At my mother’s funeral this past summer, the rabbi from the nursing home where she had died at 93 spoke about how much he enjoyed her quick wit and feisty sense of humor. He said that every Friday night, he’d visit all the guests in their rooms to share a Sabbath blessing and offer a piece of challah. The bread, still warm from the oven, was a welcome treat for most. But Lenore, my mom, always demurred, saying, “No thanks. I’m watching my figure.”
He thought she was being a comedian. But she really wasn’t kidding.
He’d never heard about her lifelong reverence for “The Program.”
It’s a long story, but in the fall of 1963, my father’s brother started Weight Watchers with his better-known co-founder, Jean Nidetch, who became the face of the business.
Our young family had just moved from an apartment in the Bronx to a house in New Jersey, and my mom was feeling a little lost in the land of lawn sprinklers and car pools. She learned to drive, for survival, and when both of my parents started following the Weight Watchers diet, she could drive herself to the classes in town.
She took to “The Program,” which is what the combination diet and group support in meetings were called, with an affinity and interest she could never otherwise muster for day-to-day cooking. Mimeographed recipes were handed out at meetings, like Samizdat (the secret, dissident literature distributed in the former Soviet Union), and she started trying them out. Previously we’d eaten a menu of the dishes her mother had made (with brisket and stuffed cabbage on holidays), filled out with frozen vegetables and canned or convenience items. To me, our meals looked just like the food in TV commercials, and I actually relished the radioactive pat of butter that lit up the mashed potatoes compartment of my Swanson Fried Chicken TV dinner.
Whereas Weight Watchers food seemed slightly exotic. Now my mother was filing our larder with strange stuff like cans of bean sprouts—one of the “unlimited’ foods on The Program, meaning that you could eat as much as you wanted of them and not gain weight. Usually she used the sprouts in “chicken soup,” which meant boiling a bouillon cube in water and then unloading the can in that hot liquid.
FIsh was a problem. The diet required five servings of fish a week, which was a challenge in the days of steak and London broil. Mom bought some sort of frozen white stuff at the supermarket and then, following a Weight Watchers recipe, drowned it in tomato soup and frozen peppers. I grew up thinking that ice had an odd peppery taste because my mom kept bags of frozen peppers in the ice cube bin, and the tiny green and red cubes inevitably blended into the water.
Even as a grade school kid, I delighted in producing some of the recipes that relied on the toaster oven, which, along with most of the Mad Men-era diet, now seem about as appealing as eating fallout shelter bricks. “Pizza” consisted of a slice of whole wheat bread (it seemed sophisticated) topped with two slices of Muenster cheese, a slice of tomato, and dried oregano, broiled on the toaster oven tray. Another favorite was the “cheese Danish,” straight from the Weight Watchers Cookbook, with a picture of Jean Nidetch on the cover, in capri pants, sitting on a kitchen stool.
At a time when there were limited opportunities for women to work outside the home, my mother became a much beloved local Weight Watchers lecturer, and then rose in the ranks to become an Area Director. The “members” loved her. They’d stare at what was in her cart at the supermarket, and would come over to say hello in restaurants. My father started calling her “the famous Lenore.”
These days, I just have to think about mixing the cottage cheese with cinnamon and vanilla, and I get into a madeleine-like reverie. Mom is gone, and I wish I could still watch her watch her figure.
Barbara Lippert is an award-winning advertising columnist who now writes for Ad Age and Vie Magazine. She lives in New York City, and loves that Oprah is now the voice of Weight Watchers.
Weight Watchers Cheese Danish
1 slice whole wheat bread
2 oz. (1/4 c.) cottage cheese
1/8 t. ground cinnamon
1/8 t. vanilla extract
1/2 t. sugar substitute
Toast the bread.
Mix the cottage cheese with cinnamon, vanilla, and sugar substitute.
Spread on toast and place under the broiler until warmed through and beginning to bubble.
Serve while warm.