Putting It All On The Table: Author Recalls A Food-Obsessed Family
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And finally today, we're still thinking about the holidays, and, of course, now we're thinking about food. It's hard to escape the message that food is love, especially when those messages are helped along with the aid of clever advertising. Dawn Lerman's father was one of the people behind some of those clever phrases. One of the top copywriters of his generation, he's credited with iconic slogans such as Coke Is It and L'Eggo My Eggo. But the man to whom words came so easily fought a lifelong battle with excess weight - a struggle that consumed to the entire family. Now his daughter Dawn Lerman has written a memoir about growing up in her food-obsessed family. It's called "My Fat Dad," and you might want to know, if you're still working on your menus, it also includes many delightful recipes. And Dawn Lerman is with us now from New York. Dawn, thanks so much for joining us.
DAWN LERMAN: Hi. I'm so happy to be here.
MARTIN: You know, people are used to the cliche of the Jewish family where food is the center of everything, but you kind of turned that story on its head. Your father couldn't stop eating, and her mother almost seemed to hate food. And you write in the book that growing up, you were always hungry. Tell us a little bit more about that.
LERMAN: Well, growing up, my dad was 450 pounds, and every week, he was on a new diets. And whatever diet he was on, we had to be on to support him. When he was on Atkins, we were on Atkins. When he was on the cabbage soup diet, that's all we ate - was cabbage soup. So I was always hungry. We never had real food in my house. And my mom was a want-to-be actress, and she was always running from auditions. And she only had time for a can of tuna fish over the sink. and she was rebelling against her mother, who cooked obsessively. And she felt - wanted more from her life, and food was just not in that equation.
MARTIN: So why was your father so obsessed with food?
LERMAN: His mother worked in the garment district from the time she was 13 years old. She was a Russian immigrant, and that was the way she showed love to him. She would feed him obsessively. And to him, food meant love, and I think that was his way of stuffing his emotions and not dealing with anything. So he just ate obsessively. It was a disease. He couldn't control himself.
MARTIN: You know, it's interesting that even at a young age, you seem to have figured out that that wasn't the whole story. I mean, as you write about it in the book, you say that it was at my grandmother's house - your grandmother Beauty - that I learned what true nourishment was. What was so special about her cooking?
LERMAN: Well, first of all, during the week, everything in my house was processed food. Nothing had a smell. Nothing had an aroma. Nothing really even had a taste or a flavor. And on the weekends, my dad was in advertising, so he was out late. My mom was, again, trying to be an actress, so neither of my parents were ever home, and there was just no food in the house. So every weekend, I got to go to my grandmother Beauty's house, and she'd, like, embrace me. And we'd walk into her kitchen, and it smelled of chicken soup and sweet kugels and banana bread and fresh dill. And I just remember inhaling the scent, and it just transformed my world. I didn't even have words yet to describe it, but the feeling was indescribable.
MARTIN: This is one of the things that - I say, again, that this is such a cliche - you know, the Jewish grandmother, wonderful cook. But your grandmother - at least, in your recounting - was really able to articulate a connection between the food and the spirituality. And you describe it in a way that I have not seen before. And I wondered if you wouldn't mind to just reading a little bit of that passage where she would say - she said that she's a culinary Jew (laughter).
LERMAN: Sure. (Reading) Beauty would say, God is in my kitchen, not in temple, which was really upsetting to her 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'm a culinary Jew, she'd proclaim. I honor tradition of those who came before me, and I want to pass the history of food down 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 with my father, whom I miss. My Bible is my recipes that fill your soul and will keep you healthy and nourish you for years to come.
MARTIN: That's just remarkable. And you remember it so vividly, all these years later.
LERMAN: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. It was in my grandmother's kitchen that I was nourished and transformed.
MARTIN: We'll talk a little bit more about your family, but, you know, these days, people - polite people - don't generally call people fat to their face. Did your dad mind being called fat?
LERMAN: No. He used to call himself Fat Albert, you know, after the TV show "Fat Albert." When he would walk into a room, he'd say - hey, hey, hey, Fat Albert is here. So yeah, he - my dad was always the life of the party. He was an ad man. He was funny. He was witty. You know, he made fun of his size. The only reason he really wanted to be thin was because the ad agency where he worked really put a lot of pressure on him to lose weight, you know, because they wanted to have an better image for the agency. They were selling products like Pringles potato chips and Kentucky Fried Chicken, so they didn't want their team who was promoting it to be heavy. But other than that, he wasn't really self-conscious about his weight.
MARTIN: How though - I just can't - well, how can I put this in a nice way? I really can't - your parents seem like terrible parents.
MARTIN: I just have to be really honest about it. They just seem like terrible parents. I mean, on the one hand, you know, making your little kids eat cabbage, you know, soup for days on end, never having any food in the house. I mean, I don't know. What - you're a parent now yourself. What do you make of all that?
LERMAN: Well, I'm a very different kind of parent, but I think, too, my parents were very young. They were in their early 20s, you know, which is much different than parents today. They really just were a hundred percent self-consumed. It was, again, the '70s. It was all about the me generation. You know, they didn't really know what to do with kids, which is why most of the time, they schlepping to my grandmother's house, where they left me for the weekend.
MARTIN: You know, not surprisingly, you're now a nutrition expert...
MARTIN: ...And a contributor to The New York Times Well Blog. And you provide nutrition education to students and teachers. You're very involved with food yourself, professionally. I've got to ask, you know, how's your dad doing? Is he...
LERMAN: My dad is now 230 pounds and vegan.
MARTIN: He's vegan.
LERMAN: He's vegan, but it took him getting stage three lung cancer and almost dying before he actually finally made that connection between nurturing yourself and food. And that was the - when my dad got cancer, that's when I went back to school to become a nutritionist. I started, you know, reading every book out there about food. And I'm like, you know what? I've been talking about food, cooking food my entire life. This is probably what I should do professionally.
MARTIN: What's your message to us, especially now as we begin the holiday season, where food is so much a part of it, and family is so much a part of it? Do you have some wisdom for us?
LERMAN: Yes. Actually, my favorite quote, which comes from Ray Romano, who blurbed my book - he said, whether you're Italian, Jewish or anything else, you can relate to how family, food and the love of both affect how we grow up and live our lives, mangia. And I think that's important because food nourishes our soul. And it's not so much about the calories or the ingredients but who we're with, tasting it and the memories? And I think it's really important to pass down recipes from generation to generation. It really connects us to our heritage.
MARTIN: Dawn Lerman is the author of "My Fat Dad." She was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Dawn, thanks so much for speaking to us, and happy holidays to you.
LERMAN: Thank you so much. It was such a pleasure being here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.