I grew up with a fat dad – 450 pounds at his heaviest. Every week he would rotate to a new fad diet, and my family ended up eating whatever freeze-dried, saccharin-loaded concoction he was trying at that moment. By the time I was 9, I was an expert on Atkins, Pritikin and Weight Watchers, just to name a few. Did I mention spending four weeks at Duke University’s “Fat Farm” consuming only minuscule bowls of white rice, while my 10-year-old peers were home eating ice cream cones?
In spite of being shorter and scrawnier than my classmates, I was eating calorie-free astronaut mystery powders and drinking diet sodas, which were the only staples in our kitchen. My dad was obsessed with his career in advertising and his fluctuating weight, which was fluctuating mostly in the wrong direction. Every new diet, no matter how stringent or odd, was the potential solution for his expanding waistline.
My mother, on the other hand, never understood what the big deal with food was and ate only one small meal a day while standing up and chatting on the phone. She had no interest in preparing food. Most of our meals consisted of my dad’s diet foods, a meal replacement shake, a frozen dinner, or a bagel or pizza in the car. We never had meals together as a family; in fact, we never ate sitting down. At home, we never used silverware or dishes, only plastic forks and paper plates. My mom loved the fact that in India they never used silverware at all. Of course, she missed the part that Indian families actually ate together and sat down while eating.
What I remember most about those years is that I was always hungry – hungry for food, hungry for nice clean clothes, hungry for someone to notice when I ran away from home or hid in the closet for hours. I was just hungry – hungry for someone to care for me because I was a child and I yearned to be cared for.
But on Friday nights, I was never hungry. My maternal grandfather would pick me up for the weekend, and when we arrived at my grandparents’ home, the table was always set with beautiful china. There was always a pot of something cooking on the stove, a freshly drawn bath, and a fluffy, lavender-smelling nightgown waiting for me. It was at my grandmother’s house where I learned what true nourishment was. It is where my tears were dried.
When I walked into her kitchen, life transformed from processed packages of salty MSG instant soup to the delicious warm, fragrant smell of homemade chicken soup. Giant salads, fresh fruits and the aroma of just-baked muffins filled the air and my world. It was the only place I can remember feeling happy, safe and nourished. It was what I craved.
My grandmother, who was nicknamed Beauty, taught me how good it felt to be cared for, and how to care for myself and others through cooking. It was always about the ingredients for her. If I asked her how much celery to chop for a soup, she’d wave off the question. “Just use your creativity,” she’d say. “You can’t go wrong when you use fresh ingredients.” She’d throw a few carrots, sweet potatoes, a few veal bones – whatever looked best at the market that day – into a pot, and two hours later, it was the most delicious thing I’d ever tasted.
My grandmother Beauty was always extremely skeptical of my parents’ wacky eating habits and reliance on processed diet foods, and made it her mission to teach me how to feed myself and my sister. My grandmother was my mentor and my savior. She poured love and stability into my life, one recipe at a time.
After my third-grade year, my dad landed a life-changing job in Manhattan. My mom, my little sister and I had to move away from our hometown, Chicago, and leave my grandmother and her beautiful food behind.
Leaving my grandmother was far scarier than the move to New York City. There would be no more special weekends at my grandmother’s house, no more homemade food, no more car rides to school. It was the subway, a latchkey, total independence and self-reliance for survival. In this new city, I felt extremely alone and lost, and I missed my grandmother terribly.
My grandmother knew just how I felt – and she knew the cure. Every week, she would send me a card with a $20 bill, a recipe and a list of what to buy at the market. It kept us bonded, and her recipes filled my body and soul.
Over the years, I have grown to better understand my father’s struggles with weight and the toll it took on him and those who love him. I have come to realize he was driven not by vanity or selfishness as much as by a deep pain. And in spite of growing up in such an unhealthy eating environment (or perhaps because of it), as an adult I found a passion and a career as a nutrition consultant.
Today, my father weighs 220 pounds and is a vegan. How he got there is a story I hope to share in the coming weeks. More important, food is no longer a barrier that keeps us apart, but a bridge that keeps us connected. There is nothing my dad enjoys more than talking with me about dietary theories and his weight-loss victories. And now I am the one regularly sending recipe cards to my father’s house, just as my grandmother did for me.
Courtesy of New York Times. Dawn Lerman is a New York-based health and nutrition consultant and founder of Magnificent Mommies, which provides school lectures, cooking classes and workshops. Her series on growing up with a fat father will appear on occasional Fridays on Well in June and July.