Tagged Fat Dad

Fat Dad: The Coffee and Cigarette Diet

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Credit Andrew Scrivani for The New York Times

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The author’s parents, summer-ready.

The author’s parents, summer-ready.Credit

My dad’s face lit up as he placed the engraved linen envelope on the table. We were to be guests at the annual pool party at his boss’s home in East Hampton, N.Y. Not only were we invited for dinner, we were invited to stay for the whole glorious weekend.

Our host was my dad’s boss at the McCann Erickson ad agency, where he was a new creative director. Getting an invitation to his house was more than a polite formality; it was an honor. His family lived on Park Avenue, summered in the Hamptons, and lived by the Emily Post school of etiquette. My family never summered anywhere. We didn’t dress for dinner, we didn’t play golf or tennis, and no one in my family had ever studied Latin or carried a monogrammed bag.

While my dad was flattered, the pressure that accompanied the invitation was huge. His weight had ballooned to almost 400 pounds since landing the job, thanks in part to the decadent three-course client lunches and late-night strategy dinners. In the office, people were focused on my dad’s marketing ideas, but in the Hamptons, my dad said appearances were everything, and there was no hiding behind his creative storyboards and well-thought-out campaigns. He would be presenting my mom, my little sister, April, and me, and showing himself in a more vulnerable setting.

The month leading up to the Hamptons trip was filled with anxiety. My mom and I rushed around shopping for the perfect outfits, and my dad, determined to fit into a bathing suit, starved himself, declaring he was on the “Super Model Diet,” which consisted of hot coffee, cold coffee, coffee shakes, coffee bread, unlimited cigarettes and water.

Even at 10 years old, I knew this was not healthy. I had read the many nutrition and diet books that filled every bookshelf in our house. Each week a new diet, a new promise for miracle results.

“All the actresses and dancers in my commercials swear by this one,” my dad said. “They say substituting a zero-calorie cigarette for lunch helps them stay camera-ready,” he added.

Seeing how worried I was, my dad declared he had never had so much energy, begging my sister and me to try to tag him while he ran up and down the halls of our apartment — not even tempted to take a peek at the diet bread I had just baked for him — adding the required three-quarters of a cup of coffee to my ingredient list.

After successfully losing over 20 pounds on the coffee and cigarette diet in a couple of weeks, my dad headed to Mr. Big & Tall on Eighth Avenue for a couple of items before picking up the Hertz Rent-a-Car. My dad was proud of his new lime-green Bermuda shorts with pictures of palm trees. As we drove to the Hamptons in our beach clothes, my parents argued because my mom, who was in charge of directions, kept navigating us the wrong way. When we finally made it off the highway, my parents became calmer, admiring the quaint churches, old houses and windmills planted on village greens.

Arriving hot and disheveled after our long drive, we were greeted by my father’s boss’s wife, who was wearing a neatly pressed blue Pucci cocktail dress, adorned with a single strand of pearls. Tucking her coiffed blond hair behind her ears, she offered us iced tea with orange slices and led us to the back yard. It was like no pool party I had ever been to, and I wondered if anyone was actually planning to swim.

The tables had crystal candlesticks, and waiters were passing around trays of delicious appetizers that I couldn’t pronounce. Among them were rumaki  — chicken livers wrapped with chestnuts — and soufflés — puffy omelets loaded with cream. There were plates stacked on top of plates and more silverware than I had ever seen. For dinner, we each had our own one-and-a-half-pound lobster with a side of mussels and white sweet corn from the local farm stand. The kids and the grown-ups were served the same food, but we were not seated at the same table. Parents and kids sitting together was a no-no, according to our host’s son, whom I was placed next to.

The boy, who was wearing a jacket and a tie, was only a year older than I was but had the demeanor of a grown man. When I asked, “Aren’t you hot in that stuffy outfit?” he said that the men in their family “always wear a tie and a blazer at dinner each and every night.” He motioned to me to unfold my napkin and place it over my bare legs, dangling above the ground.

I tried to follow his lead as I saw my dad covered in melted butter and lobster juice. He seemed to be enjoying himself immensely, not shy about asking for seconds and thirds of potatoes au gratin as he forfeited the salad and green beans. “I need to leave room for the good stuff,” he exclaimed, loosening his belt buckle, as the table howled in laughter, watching my dad joyfully dash to the dessert table.

“Go for the gusto, Lerman!” my dad’s boss bellowed, pleased that all the guests started chanting my dad’s award-winning slogan for Schlitz beer.

“You Only Go Around Once in Life, So Grab the Gusto,” they yelled out, encouraging my father to load and re-load his plate.

While I knew that the next day my dad would have regrets, and his vicious cycle of yo-yo dieting would begin again, that night I relaxed, savoring every bite of the succulent meat — hoping my first lobster dinner would not be my last.

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Swimsuit-Ready Iced Coffee Shake


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

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

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Credit

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

Fat Dad: Love in a Bowl of Soup

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Dawn Lerman and her dad at her bubbe’s house in 1970.

Dawn Lerman and her dad at her bubbe’s house in 1970.Credit

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Credit

“Eat your soup. It’s good food,” my paternal grandmother, Bubbe Mary, would say.

“Eat your soup. It’s good food,” my dad would playfully tell me, as he reminisced over the wonderful Jewish dinners his mom used to cook for him when he was a boy.

Split pea soup, poppy seed challah with six strands, braised brisket and potato kugel were a frequent occurrence.

“Your Bubbe loved to fatten me up even when the doctors would shame her for how obese I was,” he said. “But Bubbe was proud that her job as a fluffer in the garment district could provide me with such extravagance. Every dairy meal had butter, milk and cheese, and Bubbe made sure there was plenty for seconds and thirds.”

I giggled remembering some of the holiday meals at Bubbe’s, and how I hardly had a chance to swallow one thing before my plate was filled again.

“Just a little more,” she always encouraged. “Food is meant to be eaten, not wasted,” she’d say, squeezing my cheeks until they were bright red and stung with pain. “Think of all the hungry children in the world.”

With each bite I took, Bubbe would profess her love. “Shayna maideleh! Beautiful girl! Who loves you the most in the world?” she would say, as she checked that I polished off every last crumb on my plate.

But other than holidays, we did not visit Bubbe much. My dad was a rising star in the ad industry — he was an international creative director at the ad agency McCann Erickson, but Bubbe was confused about what he did for a living and was disappointed that he did not have a regular job like his brother Melvin, who was an accountant. Even before I knew what an accountant was, I knew my dad’s job was super-fun as he got to work with Tony the Tiger and the Pillsbury Doughboy. But Bubbe was never impressed: “A Jewish boy should be a doctor or a lawyer!”

My dad felt that if they were not talking about food, the room was silent, so he made jokes — most of which Bubbe did not understand — to break the silence. Even when my dad was a child, he did things that she did not understand, like creating satirical comic books, or questioning why they had two different sets of dishes, or turning the lights on and off on Shabbat when she strictly forbid it.

As my dad showed me how to slice the mushrooms for the soup, he talked about his new account: Campbell’s. The current campaign, “M’m! M’m! Good!” was no longer generating enough sales, and it was my dad’s job to help create a slogan that would sell more soup.

While we stirred in the barley and shredded the meat for the broth, my dad shared the story of how when he was in the sixth grade, he got beaten up by a bunch of bullies who jumped him from behind, hitting him with lead pipes until he was unconscious.

“Fat mama’s boy! Fat mama’s boy!” they taunted. The beating was so bad that he spent a week in a coma, and the doctors didn’t know if he would live or die.

Helpless, my bubbe cooked all day and all night, praying for his recovery. She hoped the smells of her famous mushroom barley soup, which she schlepped to the hospital, would revive him. When my dad awoke, Bubbe was standing there with a big pot, a bowl and a ladle — fully believing in the healing powers of her thick broth, made with beef bones, beef chuck and tomato paste.

My bubbe cooked all through the night when my dad was in the hospital, showering him with cinnamon raisin rugelach, sponge cake with an orange glaze, and mandel bread with big chocolate chips — feeding him obsessively, but never telling him she loved him.

My dad wanted to feel comforted by all the amazing food she had worked so hard to prepare, but he felt angry. He wanted to be thin. He wanted to be popular. He wanted to have self-confidence. The very food, which brought him such extreme pleasure, caused him to be bigger than the other kids, leading to ridicule and worse, landing him in the hospital.

When my dad dieted, he felt as if he was betraying my grandmother and dissolving the one bond they shared. Of course, as a child I didn’t know any of this; I didn’t understand the relationship between my father, my grandmother and food. I just knew that Bubbe Mary was a wonderful baker, and my dad missed her even though he would never say it.

As my dad served us each a warm bowl of mushroom barley soup with sweet parsnips and bay leaves, we looked at each other. “Eat your soup. It’s good food,” we said in unison — imitating Bubbe’s Yiddish accent.

The next day when my dad came home, he smiled, announcing the new tag line and jingle for Campbell’s soup, “Soup Is Good Food,” inspired by my bubbe’s soup.

The soup that revived my dad when he was in a coma. The soup he taught me to cook. The soup that said “I love you” the way Bubbe showed her affections best — spoonful by spoonful.

Mushroom Barley Soup : This soup is made with nourishing bone broth and root vegetables.


Dawn Lerman is a New York-based health and nutrition consultant and author of the newly published book, 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.


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