Jewish Community Center dines in with New York Times author Dawn Lerman

By Paula Johnson

Photo: 2-year-old Dawn Lerman with her grandmother, whom she called ‘Beauty’

“My Fat Dad” is Dawn Lerman’s new memoir about how her father’s lifelong weight struggle defined her life from the young child who went on a diet roller coaster with him to the woman who became a board-certified nutritionist, blogger, and author. She’s a contributor to The New York Times Well Blog, as well as the founder of Magnificent Mommies, a company specializing in personal, corporate, and school-based education. Lerman will appear as MC for dinner and discussion at the Cultural Arts and Book Festival event. The event is sponsored by the Jewish Community Center, and will be held at El Meson restaurant. It will feature a four-course dinner using some of Lerman’s recipes.

Lerman’s dad was larger than life, and not just with the 400-plus pounds he carried on his imposing frame, but in his career as a top New York ad man who coined such slogans as “Fly the Friendly Skies of United” and “This Bud’s for You.” Lerman’s mother was indifferent and even hostile toward food and cooking, eating, as Lerman describes, cans of tuna with hot sauce while standing at the sink. What food was found in the house was of the processed and prepackaged ilk. Lerman fended for herself and her little sister through her tumultuous and eventful childhood and adolescence, finding solace and culinary inspiration from her maternal grandmother, who she, at the age of 3, dubbed “Beauty.” Beauty’s recipes were a balm for her soul and belly, and allowed Lerman to discover the joy of eating and her own talent for cooking and recipe development. I asked her about Beauty and a few other food-related topics when we spoke.

Let’s start with Beauty. She was so spot on and pragmatic in her views on food. There are two quotes that stick out for me: “If it lasts for months on the shelf, imagine what it does to your body” and “You don’t want to cook with schmaltz every day, but everything in moderation is OK.” She seemed like a woman who was ahead of the prepackaged, processed generation she was cooking in.

Dawn Lerman: She was! She said what Michael Pollan is now saying all those years ago. “Bread gets moldy, fruit gets soggy, and vegetables get wilted. If it lasts for months on a shelf think about what it does to your body!” is my favorite quote, and something we are now beginning to understand better. Beauty also talked about “dead food”—food with no love in it, as she put it, like a cookie out of a supermarket package, as opposed to a freshly baked one. She’d say, “Smell it. If it doesn’t have smell it won’t help your body!”

Beauty also showed you about how food is part of your culture and heritage. She wasn’t an observant Jew, but what do you think her Jewishness meant to her, and what does it mean to you?

DL: She didn’t go to temple, but she would say, “My temple is my kitchen. I am in my temple every day.” She really valued holiday traditions and her role in providing food for us. It was her way of connecting to the past. I think I am very much like her in that way.

Your father’s lung cancer led you both to change your life. What happened to him and to you as a result?

DL: Well, my dad is now vegan and weighs 210 pounds and is doing great, thanks to the changes he made. For me, you’re talking about becoming a nutritionist as a result of his illness? [Lerman had a highly successful career as a TV producer at the time.] I was always a nutritionist before I even knew what that was. I was always telling people to use herbs and spices instead of salt and finding ways to make food more healthful since I was a
little girl.

I’d like to ask you a little about our current food culture. In terms of dining out, what would you like to see restaurants do that they’re not, or that you’d like to see them do more of?

DL:  Oh, farm-to-table restaurants, definitely. And there are even some new chains that are opening which focus on vegetarian cooking. What would I like to see less of in restaurants? Salt!

You write fondly of Olga, the lunch lady at your school, who you spent lots of free time with. How would you like to see the school lunch program change?

DL: Diet can have so many implications on a child’s behavior and ability to learn. Years ago, I worked as a counselor at a school where I met with kids before school who had ADHD. The method was to reward kids with candy if they modified their behavior—can you imagine? I would love to see more partnerships develop between schools and farms.

I have to ask. You write that you spent a lot of time at the famed Studio 54 when you were just a teenager, and you even mention kissing Mick Jagger. I’m not even sure there’s a question here. Any details you’d like to furnish?

DL: Haha. Yes, I did! Looking back, it was a crazy time. I was 15-years-old and on my own nearly every evening, and I found a sense of community there. I was lucky to avoid the bad things that happened like drugs and alcohol—I just loved the dancing.

There’s always been fear mongering about food and dieting, everything from don’t eat eggs, to don’t eat butter, to don’t eat fill-in-the-blank. What is your advice to people about how to eat in the healthiest way possible? 

DL: Listen to what Beauty said!

‘My Fat Dad,’ sponsored by the Jewish Community Center, takes place Monday, Nov. 7 at El Meson, 903 E. Dixie Drive in West Carrollton. The event starts at 6:30 p.m. Tickets cost $36, which includes a copy of the book, dairy dinner, gratuity, and non-alcoholic beverages. There is a cash bar. Kosher meal available with advance request. For more information, please visit JewishDayton.org and
DawnLerman.net.

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Paula Johnson
Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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