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Most people go to summer camp for the activities, but I went for the food

Dawn Lerman, age 15 in this photo, at summer camp. Credit: Courtesy Dawn Lerman.
Dawn Lerman, age 15 in this photo, at summer camp. Credit: Courtesy Dawn Lerman.

By Dawn Lerman/

In her recently published memoir, “My Fat Dad: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Family, with Recipes” (Berkley Books, September 2015), 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 childhood constantly hungry. She craved good food as her father, 450 pounds at his heaviest, pursued endless fad diets, from Atkins to Pritikin to all sorts of freeze-dried, saccharin-laced concoctions, and insisted the family do the same—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. She was too busy ferrying her other daughter to acting auditions and scolding Dawn for cleaning the house.

“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 favorite traditional Jewish dishes, but also healthier interpretations of them ranging from gluten-free, to dairy-free, to kosher, to vegan.

Released as part of the 2016 summer camps special section, below is an adapted excerpt from Chapter 17 of “My Fat Dad,” in addition to a recipe for fruit-infused bug juice.

My little sister April’s contract was renewed. She and my mom were going to spend the summer in Washington, DC, where she was a principal orphan in the first national tour of the Broadway show “Annie,” I was going to Hillcrest Camp for a month before joining them.

Hillcrest was a performing arts camp in Connecticut where teenagers were allowed the freedom to arrange their own schedules. The activities ranged from glassblowing, to silk screening, to acting, to stained glass making, to, most important, free choice, which translated into—hanging out with cute, artsy boys. Marley was my best friend from middle school. We spoke daily, even though we’d both transferred schools after the sixth grade. She taught me how to line my eyes on the inside ring, and the art of applying black nail polish to look edgy. Marley had already been to the sleep away camp the past three summers and was instrumental in convincing my mom to allow me to go. She said the experience was life-changing, and she really found her voice as an artist in the printmaking shop. My mom thought I was getting too serious with my boyfriend, Hank, after I told him during the ninth grade prom that I loved him, so she signed me up immediately—even though she found the cost to be outrageous.

My mom equated every experience, every meal, and every activity with cost. She talked about money incessantly, not in the normal way like other parents did. “We need to save up, we can’t afford it, let’s wait till it goes on sale, maybe next year,” she would say. It seemed to have nothing to do with if we could afford it, but everything to do with the fact she thought she was always being ripped off, unless it was a super-sale. Any normal purchase—food, clothes, toiletries—seemed to bring her physical pain and enraged her, causing her to lash out. I was usually on the receiving end of these outbursts, swallowing her rage and internalizing the message that I was not worthy of normal comforts.

I never really did anything wrong, but somehow I could never do anything right, and my mother constantly used words and tones that were so harsh that I was in a constant state of turmoil. The fact that I preferred fresh seafood and vegetables to soggy SpaghettiO’s for dinner somehow irked her, making her feel unappreciated and angered. I was not your typical kid, and my parents—my 450-pound dad and my flamboyant stage mom—were not your typical parents. The combination of our unique quirks and habits was often toxic and unsettling. So the thought of going to overnight camp—where I wouldn’t need to worry what diet my dad was on or if I would have enough money for food, as most nights I was left on my own—was a welcome relief.

Marley had been to other camps before that had terrible food, but she said I would be overjoyed when I saw the quality and amounts of food at Hillcrest. She knew that if I were still a little hesitant about leaving my boyfriend and cutting my summer short with my sister, the star of the family and the person I adored most in the whole world, then the way to sell me was getting me to crave the food.

“At Hillcrest Camp, they have three huge meals a day,” Marley told me. “Dinners always included some kind of grilled or baked protein like chicken, steak, or a hamburger, and some kind of green vegetable: broccoli, spinach or string beans, and unlimited salad with several toppings—cucumbers, fresh cut corn, and alfalfa sprouts. For breakfast we always have eggs, pancakes, and fresh fruit; and for lunch an assortment of breads, cheeses, and sliced tomatoes. Whether you are hungry or not, breakfast, lunch, and dinner is served at a scheduled time and portions are unlimited. And best yet, midday you could count on an afternoon snack with homemade banana bread and red bug juice—made with real bugs. Food is so plentiful that it can be an afterthought instead of your main main thought.”

Upon arriving at camp, I was assigned to bunk number 11 with Naomi Weinstein and the two girls named Jill, both with last names starting with an “S.” Jill Simon cried every night because she missed her parents and the comforts of home. Jill Schaffer was from Long Island and had a thick island accent and over-plucked eyebrows. She spent hours perfecting her hair with a curling iron, which she plugged into the single outlet in our bunk’s musty doorless bathroom—while the rest of us waited for our turn to use the shower. Naomi Weinstein was a quirky girl with more mosquito bites than I had ever seen, but the two of us became inseparable. And Marley was in the cabin a few doors down with other returning campers.

While there was a designated time for rising, sleeping, eating, swimming, and socializing, the camp believed in free choice. You could choose to attend or not attend whatever activates you wanted. The setting was very tranquil, with kids strumming on their guitars, batik-making in tents, and many other crafting experiences to choose from. I spent most of my days either in the tie-dye tent, where I made multicolored purple tank tops to wear to the social, or in painting class, where I learned how to re-create the lush greenery of the camp by using dots instead of brushstrokes.

At night, my bunkmates and I would dress up to sit on our porch and make bracelets and headbands out of daisies, and play jacks by moonlight.

I took advantage of all the different workshops, making sure my mom was getting her money’s worth. For one of the first times in my life, I had the luxury of not having to care for anyone, not even myself, making it easy to drift through my day with ease.

The month flew by and I was sorry it was ending, even though I was thrilled to rejoin my sister and hear her preform “It’s the Hard Knock Life” at the White House for Amy Carter, who was a major “Annie” fan.

On the last day, both of the Jills’ parents came to pick them up. Jill Schaffer’s parents drove from Long Island in a nondescript faded blue station wagon; Jill Simon’s parents drove from Manhattan in a beautiful, shiny white Mercedes with brown leather seats. No one came for me.

Jill Simon’s parents noticed me standing alone, and insisted that I get a ride back to Manhattan with their family instead of taking the camp bus. They even made reservations at the fabulous Maxwell’s Plum for an end-of-summer celebratory supper, where no one talked about the cost of what we ordered. Nothing was too extravagant for Jill and her friends. They even encouraged me to order the most expensive items on the menu.

Even though my parents were not there, I heard their voices echoing in my ear as I ordered. “Only a stupid person would waste all that money on a meal.” Or, “I wonder how many calories this meal will set me back.” But my parents’ voices faded as I feasted on escargot with herbs, Rock Cornish Hens a l’Orange, and chestnut cake with a side of strawberries. It was a fabulous dinner, and I was grateful both for the experience of going to camp and the good fortune of meeting my newest “bestest” friends.


Fruit-infused bug juice

This healthier version of bug juice brings me back to those carefree, summer camp days. But instead of being filled with sugar and artificial food dye, my infusion is loaded with Vitamin C, from both the hibiscus and the watermelon. All the tasty memories, with a dose of powerful antioxidants.

Yield: 2 quarts


4 cups filtered or purified water

4 hibiscus tea bags

4 cups fresh watermelon juice (see directions below)

1/4 cup honey

1/4 cup strawberries


Bring 4 cups of water to a boil and pour over the tea bags. Make the watermelon juice. Remove as many of the seeds as you can from the watermelon and cut the flesh into cubes. Discard the rinds. Add 4 to 6 cups of watermelon cubes to the blender and process until smooth. Strain through a strainer and discard the pulp. Stir in prepared tea. Stir in honey. Hull strawberries with a straw, pushing them up through the bottom, remove the green, and keep the berries on the straw for serving. Chill until ready to serve. Serve over ice with a prepared strawberry straw.

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