‘My Fat Dad’ and Memories of Eating on Hanukkah
JNS.org – In her memoir, “My Fat Dad,” New York Times wellness blogger and nutritionist Dawn Lerman shares her food journey and the story of her father, a copywriter from the Mad Men-era of advertising. Dawn spent her childhood constantly hungry, as her father pursued endless fad diets from Atkins to Pritikin, and insisted the family do the same to help keep him on track. Dawn felt undernourished both physically and emotionally, except for one saving grace: the loving attention of her maternal grandmother, Beauty.
When I lived in Chicago, Jewish holidays were spent either at my Grandma Beauty’s house or my Bubbe Mary’s house. My grandmothers lived near each other on Chicago’s north side. I saw Beauty every weekend, but I would only see Bubbe Mary, my father’s mother, on occasional holidays. While my grandmothers had a lot in common — they were both amazing cooks — they were also very different.
Beauty adored me, but Bubbe Mary did not seem to have much time to see me. Also, Beauty was all about being healthy, using a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables in all her dishes. Bubbe Mary was all about recreating the dishes that made her feel closer to Old World traditions she left behind in Romania.
Every year at Hanukkah, the whole family was invited to Bubbe Mary’s for a traditional Jewish dinner. She even included my mom’s parents, Beauty and Papa. What I loved most about holiday gatherings at Bubbe Mary’s house was seeing my first cousins, whom I adored but rarely ever saw — and listening to both grandmothers speak Yiddish. I never knew what they were saying, but something about the sound of the dialect combined with intense hand gestures and the aromas of the Jewish food left a lasting imprint.
Bubbe Mary grew up in Romania and traveled by boat to the United States when she was 13. She traveled with some of her sisters and brothers, but many family members were left behind.
Bubbe Mary used schmaltz to cook everything — from matzo balls to latkes to chicken livers. Everything was fried with schmaltz, which she kept in a glass jar above her stove. For Hanukkah, she often went through a whole jar. She fried and grated so many potatoes for the latkes that her knuckles would bleed. She made sure if you were eating at her home, there was plenty of food, and you would not leave without a full belly and a doggy bag.
The most memorable Hanukkah at Bubbe Mary’s was when I was 8, the last one before my family moved to New York, and one of the last times I ever saw her.
When we walked in the door, Bubbe Mary had the menorah in the window ready for all the grandchildren to light. I remember a big wooden dreidel and a few plastic ones so each of the cousins could have their own dreidel to practice spinning before the championship began.
Later that night, I stood between my two grandmothers as Bubbe Mary held the shamash candle in her hand and lit the first of the eight candles, ushering in the first night of Hanukkah while reciting a blessing. I watched the wick burn and the flame grow bright as I listened to the Hebrew blessings.
After we lit the candles, it was time for dinner. There must have been 10 different courses. As Bubbe Mary brought out her fresh challah bread, warm from the oven, she whispered to my dad to dunk the bread in the matzo ball soup. I remember the look of pure joy on my dad’s face as he dipped and slurped. The next course was potato latkes served with applesauce and sour cream; she made sure my dad and my uncle Melvin had two helpings. Just when I thought it was not possible for there to be any more food, Bubbe Mary gleamed, telling us the main course was on its way — cabbage filled with meat and rice, sautéed chicken livers topped with onions, brisket with kasha varnishkes, and roasted tongue with peppers. My dad took my hand and smiled. “If you think this is amazing, wait until you see what is for dessert.”
After a few rounds of dreidel and Hanukkah songs, the final spread was ready — homemade chocolates, mandelbrot with golden raisins, fried doughnuts with strawberry jam, and marmalade fruit slices. Showering my dad with food was how Bubbe Mary expressed her love — the more food, the more love.
That Hanukkah was full of special memories, as well as insights into my dad’s lifelong battle with overeating and turning to food for comfort. Over the years, Jewish food has always had a special place in my heart, reminding me of those early years at my Bubbe’s house. Only now have I found ways to remake some of her Old World recipes to be healthier — a blend of New and Old World traditions, a blend of Grandmother Beauty and my Bubbe Mary.