|Dawn and her mom, Beauty|
I'm so happy to have Dawn Lerman here to talk about My Fat Dad. Dawn Lerman is a New York-based health and nutrition consultant and author of “My Fat Dad: A Memoir of Food, Love and Family, With Recipes.” Her series on growing up with a fat father appears on the Well blog of the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/column/fat-dad
“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
First, the why now question! What made you want to write this book. My Fat Dad? What were you trying to find out about yourself or about others?
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 weekly recipe cards saved me and gave me a purpose when I moved away from her at age 9 for my dad’s life changing job at a top NYC ad agency. 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 obesity struggle, 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.
I love how you figured out that food was equated with love, and that what we eat really does make a difference in how we feel. How did you learn to understand this (My mother-in-law still believes that food has nothing to do with health.)
I grew up with a 450 dad who was always one diet away from the perfect weight loss miracle. Every week he would rotate to a new fad diet, and my family ended up eating whatever freeze-dried, saccharin-loaded concoction he was trying at that moment. By the time I was 9, I was an expert on Atkins, Weight Watchers and even prayed beside him after he read, I Prayed Myself Slim.
My mother, on the other hand, never understood what the big deal with food was and ate only one small meal a day while standing up and chatting on the phone. Most weekday meals consisted of my dad’s diet foods, a meal replacement shake, or a bagel or pizza in the car. What I remember most about those early years, is that I was always hungry — hungry for food, hungry for nice clean clothes, hungry for someone to notice when I ran away from home or hid in the closet for hours. I was just hungry — hungry for someone to care for me because I was a child and I yearned to be cared for.
But on Friday nights, my maternal grandfather would pick me up and when we arrived at my grandparents’ home, the table was always set with beautiful china. There was always a pot of chicken soup cooking on the stove, a freshly drawn bath, and a fluffy, lavender-smelling nightgown waiting for me. It was at my grandmother Beauty’s house where I learned what true nourishment was. It was the only place I can remember feeling happy, safe and nourished. It was what I craved. Her famous mantra was,
“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 yourself for life.”
How do you feel your dad's attitude toward food both before and after his diet has affected the way you eat?
My dad was a yoyo dieter. In a period of a year my dad went from 450 pounds to 175 pounds back to 300 pounds. He was either on an extremely restrictive diet, like when he lived at the Fat Farm at Duke University for 6 months--eating only white rice, or on
the other side of the pendulum, eating everything and anything –“The Mad Men Diet” —Martinis, steak, and blackout chocolate cake. No matter which plan he was adhering to, it always involved extremes and there was not a lot of reflection on how eating different foods make you feel.
What he ate or did not eat was always based on the number on the scale or the ad campaign he was working on. My dad felt that in order to create a good campaign, you needed to believe in the products you were selling. He was always the best customer for the products he advertised. He was responsible for iconic slogans such as “Coke Is It,” “Soup is Good Food,” and “Leggo My Eggo. Instead of bookcases, my dad had shirts of every size stacked in every corner of our house-- representing different weights.
I have always been health conscious, not weight conscious. Then and now I never liked processed foods. Eating healthy and cooking for myself even as a young child brought me a sense of stability and connected me to interesting characters; like the homeless man I invited to live with me when my little sister and mom were on the road with the national tour of the Broadway show Annie, and the cafeteria lady at my school who was more helpful to me then the school therapist when I started living alone at age 13.
What's obsessing you now and why?
My main focus is really what it always has been, trying to teach kids about the importance of nutrition and teaching them how to cook. I am in the process of writing a cookbook for kids When kids are involved in the process of meal preparation they are more likely to try new foods and have a connection to their family traditions and culture.
My maternal Grandmother Beauty, was not particularly religious but she often said she could find her heritage in a bowl of matzo ball soup. I grew up inspired by her words and enjoy sharing her teachings.
What kind of writer are you? Do you have a system? Any rituals?
I have written daily for as long as I can remember. I used to carry around a little journal and pretend I was Harriet the Spy. Writing has always been my way to process my feelings. I can spend a whole day in a little nook in my kitchen trying to string together the perfect sentence, or trying to create dialogue that makes the people I am writing about jump off the page. Before I start, I always prepare a pot of Matcha Tea with chia seeds, protein powder, and coconut oil for focus and energy.
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
What do you want people to remember about your story?
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 more nutritious—I hope readers can see that healthy 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).
I believe everyone has a food story to tell. My Fat Dad is mine.”
And my dad is now 220 pounds and vegan, how he got there is a story I share in my memoir and on the Well blog on the NY Times.