(March 30, 2016 / JNS) By Jeffrey F. Barken/JNS.org
“A good relationship, like a good recipe, requires balance—three cups of wisdom to every one cup of sugar,” says Beauty, Jewish author and nutritionist Dawn Lerman’s beloved grandmother and revered role model, capturing the flavor of the New York Timeswellness blogger’s food-centric memoir.
Grandma Beauty bakes important morals into Lerman’s “My Fat Dad: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Family, with Recipes.” The detailed memories recounted in this well-paced narrative—punctuated by delicious-sounding home recipes—depict the healing power of good food, but also the divisions or voids that unhealthy eating habits can create among family members.
Lerman’s father, Al, is a quick-witted and prosperous advertising professional, the genius copywriter behind many legendary slogans including “Fly the Friendly Skies of United,” “Coke Is It,” and “Leggo my Eggo,” among others. Sadly, a persistent weight problem hampered Al’s mental and physical health throughout his brilliant career. Never fitting the slim and sleek “Mad Men” profile of the 1960s advertising industry, Al’s voracious appetite and aggressive-but-ineffective diets often stressed the Lerman household.
By contrast, Lerman’s mother Phyllis, an actress, was seemingly repulsed by food, finding her daily sustenance in merely a lean can of tuna. Throughout the book, Lerman’s mother’s disdain for traditional cooking and her eagerness to embrace processed TV dinners as an easy solution for feeding her hungry daughters, highlights an essential gender and generational gap that characterized post-war family life. Resentful of her husband’s demanding schedule and the excesses his work demanded, “I have no interest in being the kind of wife my mother is. It is 1966, not 1950. You (Al) are not the only one in this house who graduated from Northwestern and has career plans,” Lerman recalls her mother saying during one of her parents’ many quarrels.
Indeed, higher education, that essential vehicle for empowering ambition, was the proud gift an immigrant generation bestowed upon its sons and daughters after finding initial successes in the United States. The prospect of career opportunities for women, however, presented confusing pressures at home and, for many, an identity crisis.
“I didn’t really want to run away; I just wanted to be found,” Dawn Lerman laments, recalling how she felt stuck in the middle and neglected. The author never explores the initial attraction behind her career-oriented parents’ ill-fated marriage, but the photo album that Lerman catches her mother looking at on the eve of her divorce suggests a deep and genuine connection despite their polar opposite personalities. Indeed, “they had traveled all over the world together,” Lerman writes. “London, Nairobi, Phnom Penh, Hong Kong and Marrakesh while he (Al) was filming commercials,” she lists.
Any foodie would drool over the chance to try the many exotic flavors that these adventures presented. Al certainly indulged, defiantly calling his binges “research,” and a “job requirement.” But Lerman avoids discussing their overseas travels in her memoir, restricting her narrative primarily to the scenes of her youth and adolescence that took place in Chicago and New York City.
“Everyone had a favorite neighborhood,” she reflects. When she describes how her mother’s passion for spicy Indian food frequently led them to the many ethnic restaurants located on 6th Street in the East Village, the author evokes the bustling New York City melting-pot cultural atmosphere and expresses the city’s profound influence on her cooking.
“I loved learning about the different spices: turmeric, cumin, coriander, and saffron,” Lerman writes, recalling how the magnificent colors and flavors stimulated her imagination.
Herein lies the magic behind “My Fat Dad.” Despite her parents’ frustrating attitudes toward food, Lerman absorbs eclectic food secrets everywhere she goes, preserving a sense of innocent curiosity while developing a bold palate. Readers will enjoy more than one “aha!” moment when Lerman’s correspondence and conversations with Grandma Beauty in Chicago reveal traditional Jewish cooking secrets: schmaltz and ginger ale, for example, will keep a matzo ball from becoming “hard like a baseball.” Likewise, Lerman exposes lemon juice to be the key ingredient binding together a noodle kugel.
Lerman also displays a consciousness for food presentation, etiquette, and class. The chapter titled “The Hampton Diet,” recounts one extreme effort her father made to lose weight ahead of a dinner party at his bosses’ beachside estate. Readers will cringe when they imagine the blended foods Al drank through a straw to cut down on his consumption ahead of the big event, as much as they will delight in Lerman’s descriptions of the fancy dishes and shining silverware on display at the dinner.
The buildup to the Hamptons visit presents an endearing bonding moment for the Lerman family. Everyone supports Al’s dieting, but there is also an emotional toll. The family’s desperation to fit in, if not to impress their host, is woefully out of character, and, of course, they come up short. When Al’s boss, Mr. Reynolds, kindly suggests that the company can pay for him to attend a “Fat Camp,” to help him reach his weight loss and fitness goals, Lerman recalls the silent drive back home. “I could tell my dad was hurt, and a part of his spirit had been broken,” she writes.
Not all of Lerman’s stories are easy to digest. The vomiting scene that occurs at the home of her other grandmother, Bubbe, highlights the guilt underlying the statement, “Food is meant to be eaten, not wasted.” This commandment, of course, has serious implications for Lerman’s relationship with her father. She must come to terms with Al’s persistent gluttony while forming her own identity and her relationship to food. Although she allows herself to cherish her father’s sporadic triumphs, her voice throughout the memoir is often doubtful. Nevertheless, Lerman offers a dialogue about food and dieting that many will find uplifting, if not inspiring. Grandma Beauty’s words shine through—that wisdom balances recipes and relationships. But when this key element is in short supply, Lerman endorses another one of her grandmother’s principled sayings to find her way forward, acknowledging that taste buds require nurturing, but that no chef or diner can afford to ignore the basics.
“Just use your creativity,” Beauty says. “You can’t go wrong when you use fresh ingredients.”