tea is important. Also, people should try to eat simple, filling meals and fill up at least half of their plates with veggies.
Finally, as my daughter says, if it has a commercial attached to it, it usually is not good—this goes for processed foods, especially. How many commercials do we see for kale or strawberries?
6). How has your Jewish heritage influenced your relationship with food? What’s singular about this particular ethnicity?
I think Ray Romano who blurbed my book said it best“ Dawn Lerman grew up Jewish in the 70’s. I grew up Italian. Might sound different, but for the most part, it’s the same. Especially when it comes to food. The philosophy was simple, food = love. My Fat Dad hilariously and poignantly captures that essence .Whether you’re Italian, Jewish, or anything else you can relate to how family, food, and the love of both affect how we grow up, and live our life. Mangia!”—Ray Romano, Emmy award-winning actor
No matter what your culture is food that is past down through generations and cooked with love creates memories and lasting nourishment.
My grandmother Beauty would say, “I can find my heritage in a bowl of chicken soup.”
7). What’s your best advice to busy households juggling family, career and trying to eat healthily?
Try to pick one day a week like a Sunday and do a shopping trip as a family. Go to either a grocery store or a farmer’s market and pick what is in season. Then together get creative and plan your meals for the week. A big batch of soup, a roasted chicken, a batch of roasted veggies, some chopped vegetables for dipping can help you avoid eating fast food. Being prepared with snacks and easy to make meals will set you up for success.
8). What’s up next for you, project-wise?
My main focus is really what it always has been, trying to teach kids about the importance of proper nutrition and teaching them how to cook. I am in the process of writing a cookbook for kids.
9). Finally, if you had to choose a favorite dish – either a go-to comfort dish our personal specialty – what would it be?
I think it would have to be my grandmother’s chicken soup. It was in her kitchen, inhaling the smells of fresh dill that I learned what it felt like to be loved and nourished. As for baked goods, it would have to be my grandmother’s banana oatmeal cookies that I have given a little makeover to –adding flax seeds and coconut oil.