This will be the first Father’s Day without my larger-than-life dad, who died a couple weeks before his 80th birthday last fall.
So when I got an email from author Dawn Lerman about her book My Fat Dad: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Family, With Recipes and saw the cover image of a portly guy in boxer shorts perched on a scale, I smiled and recognized my own “fat dad” in that picture.
I started reading the book and immediately was amazed at how alike our dads were. Both were about the same age and grew up in Chicago. While her dad was a successful advertising executive, making famous the slogans “Leggo my Eggo” and “Coke Is It,” my novelty gift salesman dad was always looking for the next big thing — he jumped on the yellow “smiley face” bandwagon but forever regretted passing on the Pet Rock.
Both our dads were also chasing the latest, hottest diet, hoping that it would be THE ONE to get them looking svelte in their leisure suits.
After swapping eerily similar family photos from our youth (“They could be brothers from another mother,” Dawn wrote), I talked with Dawn about the book, which sprung from her “New York Times” Fat Dad column, which runs in its Well section online.
How did your father’s weight-loss journey color your choice of becoming a nutrition consultant?
Each week he would discover a new miracle plan, and my mom and I were forced to eat whatever freeze-dried, saccharin-loaded concoction he was testing, so we would not to tempt him. The processed foods that filled our cabinets never satisfied me and always left me hungry for real nourishment.
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. When I walked into my grandmother’s kitchen, the delicious, warm, fragrant smell of homemade vegetable soups and just-baked muffins transformed my world. My grandmother, who was nicknamed Beauty, taught me how good it felt to be cared for, and how to care for others and myself through cooking. She was would say: “Good food is not fast, fast food is not good, and if you know how to cook for yourself, you will nourish yourself for life.”
Her words, along with my dad’s “eat everything or nothing” approach to yo-yo dieting, sparked my interest in good nutrition and cooking, which became my lifelong passion.
Watching your dad struggle with his weight, do you think that kept you from perhaps going down the same path?
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 in an environment that was very chaotic. My dad was very involved in the fast-paced lifestyle of advertising, my mom was caught up in the women’s movement of the 70s, and my 8-year-old sister was a child star — playing an orphan in the first national tour of the Broadway play “Annie.” Cooking and learning about different cultures and spices gave me a focus.
It’s kind of ironic how some of the most iconic food slogans and ads that your dad worked on were some of the most problematic foods for Americans (Pringles, KFC, soda). How do you feel about the turn toward more unprocessed foods, and how would your dad write a pitch for kale?
How would my dad write a pitch for kale? That is an interesting question — one that I bet he never pondered. But there are so many ways to prepare kale. I have made him kale chips with nutritional yeast and as a twist on his original slogan for Pringles, “Once you pop you can’t stop” — his response was, “Crunchy and cheesy — and no stopping is required!”
The book really illustrates your family’s complicated relationship with food — from Beauty’s love-filled recipes to your mom’s “cookies as affection” to even your dad’s Hamptons desperation blender diet food. As a nutritionist, how does your relationship with food color how you help your clients?
I try to help my clients see that food to be more than just the macronutrients, protein, fat and carbs from which it is composed. It is about the people you are with when you eat it, the source of your ingredients, and the love you put into every bite. I also have 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.)
What’s your dad’s favorite Father’s Day meal?
My dad is now vegan and 210 pounds. Some of his favorite meals involve dishes from his childhood. While he no longer eats meat or dairy, we have found ways to remake his mother, my Bubbe’s brisket with tempeh and blintzes with cashew cheese.
What are your favorite Father’s Day memories? —Gail