Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-time Eater, By Frank Bruni, Penguin (August 2009)
Why is it that serious food people so often seem to have been born thin and picky? It seems impossible that they go from being chubby little children stuffing themselves with those awful, prepackaged, soggy cone things from the ice cream truck into epicures who find sorbet a necessary palate cleanser between courses.
Yet, in the case of Frank Bruni, who in August stepped down after five years as The New York Times restaurant critic, food enlightenment didn’t come quite so easy. Bruni was born and raised an eater, not a foodie. He makes his transformation the subject of his new food memoir, Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater. His weight is a constant preoccupation that affects not only his self-esteem but his relationships with others. Indeed, here is someone whose “defining relationship,” reinforced by both nature and nurture, has not been with another person, but with his own stomach. Thus the central conceit that begins the book: At age 39, Bruni is offered a chance to eat at fancy restaurants for a living and write about it as The New York Times restaurant critic. It is, he writes, “the kind of ultimate dare or dead reckoning that a good narrative called for.” He accepts with trepidation (but perhaps also with a memoir in mind?). How does someone with such a basic, gut-level love of food—someone who has at times cooked and binged in his sleep—gain the critical distance needed to mete out judgments as one of the most influential food critics in the world?
We don’t get the answer until the final section of the book, but no matter, because Born Round is delicious to read, its prose witty, fast-paced, and simple enough to devour quickly. Bruni deals with some heavy issues—body image, self-esteem, family expectations and tensions, his mother’s death from cancer, his resulting depression and anxiety—with a light touch. He does gloss over a few things. His rise through the ranks of journalism comes off as airy, effortless, destined to be, probably because Bruni is so modest about it, and probably, because he wants to keep his own anxieties and insecurities mostly focused on his struggle with food and flab.
Bruni is pretty unflinching about the details of that struggle. We’re treated to a running assessment of his size in the form of personal photographs and frequent references to his fluctuating pants size, the barometer he has long used to gauge his relative fatness or thinness, and, by extension, a lot of his self-worth. We learn about his short-lived college bulimia and his weird tendency to postpone or cancel dates because he didn’t consider himself thin enough to be desirable. We learn that while working as a reporter in Detroit, he regularly gobbled down precooked Tyson’s chicken on his way home from the supermarket—and tossed the chicken bones on the passenger-seat floor, where they accumulated over weeks, horrifying colleagues. We learn that during his years as a Washington political reporter for The Times, he dealt with the pressure of long days, tight deadlines and intense competition by retreating to the dingiest room in his townhouse for 11 P.M. Chinese food and pizza binges on a grease-stained futon. We learn that while he covered George W. Bush’s first presidential campaign, he racked up nearly $2,000 in minibar charges—even though the campaign was a never-ending smorgasbord of calorie-packed food.
Such details read like food porn for the guilty eater set; to me, at least, they never got old. But, despite the narrative tension Bruni sets up at the beginning of the book, his metamorphosis from eater to foodie is far less interesting than one might hope. By the time Bruni lands the widely coveted restaurant critic job, he is already well on his way to more healthy and sustainable eating habits, courtesy of a couple of years as The Times’ Rome bureau chief, where he learned to eat for quality over quantity. Furthermore, the demands of his critic job actually end up helping Bruni have a more controlled relationship with food. He must eat with an exquisite attention to detail, which precludes mindless binging on the job. And, knowing that it’s his professional duty to eat out night after night, and to sample a large array of dishes on each occasion, scares him into a rigorous exercise routine. For one four-month stretch, Bruni actually takes Amtrak’s pricey Acela Express from New York to D.C. once a week for double sessions with the no-nonsense trainer who helped roust him from his Washington flab phase a few years earlier (I should note that although The Times of course footed his lavish dining budget, Bruni paid for the damage-control trainers himself).
As a result, Bruni the critic actually ends up as thin as he has been since college, when he relied on purging and Mexican speed to keep his weight down. Only a few years earlier, he had actually gone so far as to have a Photoshop wizard digitally alter a book jacket photo so he’d appear thinner. Now, in an ironic twist, Bruni must take elaborate precautions to keep his picture from being made public, lest restaurant staff recognize him.
Inevitably, he sometimes is recognized and given special treatment. The book’s final section presents fascinating tidbits about the world of food-reviewing intrigue (wigs at the Bergdorf salon, famous restaurateurs stalking you, credit cards with fake names on them, courtesy of a special arrangement between The Times and American Express, indiscreet dining partners who are always threatening to blow your cover). All the anecdotes give readers a tempting peek into a world shrouded in mystery, which provides an interesting contrast to the revealing, but painfully familiar eating and body-image issues that dominate the first three-quarters of the book. Bruni the tormented dieter and binger is the guy that far too many Americans will recognize in themselves (as many of the book’s blurbs make a point of highlighting ad nauseum). Bruni the critic is the mostly reformed and refined eater many aspire to become. But when it comes down to it, most of us won’t become that guy. We can’t all be paid to eat for a living. Bruni’s got a one-in-350-million story—irresistible, but no guide to salvation from our stomachs.
Bell is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn.