Fat Dad: Mom Makes Dinner

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Dawn Lerman and her mother in the mid-1970s

Dawn Lerman and her mother in the mid-1970sCredit



I spent my childhood wishing my bohemian, free-spirited, wannabe actress mom would make a home-cooked Jewish dinner the way my maternal grandmother, Beauty, always did. My mother’s idea of a good home-cooked meal consisted of au gratin boxed potatoes, canned tuna fish, or maybe some Franco-American Spaghetti0s.

As my little sister, April, and I would fight over who would get the last pea or who would get the bigger half of the peach cobbler in the dessert corner of our Hungry Man TV dinner, our mother told us that her mother spent her whole life cooking old-fashioned food. To my mom, that meant anything made with fresh ingredients — particularly vegetables.

My dad, a 450-pound ad man, hated coming home to a house with no real food. His mother worked a 12-hour day in the garment district when he was a boy, but she managed to always have a feast on the table for him. To avoid domestic arguments he’d often choose martini and burger dinners at P.J. Clarke’s with his creative team at McCann Erickson instead of coming home to us.

On one rare occasion, my mom decided to cook a festive Swiss-inspired dinner. Maybe Beauty scared her by telling her that the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach, and if she did not feed him, someone else would. Pondering all the different scenarios, my mom called out in an unusually sweet voice, “Fondue, everybody.”

Charging down the thick, orange shag-carpeted staircase with 7-year-old April on my back, I noticed my mom’s wild, curly hair was neatly brushed and she had on her favorite red, white and blue shirt with the big stars. She looked pretty, swaying to the lyrics of “American Pie,” which blasted from our new Hi-Fi stereo — the one she had recently won at my seventh-grade school auction.

On the table, usually filled with receipts and scripts from my mom’s acting classes, was a gold fondue pot with a small burning candle. There were mushrooms, zucchini and pieces of crisp French bread for dipping.

When everyone arrived at the table, my mom demonstrated how the cheese stuck to the bread when you dunked it in the pot. She made sure all eyes were on her as she created the perfect bite with a long stick. “You do not want to oversaturate the bread with the cheese sauce; otherwise, it might break apart and the poor little piece of bread will sink to the bottom and drown,” she said, looking at my dad all bright-eyed. “I heard the custom in Switzerland is if the bread falls into the cheese, the man sitting beside the woman has to kiss her.”

My sister giggled and kicked me under the table. “Mommy is talking in a really weird baby voice,” she whispered.

As my mom gazed at my forever-dieting dad, she boasted that the whole meal was Atkins-approved except the bread. “Lots of fat and protein, and hardly any carbs. You can dip as many mushrooms as you like without guilt.”

Just as April and I were about to indulge in this bubbly, cheesy bit of heaven, we saw that my dad looked less than pleased.

“When you phoned and said you were going to make me a special dinner knowing that I have been struggling night and day to win the account for Kentucky Fried Chicken, I envisioned a dinner like my mother would have cooked — brisket with crispy latkes or tuna casserole with a potato-chip crust.”

While my dad perked up remembering the kind of dinners his mother made, I saw the light drain from my mother’s face.

“How am I supposed to eat this drippy mess? I need utensils and a plate!”

Running to the kitchen to look for everything, I saw my mother’s eyes well up. I fumbled through drawers, cabinets, shelves and even the refrigerator, which my mom often used for storage of paper plates, plastic silverware and napkins. I couldn’t find anything. Even worse, we were out of dad’s diet soda.

My stomach was in knots. Tears were streaming down my mom’s cheeks. I’d never seen my mother cry before. She was always stoic and strong — never vulnerable. In that moment, she looked unguarded, and it scared me.

“You know I don’t like to cook, but I went out of my way to try and make a meal that was special. I even bought two kinds of imported cheese and dry white wine so the fondue would be flavorful,” she shouted at my dad. My father looked up at her, shocked, rolling his eyes back and forth trying to charm her with his devilish grin.

I was always the peacemaker, but I did not know how to make this better. Seeing my mom so upset hurt me in a way that I had never hurt before.

I had never really noticed how young and beautiful my mom was or realized that she needed love in the same way I needed love. In that moment, I wanted to grab my mother and hug her and tell her I adored and appreciated her, but I stood frozen.

As my parents began to calm down, we noticed April, licking fingerful after fingerful of the cheesy mass. “Finger lickin’ good,” she said, reciting my dad’s favorite existing slogan for KFC. Watching her enjoy the warm melted cheese, my dad softened, matching her bite for bite and encouraging me and my mom to do the same.

“Finger lickin’ good,” he said, smiling at my mom as we all hovered around the festive fondue pot.

While my dad didn’t land the KFC account for McCann, my family found a new dish that we all enjoyed — and my mother didn’t mind preparing.

Dawn Lerman is a board-certified nutrition expert and the author of “My Fat Dad: A Memoir of Food, Love and Family, With Recipes.” Her series on growing up with a fat father appears occasionally on Well. Follow her @DawnLerman.

Baked Stuffed Tomatoes With Goat Cheese Fondue