My Fat Dad: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Family, with Recipes

My Fat Dad: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Family, with Recipes

by Dawn Lerman

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780698142862
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/29/2015
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
File size: 3 MB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Dawn Lerman is a board-certified nutrition expert and a contributor to The New York Times Well blog. Her company, Magnificent Mommies, provides nutrition education to students, teachers, and corporations. She lives in New York City with her two children, Dylan and Sofia.

Read an Excerpt



Always Hungry

As far back as I can remember, there was an invisible wall that separated me from my dad, a distance that I could never completely penetrate. His closest relationship was with the bathroom scale—his first stop every morning and his last stop every evening. It controlled his moods, our days, what we were going to eat, and basically ruled our family life.

My father, a brilliant copywriter in the Mad Men era of advertising, was known for his witty ad campaigns—he was responsible for such iconic slogans as “Fly the Friendly Skies of United,” “Coke Is It,” “This Bud’s for You, and “Leggo My Eggo”—and being able to solve any image problem that was thrown his way. Unfortunately, he was not able to use the same problem-solving skills when it came to his weight. My dad was fat while I was growing up—450 pounds at his heaviest. His weight would go up and down like an elevator, depending on what diet he was on or not on that month. For six months, he ate only white rice; another time, he drank only shakes; and another time he had only Special K—hoping that after a week of eating the cereal, there would be only an inch to pinch. What was most vivid to me about those early years with my parents was the constant feeling of hunger that consumed me as my obese father rotated from diet to diet.

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 as not to tempt him by eating “normal” food. Before I entered grade school, I was an expert on Atkins, Weight Watchers, the Barbie Diet, the Grapefruit Diet, the Cabbage Soup Diet, the Drinking Man’s Diet, and the Sleeping Beauty Diet, able to recite their rules and agreeing with my dad that the world would be a better place if food did not have calories. Of course, I had no idea what a calorie was, but I knew it was something that was really upsetting to my father, and he would be happier without them.

My mother, on the other hand, never understood what the big deal was with food and ate only one small meal a day—usually a can of StarKist light tuna right out of the can with a plastic fork—while standing up and chatting on the phone. She had no interest in preparing meals. Mostly what I ate consisted of my dad’s diet foods, a meal replacement shake, or on a good day a bagel or pizza in the car. We never ate meals together as a family. In fact, we never ate sitting down, which was really troubling to my pediatrician, Dr. Levy, who shook his head each time he weighed and measured me at my checkups. He would constantly tell my mom to put some meat on my bones, scolding her as he handed me an extra sucker, telling her she must feed me if she wanted me to grow.

Despite Dr. Levy’s recommendations, my dad lined the shelves of our kitchen with mystery powders, shakes, and basically anything that had the word “NO” on it. No Sugar, No Starch, No Fat, No Calories, No Taste! With each new diet came an elaborate array of rules, until he could not take the boredom of the routine anymore—justifying the chips, the Mallomar cookies, the fried chicken, and fast-food burgers as market research for his ad campaigns. My dad felt that in order to create a good campaign, you needed to believe in the product you were selling. And he was always the best customer for the products he advertised, testing them excessively—especially when he was working on Kentucky Fried Chicken, Schlitz Beer, Sprite, and Pringles Potato Chips.

“Regardless of what it looks like, I am eating to further my career,” my dad would proclaim, as he gobbled every morsel without sharing any with me. “My campaigns are nothing if they are not authentic,” he declared, closing his bedroom door behind him as he went in there to work, taking his “research” with him. Sometimes, I would sit at the door listening to him peck away at the typewriter, imagining that each potato chip he ate inspired him to come up with a witty slogan.

While the diets came and went, the feeling of loneliness and the constant uncertainty lingered in the air. My only glimpse into a nourishing, normal environment, my only model of healthy eating, was the weekends I spent with my beloved grandmother. It was in her kitchen where I learned what love and happiness were—one recipe at a time.


All It Takes Is a Spoonful of Soup

Beauty’s Chicken Soup with Fluffy Matzo Balls, Sweet Potato Latkes, Mohn Kichlach

My maternal grandmother always told me if just one person loves you, that 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. It infuriated her that her Moroccan ashtrays on the side tables would inevitably be filled to the brim with menthol cigarettes and Juicy Fruit gum, and my dad would expect her to empty them while he would gleefully offer to drive the babysitter home—taking way longer than the five minutes the drive normally took.

He insisted that he needed to stop at the Jewel for a case of Diet Black Cherry Shasta and a carton of Salem Menthol Lights, so he could make it through the night without snacking. “You do not want me to blow my diet, do you?” he would repeatedly say to my mom. “I only ate shrimp cocktail and iceberg lettuce all evening. I need support, not criticism.”

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, returning home to our third-floor walk-up apartment as the sun was coming up.

While many nights during the week my father went out solo, my mom would not let him go without her on the weekends. “Why should I stay home while you are having all the fun?” He would try to convince her that wives weren’t allowed, and that Hugh Hefner, for whom my dad used to work as a columnist reviewing modern jazz albums, had many good connections that would further his career.

“In order to achieve real success, I need to be able to socialize freely and not be held back. It’s about image. All the other wives seem to get it.” My dad, a VIP key holder at the Playboy Club, was very proud of his status—prominently dangling the key with the raised bunny ears while rolling his eyes back and forth to charm his way out of not having my mom tag along.

My mom, usually swayed by his devilish brown eyes, refused to give in when it came to going out. She was an aspiring actress and wanted to be discovered. “I have no interest in being the kind of wife my mother is. It is 1966, not 1950. You are not the only one in this house who graduated from Northwestern and has career plans.”

But my father would constantly remind her that she was the one who wanted to start a family, and now it was time for her to act like a proper mother and wife—especially since she was only teaching high school English part-time and it was his salary supporting them.

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. Hoping someone would remember I had not yet had breakfast, I would write a note, with pictures instead of actual words, and slip it under the door before I rushed into my room and packed my little paisley suitcase. I didn’t really want to run away; I just wanted to be found. No matter how long I hid in my closet, my parents never seemed to search for me; nor were they ever thrilled when I magically reappeared. Even though I was only three and a half, I was consistently consumed with an overwhelming feeling of sadness and pain in my stomach that would linger from Sunday till 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.”

Each and every Friday night, when I arrived at my grandparents’ house, my grandmother would run down her front porch stairs in her lacey 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 race horses, Glen and Phyllis, named after my mother and her brother Glen.

Beauty would tease Papa, saying he had three wives: his restaurant supply store, the track, and her. Papa would say it was a tough decision to decide whom he loved the most, tying the thick cream-colored napkin around my neck so I wouldn’t soak my pj’s when I sipped the warm pea soup that had been simmering for hours.

“There is no competition really,” he would exclaim. “No matter where I am, I can taste the love that Beauty puts into her food.”

Before we even finished our meal, Papa would ask Beauty what she would be preparing the next evening, telling me to pay careful attention to all the details as we shopped and cooked. “Katchkala,” my grandfather would say, calling me by the pet name he had for me, “there is nothing like Beauty’s soups and roasts to make all the problems of the world go away.” Before I even had words to describe the delicious, thick-as-fog split pea soup flavored with bone marrow, I knew what he was saying to be true. No matter what I felt during the rest of the week, the anticipation of Beauty’s food and of time spent with her lifted my spirits. Little Beauty is what she called me, and beautiful and special is how she always made me feel.

I loved strolling hand in hand with her up and down Devon Avenue. As we walked by each shop that she frequented daily, the owners would run out and say, “Beauty is here.” They would hug her and she would hug me, saying, “Look who I brought with me today. I am so lucky to have my little beauty with me, my precious Dawn.” Everyone seemed so happy to see us, gifting us with all sorts of goodies. Gittel at Levinson’s Bakery would give us cinnamon and chocolate babkas to taste—flaky and buttery, filled with chocolate almost as gooey as raw brownie dough. Robert at Robert’s Kosher Fish Market would give us lox tails to suck on—smoky, greasy, and a little too salty for my taste. And Golda, the woman at the fruit stand would always give me a couple pieces of dried apricot—naturally sweet as candy—to enjoy while my grandmother filled her basket with the freshest produce. They would all tell me what a nice, good girl I was, and Beauty would say there was no better girl than me, making sure to compliment them as well.

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 what my grandmother said that was so funny, but 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”—a saying she got from a fortune cookie that she saved and 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.”

Beauty always carried a batch of mohn cookies when we went shopping. There were always some of these poppy seed treats for the pharmacist at Rosen’s Drug Store; the women at the hair salon who forever admired her decorative, big-brimmed hats, telling her she was a dead ringer for Ruth Gordon—both standing just about five feet—and the eight kids that lived across the street, who would call her Grandma Beauty, lining up youngest to oldest to get a cookie, a coin, and a hug since their own grandma lived in Cleveland, and they rarely saw her.

I thought how lucky I was as I helped Beauty hand out her weekly bag of treats. I asked her if she did that with my mom when she was a little girl.

“Your mom was born during the Great Depression. We were so poor that she had to sleep in a wooden drawer with some old clothes for blankets. At the time, I was working with Papa. We had a small soda shop, and I worked all day making home-cut French fries and hot dogs that I sliced open and grilled instead of just boiling like many of the other places in town. Many famous gangsters were customers—they would walk out without paying their five-cent check. I kept your mom near me in the shop, but I didn’t really have time to teach her anything. But your mother, like your Papa, was smart as a whip. She taught herself to read and add and subtract before she even went to first grade, by deciphering the names and number combinations off Papa’s racing sheets.”

I loved listening to Beauty tell the stories about my mom and my uncle Glen—who was now a Sufi living in a commune in Oregon—when they were kids, and the romantic story of how she met Papa. She loved to tell it often. “Papa was a boarder in my parents’ boardinghouse, where he was renting a room after he crossed the Canadian border. He had no money, but he had the bluest eyes I had ever seen and was the best salesman. A year after we met, he convinced me to elope with him to Detroit. I never had a real wedding, so we rented some clothes to take a picture to send to my parents, hoping they would forgive me when they saw how happy I looked in the photograph.”

My grandmother always spoke about my Papa with great pride. She wanted me to know about his history because, like my mother, he was not one to sit down and share about his life or feelings. “Your Papa is a great man and a very hard worker with a spirit as wild as the horses he loves.”

My grandmother was very proud of Papa’s work ethic and his successful business, the Sidney Supply Company, which sold cutlery and bar supplies to all the big restaurants in Chicago. Beauty just wished he had a little more time for her. She fondly recalled how romantic he was when they first met. But my grandmother never took him for granted. No matter what time my Papa returned home—and most of the time it was late, except Saturdays, when he walked in the door at five o’clock sharp—Beauty was ready for his entrance. Her hair was done up in a perfect beehive, and warm, delicious, homemade food was on the table—potato latkes, or a cholent, or chicken soup with matzo balls—which I always helped make.

Changing our clothes and putting our special aprons on before we cooked was almost as important as what we were cooking. While Beauty liked everything immaculate, she wanted us to be able to be covered in flour, chocolate, or whatever, and not worry about stains, no matter what we were cooking. If we did dirty our garments, we would scrub them on a washboard down in the basement before we ate. Sometimes, when we were doing chores, my grandmother would put egg masks on our faces—she said it would make us look young forever. Beauty made everything fun, even when we realized how much of the day had passed, and we had to hurry to get dinner on the table for Papa.

I loved helping her chop, dice, mix, fry, and stew. If I asked her how much celery to chop for her famous chicken soup, she’d wave off the question. “Just use your creativity,” she’d say. “You can’t go wrong when you use fresh ingredients.” She’d throw in a few parsnips, sweet potatoes, garlic, chicken legs, chicken bones, even chicken feet, and two hours later it was the most delicious thing I’d ever tasted.

The matzo balls were a little trickier. They required a little more precision. Usually, Beauty was a little-bit-of-this, little-bit-of-that, taste-as-you-go-along cook, but matzo balls were not included in this repertoire. “I used to just mix the matzo meal with oil, eggs, salt, and throw them into some boiling water. But then when your mother became engaged to your dad and I went to your Bubbe Mary’s for Rosh Hashanah, I was transformed. Who knew a matzo ball could be so fluffy, not hard like a baseball!”

“Did you ask her how to make them?”

“I did. She told me it was her little secret. But on your parents’ wedding day, she whispered to me, ‘Schmaltz and ginger ale!’

“It took me a lot of experimenting before they stopped sinking to the bottom of the pot. But I think I have come close.” Beauty held her hand over mine as we cracked and separated the eggs, and added seltzer instead of ginger ale to the wooden bowl. She reached for the small jam jar that contained the schmaltz that she stored in her refrigerator—instructing me to take just two spoonfuls and no more. “I save the drippings when I roast a chicken. You don’t want to cook with schmaltz every day, but everything in moderation is okay. And a little bit, here and there, adds flavor.”

Once the mixture was chilled, we’d coat our damp hands with crumbled fresh matzo so they wouldn’t stick to the mixture when we rolled the balls. One by one, I’d hand them to her, and she’d place them into the stock—never water.

When Papa would rave about the meal, she’d say that everything tasted so good because I helped. I paid careful attention to Beauty’s directions—never over-salting. “You could always add more,” she said, “but it is hard to take the salt out.”

During the summer months, while my grandfather was preoccupied after dinner with counting his S&H Green Stamps to redeem for prizes, my grandmother would put on a pair of pedal pushers, a freshly pressed blouse, and matching shoes, and we would play outside with a red rubber ball, taking turns bouncing the ball under our knee, seeing who could last the longest without the ball rolling away. With each bounce, we had to name a food that corresponded to the next letter in the alphabet, trying our hardest to make it from A to Z. “A is for apple, B is for banana, C is for cherry . . .” When it started getting really dark, we would head inside for dessert. My grandmother loved making oatmeal cookies, fruit compote, or a seasonal crumble that she topped with Cool Whip or homemade whipped cream that we would beat by hand until it was nice and fluffy.

During the winter, when it was too cold to play outside, we would go into the living room—which she would turn into a little hotel for me when I would stay over. She would pull out old photo albums; some were filled with pictures and others were filled with poems. 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 before reading the poem aloud.

My Darling Dawn,

Painting is art.

Dancing and singing and making people

laugh and cry—that is art.

Making children feel that they are

loved and wanted—that is art.

And when a child looks at a grandmother

with shining eyes of love—that is art.

Art is many things to different people,

Feelings for others is one of the greatest

arts which we can all have.

Never change.

You are my treasure

And being with you always gives me pleasure.


As I lay on her lap, she would stroke my hair, and I would ask her why she liked spending time with me and 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.”

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. “Why are you watching me put on my makeup?” “I know how to make a liverwurst sandwich. Stop inspecting every little thing I do.” “You do not need to follow me around. Look at a book or play in your room with your imaginary friend.”

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, “G-d 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.”

Beauty knew my father was always dieting and eating “food-like” products instead of real food, and this upset her because she knew that during the week, when I was home with my parents, this was the food they would give me. “Food needs to have a delicious fresh taste and smell,” she would tell me, and she would always make me smell and taste things to guess the ingredients, whether it was vanilla in cookies, strawberries in freshly baked muffins, or dill in a barrel of pickles. “It needs to be made in nature and not in a factory.” While my grandmother sympathized with my father’s weight struggles, she thought his approach to eating was all wrong. Beauty never openly criticized my father’s eating habits, because he was college-educated and she was not, but she constantly reminded me about the importance of fresh foods and going to the market every day. “Bread gets moldy, fruit gets soggy, and vegetables get wilted. If it lasts for months on the shelf, imagine what it does to your body.”

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 whatever we were making first. 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.

Beauty’s Chicken Soup

Yield: 8–10 servings

32 ounces water (plus at least 10 more cups to add as the broth absorbs)

1 (31⁄2-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 cubed

1 medium yellow onion, quartered

Handful of fresh dill, chopped

Salt and pepper, to taste

Garlic powder or a couple of cloves of fresh garlic, to taste

Place the 32 ounces of cold water in 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, and add the carrots, celery, parsnips, sweet potato, onion, and dill. Simmer the soup for at least 2 hours and add the 10 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. Make sure not too much liquid has absorbed. If there is less than half a pot of water, add a little more. Stir in the 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 bowl.

Fluffy Matzo Balls

Yield: 8–10, depending on the size of the balls

4 eggs

1 cup matzo meal

Salt and pepper, to taste

1⁄2 teaspoon baking powder

2 tablespoons schmaltz (see note)

1⁄4 cup club soda

Beat eggs. Fold in the matzo meal, salt, pepper, and baking powder. Mix in the schmaltz and club soda. The mixture should be moist. Refrigerate for 1 hour. The consistency should look like wet porridge. Wet hands and form into small balls. Do not form them too tight; otherwise they will be too dense. Drop into boiling chicken broth. Cover and cook for 20 minutes

Note: To make your own schmaltz, just scrape off the fat that rises to the surface of stock. You will see an obvious layer of it after refrigerating the broth overnight—it becomes solid when it’s cold.

Sweet Potato Latkes

Yield: 8 pancakes

2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and quartered

1⁄2 medium yellow onion, peeled and quartered

2 large eggs, beaten (plus 1 more, as needed, for thinning)

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour (plus more, as needed, for thickening)

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon brown sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon salt

1⁄2 cup oil for frying

Applesauce, plain yogurt, or sour cream for topping (optional)

Using the fine side of a grater or a food processor, grate the potatoes and onions. Transfer them to a large bowl and thoroughly combine with the eggs, flour, lemon juice, sugar, cinnamon, and salt. Set aside.

In a large skillet set over high heat, warm the oil to cover the bottom of the pan. (If it smokes it is too hot.) Using a large spoon, add dollops of the latke batter to the pan. Use a spatula to shape and flatten the batter into pancakes. Do not overcrowd the pan; you may need to do this in batches. Immediately decrease the heat to medium and cook the latkes until golden brown on each side, approximately 4 minutes on one side and 3 minutes on the other side. Flip the latke only when it is halfway cooked through; otherwise it will break apart. If you’re working in batches, repeat with the remaining batter.

Serve the latkes topped with applesauce, yogurt, or sour cream (if desired).

Note: If the latke batter is too watery, add a bit more flour; if it is too thick, add a little more beaten egg yolk.

Mohn Kichlach/Poppy Seed Cookies

Yield: approximately 48 cookies

3 eggs, beaten

1 cup granulated sugar

1 cup unsalted butter, softened, or vegetable oil

1 teaspoon vanilla

3 cups all-purpose flour

4 tablespoons poppy seeds

1 teaspoon baking powder

1⁄4 teaspoon salt

Parchment paper for rolling out the dough and lining the baking sheet

1 egg yolk thinned with 2 tablespoons of water for a thin egg wash

In a large bowl beat the eggs and sugar with an electric mixer until the mixture is a light yellow color. Continue beating while adding the softened butter and vanilla. Mix well.

Combine the remaining dry ingredients in a bowl, and with a fork mix so that the poppy seeds are evenly distributed throughout. Then add the dry ingredients into the egg mixture until the dough just comes together. Form it in a ball and roll out the dough between 2 parchment papers about an inch thick. Place on a sheet pan and refrigerate the dough until it hardens, about 20 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and cover a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Take the dough out of the fridge and peel off the parchment paper. Cut into desired shapes using a knife or pizza cutter. Place squares on the prepared baking sheet and brush on the egg wash. Bake in the middle of the oven for 10 to 12 minutes, or until slightly puffed and golden.

Cool on a wire rack. The cookies will harden as they cool.


My New Baby Sister

Aunt Jeannie’s Apple Strudel, Chocolate Chip Mandel Bread, Russian Borscht, Sure to Make You Feel Special Shirley Temple

I was the only person in Miss Duckler’s kindergarten class without a sibling. I had wished so long for a sister. But I had also wished on a star for a Baby Alive doll, and that wish never came true. So when my aunt Jeannie woke me early on a freezing-cold winter morning a week before Valentine’s Day to tell me that my parents and grandparents had left to go to the hospital to deliver my new baby sister or brother, I couldn’t really believe it.

I knew my mom had been pregnant for nine months, but I didn’t know what nine months meant. And most of my friends’ mothers had big bellies and ate a lot of ice cream when they were about to have a new baby. My mom bragged that she gained only twelve pounds, and her belly was barely noticeable, so it was hard to believe this special day was really here.

Jeannie, Beauty’s younger sister, famous in our family for her blond wavy hair and her talent for playing the piano by ear, but mostly for her delicious cookies and strudels—that my dad said could make a grown man cry with joy—comforted me that morning with a warm breakfast of scrambled eggs with lox and sweet onions, and the rare and wonderful sight of a full refrigerator, which she had stocked with white fish salad, an applesauce meatloaf, and carrot coins swimming in a honey sauce.

I didn’t want to go to school for fear of missing the call from the hospital, but my aunt assured me I didn’t need to hover by the phone, that she would notify my teacher if there was any news. She then zipped my coat, adjusted my earmuffs, and off we went to my elementary school, Anshe Emet on the North Side of Chicago, where I spent my morning learning Hebrew and waiting for news about my mom. I was so nervous I couldn’t tell the letter Gimel from the letter Bet.

Finally, during my favorite school lunch of broiled kosher chicken with stewed tomatoes and black-and-white cookies for dessert, they announced over the loudspeaker, “Dawn Lerman has a new baby sister.” I just couldn’t believe it. I screamed so loudly, so gutturally, that I was sent to the back of the line and lost my star for the day. I always received a gold star for being a good girl—standing in line quietly, raising my hand, and never talking out of turn. But on this day, I couldn’t stop jumping up and down and screaming in my loudest, happiest voice, “I have a sister, I have a sister!”

At three o’clock, when the lineup bell rang, I dashed for the door where my aunt was waiting for me in her long, black mink coat. She was trying to meet my friends and see my classroom, but I was so excited I rushed her out the door, dashing as fast as I could toward her silver El Dorado Cadillac with crushed velvet interiors. It was so cold outside that I could see my breath. Aunt Jeannie kept trying to hold my hand with hers in a leather glove, but the glove was slippery and I managed to wiggle free, chanting, “I have a sister, I have a sister!” As we drove off, the song “Aquarius” from the musical Hair was playing on the radio. My sister April was born in February, and my mom had told me her astrological sign would be Aquarius (mine was Gemini). I remember thinking how appropriate the song was, but how inappropriate the name April was, given the current weather conditions.

I asked my aunt how long it would take to get to the hospital, as every second was a second too long.

“We need to wait till morning before we can see your mom and sister,” she said, rattling off all the things we needed to buy before my mom and my precious little baby sister came home. “Diapers, bibs, bottles, laundry detergent, maybe even one of those cute mobiles that go above the crib. I hear they stimulate brain activity.”

“But I want to see her now,” I whimpered, trying as hard as I could to hold back the salty tears.

“No time for long faces. We have some serious work to do, and I need you to be my big girl helper.”

I was disappointed, but I knew she was right. My dad’s home office, which was now going to be my new baby sister’s nursery, looked nothing like any baby’s room I had seen in my dad’s commercials. There were no baby murals, or painted clouds on the wall, no fancy baby furniture, or stuffed animals sitting on a dresser. It had old movie posters that my dad collected, a big metal desk, a gray filing cabinet secured with a metal combination lock, where my dad stuffed and secured emergency stashes of Yodels, Twinkies, and Devil Dogs, and a mini fridge with a sign posted on the front that said in big red letters, “Keep Out.” There were also lots of unpacked cartons of books, and records, and stacks of Playboy magazines. My father saved every publication to which he contributed. He wrote close to a hundred reviews in his three years at that magazine—so there were several stacks of the naked lady booklets.

In the center of the room stood my old mahogany crib that my grandmother had retrieved from her basement and a space heater that you had to sit close to if you didn’t want to freeze, since the room was a converted porch. Beauty always feared that the sleeves of my nightgown would catch on fire. But my mom thought she was a worrywart and scolded her for instilling fear in me.

Sitting in the backseat of the car watching all the cars speed past us, I became lost in thought—daydreaming about finally having someone with whom I could share my thoughts. April would be the only person in the world with the exact same life as me. She would understand our shared reality without words or explanation. My aunt glanced at me, and asked if I would like to stop and buy a giant poster board to make a welcome home sign for April’s room.

Normally, I loved doing crafts with Aunt Jeannie. She knew how to paint, crochet, knit, and do origami, but today the thought of sitting still was extremely painful. I was fixated on the fact that Beauty, Papa, and my dad were all at the hospital, and I was being driven thirty-five minutes in the opposite direction. It would be a whole day before I could meet my new baby sister and I was dying with anticipation. I wanted to see what April looked like, hold her, and be one of the first voices she heard. At the stoplight, my aunt pulled out a bag of her just baked chocolate chip mandel bread.

“They’re still warm,” she said in her usual enticing tone.

Biting into one of the heavenly biscuits, still somewhat moist in the middle, with puddles of melted chocolate, I remembered how Beauty admired her so. “If you could grow up and be like Jeannie, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.” Beauty loved to brag and talk about her sister Jeannie. In fact, my mother thought it was a bit of an obsession, and that she should focus less on Jeannie and develop some more of her own interests.

Beauty would lament that she had had to leave school after the eighth grade to help care for her younger siblings. She said she didn’t mind because she never thought she was very smart. “But your aunt Jeannie went all the way through high school, often making the honor roll for math.”

Beauty admired Jeannie’s talents and believed there was no better way to spend an afternoon than to watch her sister roll out the strudel dough so thin that you could read through the dough the many love letters she had received from men, or to dance to “Hava Nagila” in her living room while Jeannie played the Jewish melody on the piano. Even though they were in their fifties, when they interacted, they seemed like giggly little girls—laughing and gossiping. I imagined that was what April and I would be like when we were older.

Arriving at my aunt’s house, which Beauty always called the Enchanted Cottage because once you arrived you never wanted to leave, my mood lifted. The house was warm and cheery, decorated with beautiful French furniture, my aunt’s original paintings, antique dolls, a player piano, and an organ. But best of all were the many mirrors that somehow made everyone look beautiful and happy as the light reflected from the velvet curtains. Even my father thought his diet was working when he caught his reflection in those mirrors.

Jeannie gave me special slippers, which she called peds, and we tiptoed down her carpeted stairs to her newly finished basement, which had been under construction for the last two years. Uncle Louie, who was a general contractor and an artist, had turned what was a regular basement into a miniature city. He had re-created Bourbon Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans, where he had imagined taking my aunt Jeannie for their honeymoon. But they were married in the winter, and were snowed in, which is why nine months later my cousin Linda was born.

One of the walls housed a three-dimensional, twelve-foot-long mural that went from floor to ceiling. The mural featured wood carvings and a neon sign that flashed “Bourbon Street.” There were also cafes, gift shops, old apartment buildings, seafood restaurants, and street performers. Every structure and character was hand-carved and carefully painted by my uncle, and individually decorated with multicolored Christmas lights that were continuously twinkling.

On the other side of the basement, there was a real bar covered in hand-painted mosaics, a jukebox, a real movie screen, a big popcorn machine, and a mini kitchen where Jeannie combined butter and brown sugar to coat the popcorn. We sat at the bar drinking Shirley Temples with pink paper umbrellas, clinking glasses and toasting April’s birth. The bubbles tickled my throat when I drank the fizzy drink. Listening to Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong play on the jukebox, my aunt shared tales about Beauty and her when they were kids. I always found it intriguing how Beauty’s and Jeannie’s stories were so different, and how I learned about each of them through the other.

“Growing up, Beauty and I lived with a bunch of boarders in addition to our parents and our siblings: Nooti, Hymie, Billy, Harry, and Bevy. Our house was on the West Side of Chicago, directly across from Kim Novak’s home before she became a movie star. We didn’t have the biggest house on Springfield Avenue, but we had the grandest cherry tree in the neighborhood.

“During the early summer months, we’d spend all day in the hot sun picking the cherries off the trees. They were so sour they would make your mouth pucker. Around sunset, my dad, the big goof, would show up with his big hose and spray us down. ‘This should clean you guys up a little,’ aiming the freezing water at each of us, till our feet showed no traces of dirt. With clean feet we gathered in the cramped tub, jumping up and down, as hard and as fast as we could, until the cherries were smashed and the pits popped out. My dad used the extracted juice for wine. And my mom used the pitted cherries to make preserves for the wintertime. Sometimes even a pie with a perfect lattice crust.”

Imagining the tartness of those cherries, the crispiness of that crust, entertained me enough to quiet my discomfort about not being with my mom and sister. Keeping me busy, Jeannie pulled out crayons and markers from a Folgers coffee can. We started decorating the pastel-pink poster board that Jeannie had laid out for my masterpiece. She showed me how to write “Welcome Home April” in bubble letters, and I drew little hearts all over the sign, which I then decorated with purple and gold glitter—making my words look extra special.

Jeannie soon began making the dough for our strudel. Whenever there was a special occasion, you could count on my aunt Jeannie for her baked goods and lavish spreads. When it was someone’s birthday, an anniversary, or a holiday, she would often spend weeks baking and coming up with ways to outdo herself from the previous year. She even had an extra freezer that she called “Just In Case”—just in case she was invited somewhere or someone just popped in unexpectedly. There was never a shortage of strudels, hamantaschen, cakes, and challah breads in my aunt’s freezer.

While Beauty relied on her instincts when cooking and the power of fresh ingredients, Jeannie was very precise with her measurements and presentation, and entertaining was very important to her. A whiz at math, she could double and triple recipes without even using a piece of scratch paper, and she could make chopped liver look like fresh strawberries by shaping it with bread crumbs, adding a touch of food coloring, and inserting parsley. Everybody thought it was real fruit until they bit into the liver.

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My Fat Dad: A Memoir of Food, Love and Family, with Recipes 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I absolutely loved this book. The author's stories about her family were riveting and funny and shocking. And, it had me salivating as she described the many dishes that her grandmother would make her. If you like food or family or ad slogans, you will love this book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Nostalgia plus Recipes equals Delicious First to mention is this isn't only a cookbook, and the memoir isn't just about the cover's "My Fat Dad." I was pleasantly surprised to discover this book is about a whole cast of influential characters, where each one is an important person who fed the author's views on food and health and who is written about in stories with as much color and flavor as the curated recipes themselves (each recipe is included at the end of its chapter). The author's life story from hungry toddler to exploratory teen in '70's Chicago and onto the wild scene of Studio 54 in New York City comes through as a touching tribute to the broader family that raised her and to the individuals who blessed her with the lasting skills she thrives on today as a mother, NY Times writer and expert nutritionist. If you're looking for food prep techniques that come from family tradition, not from a dry technical manual, and for recipes that are equally nutritious and heartfelt, then definitely give this book a try. In sum, mix equal parts nostalgic memoir and healthy recipes and you'll get a book that is truly delicious.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
teachlz More than 1 year ago
MY REVIEW OF "MY FAT DAD" by Dawn Lerman Dawn Lerman, author of "My Fat Dad" has written a delightful honest memoir about her family, love and food. I love the way that the author writes lovingly about her Grandmother "Beauty". who shared her love, affection and support of Dawn. Dawn's mother and father were absent in many ways. They were not attentive or affectionate and often too busy to be there for Dawn. Many of the family traditions and interactions revolved around food. Dawn's father was popular in advertising with his slogans of many products. He was obsessed with food, and constantly on every diet possible, Dawn's mother did not cook. Dawn learned to appreciate cooking and preparation from her Grandmother "Beauty". As a child, Dawn like to experiment with preparing healthier foods. In between her father's starvation diets, he would eat everything in sight. There was no moderation. I appreciate and admire how Dawn writes about her family and their emotional feelings. Growing up in a dysfunctional family was difficult. Dawn often found herself in the position of taking care of her younger sister or her father. Using many of the recipes from Grandma Beauty, and revising and experimenting, Dawn would come up with healthy alternatives. I would highly recommend this heartwarming memoir! Did I mention that the author has included some amazing, mouthwatering, tantalizing recipes? I can't wait to try some of them. I would like to thank the author for a copy of this book for my honest review.
Mengel2 More than 1 year ago
In this memoir, Dawn tells a story of her childhood in the 70s, living with an over-weight father who tried practically every diet out there, a mother who could care less about food and a grandmother who had a huge influence over her love of nurturing the body with healthy food. We are given great insight on how insecurities, parents’ views on nutrition, and stress play a role in how we eat. Although Dawn’s father used food as a crutch, this book is about much more than just an overweight father. It’s about why people turn to food, the misconceptions of fad diets and how everyday struggles can play a huge role on our diet. Written with such honesty, but sprinkled with the perfect amount of humor, the author brings the reader into her world (and in essence, her family) and exposes how easily children can be misguided by what they see during their everyday lives. But it was the relationship that Dawn had with her grandmother that hit me. It showed that when people take time to properly educate the youth, it’s amazing how influential they can be on their future. I grew up with a Filipino mother and Italian father. Talk about cultures that love to feed others and celebrate with food! Like Dawn, my father has tried many of the fad diets. Growing up we were taught to eat what was put on the table, never to waste food and appreciate that our bellies were full. As I got older, I realized some of the things I would’ve done differently, and do now as a wife and parent. I really enjoyed this book. I was able to relate to much of it and felt like I was brought back to my own childhood.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this memoir! Stayed up into the wee hours of the morning finishing it, and falling in love with grandmother Beauty and the big sister who cared so lovingly for her family, as well as the characters sprinkled like poppy seeds throughout.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Dawn Lerman is a definite keeper. Not long ago, as I watched my 45-year-old son with his one and only 8-month old son--giving him a bottle every time he whimpers, I said to him, "You know, food is not love." And with the serious eyes and slightly sarcastic smile that he probably learned from me, he responded, "Food is love." Dawn learned about unconditional love in her grandmother, Beauty's, kitchen, cooking. Her memoir, sometimes heartbreaking, often hilarious, end each chapter with recipes for delicious, but healthy food. Dawn's father, grossly overweight, embraced every diet that came along and dragged the family through the intense periods of hope, followed by depression at his failures. Today Dawn writes a wellness blog for the NY Times Well blog, and her father weighs in at a healthy 250 pounds. Life sometimes hands us a happy ending. Dawn's is one. This book is a great read.