By Dawn Lerman/JNS.org
In her bestselling book, “My Fat Dad: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Family, with Recipes,” 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, JNS.org presents the following adapted excerpt and tasty recipes from, “My Fat Dad: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Family, with Recipes.”
Growing up, I always looked forward to the Jewish holidays, even though my family was not very religious. Those were pretty much the only times we had real food in our house.
During the holidays, my mom and I would cook together to recreate my grandmother’s classic old-world recipes — chicken soup, brisket, salmon patties and sweet potato latkes were a few of our favorites.
After my family moved to Manhattan from Chicago when I was nine-years-old for my dad’s life changing job as an International Creative Director, my maternal grandmother Beauty would send me a recipe card every week with a $20 bill.
“If we cook the same dish at the same time, we will always feel connected,” Beauty would say.
While my mother normally had an aversion to spending time in the kitchen, she enjoyed the holiday preparations and loved filling our home with guests, food, entertainment and music. My parents always had an exotic group of friends. My mother said most people looked at the religious days as holy days, but she looked at them as a festive gathering. Anyone who did not have plans was invited, religious or not.
We had an interesting cast of regulars who always attended our holiday soirees, but there was very little religious ceremony. There was Joyce, the numerologist, who would tell all of us at the party, including me, our destiny for the year to come. (She did this by totaling the numbers in our names.) Tandy, the psychic, would channel spirits and would often bring a Ouija board in case there were loved ones who had passed during the year with whom we wanted to make peace. Michael, a member of the Actors Studio, would give historical speeches on the Old Testament, even though he was not Jewish. And, of course, there was my little sister April and me. I would proudly serve my homemade creations, and April would play the piano while everyone would sit cross-legged on my parents' Persian rug blurting out original lyrics to her rhythms.
It was only when I was invited to spend a holiday weekend with my best 5th grade friend that I realized how unusual my family’s holidays really were. During dinner, classical music played softly in the background, and the table was set with fine linen and gold-rimmed plates. Before we ate, we held hands and my friend’s dad made a prayer in Hebrew over the wine and challah bread. I loved how her father spoke, as he explained the meaning of each ritual. The blowing of the shofar, the throwing of bread in the water, the dipping of the apples in the honey, and the reason we would soon be fasting for Yom Kippur.
When I told my mom about my wonderful weekend, she said it reminded her of her own holidays growing up. She remembered how my grandmother Beauty would iron the tablecloth, polish the silverware, grate the potatoes for the latkes by hand, and debate for weeks whether to make a sweet kugel with raisins or a savory kugel with broccoli.
She remembered how Beauty would hold her hand as they stirred and tested the chicken soup with her big wooden spoon that hung over the stove, and how my grandfather Papa would get so excited when he walked in the door and smelled all of the food. My mom’s face softened as she spoke, and I began to cry.
I was not sure why I cried. I am not sure if I cried because my mother seemed so different at that moment, or if I cried because I wanted her to hold my hand and love cooking with me as much as my grandmother did with her. I wanted my mom to understand the things that were so important to me, and I wanted her to nurture me in a way that maybe she couldn’t.
But it was the beginning of a the Jewish New Year; so instead of wanting my mom to be someone other than who she was, I passed her one of Beauty’s recipe cards before we both recited in unison her famous words, “ You know you can find your heritage in a bowl of chicken soup! ”
The following is reprinted from “My Fat Dad: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Family, with Recipes,” from Berkeley Books.
Grandma Beauty’s Chicken Soup with a Kick
Yield: 12 servings.
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 biessel 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 (3 1/2-pound) chicken, cut into 8 pieces, most of the skin removed
4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch pieces
4 ribs celery, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
2 medium parsnips, peeled and cut into 1/4-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 teaspoons ground turmeric
Freshly ground black pepper
1. 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.
2. Stir in the turmeric, salt, pepper and garlic powder to taste, and remove the pot from the heat.
3. 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.
Dawn Lerman is a nutritionist, founder of Magnificent Mommies, and bestselling author of "My Fat Dad: A Memoir of Food, Love and Family, With Recipes." Follow her @dawnlerman
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