In her bestselling book My Fat Dad: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Family, with Recipes (Berkley), New York Times wellness blogger and nutritionist Dawn Lerman shares her food journey, and that of her father, a copywriter from the Mad Men era of advertising.
Dawn spent her early childhood constantly hungry as her ad-man dad — responsible for iconic slogans such as “Coke Is It” and “Leggo My Eggo” — pursued endless fad diets: from Atkins, to Pitkin, to the Rice Diet. At 450 pounds at his heaviest, he insisted Dawn and her mother adapt to his saccharine-laced, freeze-dried concoctions, to help keep him on track, even though no one else was overweight. Dawn’s mother, on the other hand, could barely be bothered to eat a can of tuna over the sink.
As a child, Dawn felt undernourished both physically and emotionally, except for one saving grace: the loving attention she received while cooking with her maternal grandmother, Beauty.
My Fat Dad is as much a coming-of-age memoir as it is a recipe collection from Dawn’s upbringing and culinary adventures. The recipes include some of her grandmother’s traditional Jewish dishes, but also many healthier versions — ranging from gluten-free, to sugar-free, to vegan.
Ahead of the High Holidays, the Jewish News presents the following adapted excerpt and delicious recipe from My Fat Dad:
My maternal grandmother always told me that if just one person loves you, it is enough to make you feel good inside and grow up strong. For me, that person was my grandmother, Beauty.
I spent most weekends with my grandmother because my parents liked to go out and stay out late, and my mother hated to pay good money for a babysitter only to find her asleep on the couch with Tinker Toys and Mr. Potato Heads sprawled all over the plush white, blue and green patterned shag carpet in the living room when she returned home.
My dad, an ambitious copywriter recently hired by the Leo Burnett Company in Chicago, was invited out pretty much every night, either to the Playboy Club for a members’ only dinner or to one of the new nightclubs on Rush Street for cocktails with his creative team.
“It’s a job requirement,” he would tell my mom, often returning home to our third-floor walk-up apartment as the sun was coming up.
I would spend most mornings, when I was not at my grandmother’s house, outside my parents’ door listening to them have the same argument over and over again.
“Taking Dawn to the sandbox once a day does not make you a good mother.”
“Putting a roof over our heads does not make you a good father or husband.”
Often, they would forget I was even in the house, raising their voices behind their closed bedroom door, and no matter how many times I knocked, they never seemed to hear. Even though I was only 3½, I was often consumed with an overwhelming feeling of sadness and pain in my stomach that would linger from Sunday until Friday. I knew the days of the week because my grandmother showed me how to check them off on a calendar.
“There are only four checks between visits,” she would say.
Each and every Friday night, when I arrived at my grandparents’ house, my grandmother would run down her front-porch stairs in her lacy matching nightgown-and-robe set and scream in excitement, “My little beauty, my little beauty!” I thought when I heard her say “beauty” over and over again, she was trying to tell me her name — so “Beauty” is what I called her. The name stuck, and soon everyone in her small neighborhood of West Rogers Park in Chicago knew my grandmother as Beauty — including my grandfather, “Papa,” my mother and all the neighbors.
The cooking aromas coming from her kitchen made my mouth water. Beauty always had a pot of something cooking on the stove, a freshly drawn bath and a fluffy, lavender-smelling nightgown waiting for me. She would bathe me before we ate, softening my skin with cream and rose talcum powder that she dusted on my back with a big powder puff.
For meals, she would lift me up and sit me in a special chair, which she piled high with several phone books — both the White and Yellow Pages — and an overstuffed round corduroy pillow. She wanted to make sure I could see above the table, which was set with silverware that she polished every week and an embroidered tablecloth that my Papa brought back from New Orleans, where he would go to visit his racehorses, Glen and Phyllis, named after my mother and her brother Glen.
Beauty was the perfect name for my grandmother. She was like a shiny star that radiated light on the top of a Chanukah bush. Everywhere she went, she made people smile. She would jokingly say she was Jackie Mason’s real wife — he just didn’t know it. But it was not that what my grandmother said was so funny. Rather, it was that she would just laugh so hard after she said something, that everyone else couldn’t help but join in.
“Laugh and people will laugh with you, cry and you will cry alone. The closest distance between two people is a good laugh.” That was a fortune cookie saying she saved and always kept in her pocketbook. Beauty emphasized how important it was to make others happy, even if it sometimes meant putting your own feelings aside.
“We do not know what goes on in anyone else’s house, but we can change their day by just saying hello and offering a kind gesture,” she said.
My grandmother wrote a poem about everyone she ever met. She would write them all out by hand, and then her sister Jeannie would type them up so she could save them nicely in her album. “This is my favorite one,” she would say, then read the poem aloud.
As I lay on her lap, she would stroke my hair, and I would ask her why she liked spending time with me, yet my mother did not. “Your mom loves you very much; she just has a funny way of showing it. You shouldn’t take it personally,” she said.
But no matter what my grandmother said, I often felt uneasy around my mother, knowing I could do something wrong at any minute — even if I was just sitting and reading. My mom was not very affectionate and she would constantly yell, “You’re invading my space!” when I got too close or tried to give her a hug. But Beauty was the opposite. She liked to spend time with me as much as I liked to spend time with her. We could sit around the table cooking and talking about our feelings for hours.
Beauty would say, “God is in my kitchen, not in temple” — which was really upsetting to her very good friend and neighbor, the rabbi next door. My grandmother lived in a neighborhood with many religious families, although Beauty never believed in organized religion or going to temple herself. “I am a culinary Jew,” she’d proclaim. “I honor tradition and those who came before me, and I want to pass the history of the food on to you. I can find my heritage in a bowl of soup. I believe in the power of sweet-and-sour meatballs. I believe that when I combine eggs, raisins, cottage cheese, yogurt and baby shells into a kugel, I honor my own grandmother. I believe that stuffed cabbage connects me to my father, whom I miss. My bible is recipes that fill your soul and will keep you healthy and nourished for years to come.”
From the time I could hold a spoon, my grandmother involved me in the cooking process, allowing me to mix the onions, green peppers and bread crumbs for the salmon patties and decide what kind of soup we were going to prepare. And Beauty always made sure I was the one who tasted first whatever we were making. In her arms, I was never hungry for food, love or affection. She was my mentor and my savior — saving my life, spoonful by spoonful. *
GRANDMA BEAUTY’S CHICKEN SOUP WITH A KICK
Chicken soup, known as “Jewish penicillin,” is an essential recipe for all grandmothers and mothers to have in their bag of tricks. It’s delicious, and bone broth is touted for its restorative powers. I used to look forward to preparing this sweet soup with my grandmother Beauty as a kid, and now, as a mom I love preparing this memorable dish for my kids.
Instructing my 11-year-old daughter Sofia to throw in a bissel of this and a bissel of that, she blurted out, “When we cook from Beauty’s recipe cards, it is like she is here with us.” Smelling the simmering soup, I knew what she said to be true.
1 (3½-pound) chicken, cut into 8 pieces, most of the skin removed
4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into ¼-inch pieces
4 ribs celery, cut into ¼-inch pieces
2 medium parsnips, peeled and cut into ¼-inch pieces
1 large sweet potato, peeled and diced
1 medium yellow onion, quartered
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 (1-inch) piece fresh ginger, finely grated
A handful of fresh dill, chopped
2 tsp. ground turmeric
Freshly ground black pepper
Add 4 cups of cold water to an 8-quart stockpot; set over high heat and bring to a boil. Add the chicken and cook until foam comes to the top. Spoon off the foam, reduce the heat to medium-low, and add the carrots, celery, parsnips, sweet potato, onion, garlic, ginger and dill. Simmer the soup for 2 hours and add 8 cups of cold water, 1 cup at a time, as needed. As the soup cooks, the liquid will evaporate and the soup will thicken. Check the soup every 30 minutes to remove any film that rises to the top.
Stir in the turmeric, salt, pepper and garlic powder to taste, and remove the pot from the heat.
Remove the chicken and the vegetables from the soup, and pull the chicken meat off the bones. Ladle the broth into bowls and add the desired amount of chicken and vegetables to each. Makes 12 servings.
By Dawn Lerman, Special to the Jewish News