With Chanukah and the winter coming, it’s tempting to have several latkes or mugs of hot cocoa in one sitting. Dawn Lerman is a New York-based health and nutrition expert and author of My Fat Dad: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Family with Recipes, published this past September. Her series on growing up with an overweight father appears on the New York Times’ Well Blog. Lerman counsels clients on weight loss, diabetes, high blood pressure and other diet-related conditions. She is a sought-after speaker and consultant and lives in New York with her two children. For more information about her, visit her website, Facebook page and Twitter.
Jewish Food Experience: How do you feel traditional Jewish meals have changed from the 1970s to the present day?
Dawn Lerman: The ’70s was a time of transition, both in the food movement and the way women felt about cooking. The whole health movement was coming into consciousness, and there was a big push toward the vegetarian diet. I remember at 11 years old reading The Whole Earth Cookbook and Diet for a Small Planet—both were recommended to me by my cool, 20-something cousin who had been living in LA. Women at the time—especially my wannabe actress mom—longed to be modern, rebelling against both the traditional family values they grew up with and the Old World food.
I think traditional foods are making a big comeback. There is a big push for whole foods—there is a popular trend now toward incorporating schmaltz, butter, fermented foods and even bone broth with chicken feet and gizzards the way my grandmothers, and their mothers, made their stock. We have gone from low-fat to high-fat, no-meat to the praises of grass-fed meat, from processed and convenience foods to local foods. I think my grandmother Beauty had it right all along when she said, “Stay away from anything that has a marketing promise attached. Fruit gets moldy, vegetables get soggy, but if it lasts for months on the shelf, imagine what it does to your body.”
JFE: How do you feel your grandmothers’ different cooking styles affected your view on food?
DL: My maternal grandma Beauty was all about being healthy, using a lot of fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs in all her dishes. My paternal grandmother Bubbe Mary was all about recreating the dishes that made her feel closer to the Old World traditions she had left behind in Romania. Her specialties were kishke, gribenes and brisket with a Coca-Cola marinade. She came to the United Sates when she was 13 and worked in a factory ten hours a day. Putting a big, rich meal on the table a couple of times a year during the Jewish holidays was the way she expressed her love.
It was not what my grandmothers cooked that influenced my food choices, but the way they felt about me that impacted me. My grandmother Beauty adored me, and we spent every weekend until I was nine years old together. We would cook and shop, and we created the most wonderful soups and stews. It was in her kitchen that I learned what it felt like to be loved and nourished. After we moved from Chicago to New York for my dad’s life-changing job as a creative director at McCann Erikson, where he was the head writer on Coke and Nescafe, Beauty sent me a recipe card every week with a $20 bill. That way the warm, sweet smells from her kitchen could always stay with me.
JFE: How do you feel your dad’s attitude toward food both before and after his diet affected the way you eat?
DL: My dad was a yo-yo dieter. In a period of a year he went from 450 pounds to 175 pounds and back to 300 pounds. He was either on an extremely restrictive diet, like when he lived at the Fat Farm at Duke University for six months, eating only white rice, or on the other side of the pendulum, eating everything and anything—“The Mad Men Diet”—martinis, steak and blackout chocolate cake. No matter which plan he was adhering to, it always involved extremes, and there was not a lot of reflection on how eating different foods make you feel. What he ate or did not eat was always based on the number on the scale.
I have always been health conscious, not weight conscious. Then and now I never liked processed foods. Eating healthy and cooking for myself even as a young child brought me a sense of stability in an environment that was very chaotic. My dad was very involved in the fast-paced lifestyle of advertising, my mom was caught up in the women’s movement of the ’70s and my eight year-old sister was a child star, playing an orphan in the first national tour of the Broadway play Annie. Cooking and learning about different cultures and spices gave me a focus. There is nothing that gives me greater pleasure than finding a way to make one of my grandmother’s classic recipes with a healthier twist—like a cheese-less kugel for my now 220-pound vegan dad.
JFE: What are some ways in which you’ve remade your Bubbe’s Old World recipes to be healthier?
DL: No one made a better banana bread than my Bubbe. I use the base of her recipe, and I alter it depending who I am making it for. If I am making it for someone who is gluten-free, I use gluten-free oat flour, coconut flour or almond flour. I always reduce the amount of sugar she used in half. I am a big fan of flax and chia seeds, and I add them to a lot of my baked goods.
JFE: What do you think is the best way to balance the natural and biological need for food with the social and emotional role it plays in our lives, especially around the holidays?
DL: I think it is not what we do sometimes, like holidays, but being mindful on an everyday basis. I tell my clients it is not about taking away the foods you love, the foods you grew up on, but incorporating live foods, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds—foods with lots of fiber, foods that fill you up without weighing you down. And whatever you are eating, be mindful, eat slowly and really taste it. My grandmother Beauty would put my hair behind my ears when I ate, lay a crisp, freshly pressed white lace napkin on my lap and tell me to pretend I was a princess, reminding me that the best foods have a smell, as she had me guess the ingredients.
JFE: How does the process of writing a book about food and eating differ from writing articles for the New York Times? Were you able to incorporate the articles into your book, or did you use them as inspiration?
DL: I think it was the comments from the articles on the Well Blog that inspired me. Everyone seems to have a story about food. My Fat Dad is mine.