“My Fat Dad” is a touching memoir by Dawn Lerman, nutritionist and columnist, as she explores her family’s tumultuous relationship with food, love, and self-acceptance through the lens of her ad exec father’s lifelong struggles with obesity.
One part memoir, one part cookbook (including Jewish comfort foods like brisket, matzo balls and rugelach), Dawn’s dysfunctional home life is marked by both scarcity (a feeling of near-starvation growing up with her mother, whose idea of a meal is eating a can of tuna with hot sauce over the sink) and bounty in the form of her maternal grandmother Beauty, a talented home cook who prepares traditional Jewish comfort foods.
Her father was constantly on one popular diet after another, which he then expected the whole family to follow. Before Dawn entered elementary school, she was already 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. “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.”
Dawn’s love of food was nurtured by her grandmother Beauty, who would send her money to purchase ingredients after Dawn’s family relocated from Chicago to New York City. Dawn was seduced by all the new sights, smells, and flavors of the Big Apple and incorporated these into her cooking; it was there that she first experienced macrobiotic cooking in addition to Indian spices and ethnic grocery stores. While both of her parents were out experiencing the New York party scene and emerging disco scene, she was largely left to raise her younger sister April, including making healthy snacks for her.
Throughout adolescence, she watched her father battle his addiction to food — at his heaviest, he weighed 450 pounds. “When he ate, it was fast, furious, and determined. It was as if he were filling in a hole inside himself, one that was large, deep and hollow.” Finally, his ad agency sent him off to the Duke Fat Farm, where he lost 175 pounds in six months.
In contrast to her father’s own excesses and indulgences, Dawn began to adapt Beauty’s recipes with international flavors and healthier updates, and healthy cooking and eating became her passion. She embraced carob chips, natural sweeteners and macrobiotic principles to make treasured family recipes her own. Dawn went on to become a board-certified nutrition expert and a contributor to the New York Times Well Blog.
Each chapter of “My Fat Dad” features several related recipes; these can be found in the Contents. The offerings range from Jewish classics like mandel bread, borscht, brisket, cholent kugel, and chicken soup with matzo balls to diet-friendly recipes (l0-cal gazpacho, diet-friendly Jell-O chiffon pie, Pritkin-approved lentil stew, salmon and leeks baked in parchment paper), holiday recipes (pumpkin pie, sweet potato hummus), and baked goods (Fat Dad’s “Closet” brownies, real Italian tiramisu, cookies, fudge, and more).
I was eager to try out Dawn’s recipe for sweet potato hummus; I recently purchased my first VitaMix and have fallen in love with homemade hummus (the VitaMix ensures an incredibly creamy, smooth consistency that the food processor can’t match). I’d never thought of adding sweet potato, but it lends the hummus a beautiful orange color that’s perfect for fall gatherings. I found I had to add a bit of additional water to thin, but you could also add additional olive oil or use the canned liquid from the beans (aquafaba).I like to serve my hummus with a sprinkle of za’atar, but cinnamon would make an equally delicious seasonal touch. I served it with mango crackers, which mirrored the vibrant orange color of the hummus, but you could also serve it with homemade sweet potato chips if you are really going for a fall theme!
Photo credit: Bundtlust (serving bowl: Mud Pie)
Sweet Potato Hummus
Yields: 6 servings
If you are looking for a light, healthy snack this sweet potato hummus is bursting with flavor, spice and color. Because of its high protein content, it will help control your appetite and mood. My dad named it the caviar of hummus—exclaiming, that it was almost illegal for something so nutritious to be this delicious. Pair this with my Potato Chip recipe for the perfect blending of protein and carbs.
1 large sweet potato (about 9 ounces)
1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
5 tablespoons olive oil (plus additional, as needed, for thinning)
2 tablespoons tahini
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 garlic cloves, peeled
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
Pinch of nutmeg
Position the baking rack in the middle and heat the oven to 425 degrees. Wrap the sweet potato in foil and bake in a shallow baking pan until it can be easily pierced with a knife, about 45 minutes. Transfer to a cooling rack and allow the potato to cool completely.
Peel the skin off the sweet potato and transfer to a food processor fitted with a blade. Add the chickpeas, olive oil, tahini, lemon juice, garlic, coriander, cumin, salt, and nutmeg, and process until smooth. If the hummus is too thick, add a little extra olive oil or water and process until the desired consistency is reached.
Reprinted from MY FAT DAD: A Memoir of Food, Love, Family, and Recipes By Dawn Lerman Berkley Books/2015
More about Dawn can be found at:
NY Times Column