It was a great surprise when, in 2004, The New York Times transferred Frank Bruni from his job as the paper’s Rome bureau chief to the paper’s restaurant critic. The journalist had made a name for himself covering the 2000 campaign and, later, foreign affairs. But what did he know about food? As it turned out, more than most. As Bruni would later write, “My life-defining relationship, after all, wasn’t with a parent, a sibling, a teacher, a mate. It was with my stomach.”
Born Round, Bruni’s new food memoir due out next week, reads entirely differently from anything we’ve seen lately. The book does not contain paeans to the glories of locavorism. It’s not a tale of bawdy kitchen exploits, or of finding your true self over a bowl of pasta in Rome. Unlike Ruth Reichl’s wonderful, recipe-punctuated books, it doesn’t make you feel as if eating and cooking are beautiful and life-affirming pastimes. Of eating savory pastries in Tunisia, Reichl writes, “The egg was sitting on a bed of vegetables mixed with chile-rich harissa, and each time the yolk came shooting out between the cracking layers of pastry it created an incredible sensation.” She makes you want to have what she’s having.
Bruni writes of an equally vivid food life—but you will not want to have what he’s having. His memoir tells a story of food addiction, eating disorders, and a lifelong struggle with his voracious appetite. He invites us into his most embarrassing moments—laxative overdoses, messy, late-night binges—with a self-deprecating humor that makes him immensely sympathetic. Anyone who picks up the book expecting a gossipy account of the New York restaurant world will be disappointed: It’s more like Fatal Attraction, with Bruni’s appetite played by Glenn Close, boiling bunnies all day long in a nice Bolognese.
Bruni writes in a congenial, conversational style, bopping through years defined by what foods he ate, by whom they were prepared, and in what quantity they were eaten. In a way, the story mirrors and amplifies America’s great dysfunction—how to be a nation of plenty and still eat sanely? How to resist the urge to feast when so many of us have the genetic memory of scarcity in the old country?
His story begins with these immortal words: “I was a baby bulimic.” Scene: Bruni aged 18 months old, still in a high chair and diapers. His mother cooks him a six-ounce hamburger. He eats it, and immediately wants another. So his mother fries and feeds him a second hamburger. He munches it down, bun and all, and demands a third. Now his mother says no. Bruni promptly throws up. From that point on, he vomits every time he is denied a cookie, candy bar, or sandwich. After all, if he throws up, he can eat more. “Look, Ma, empty stomach,” writes Bruni.
So Frank was born round. But the whole Bruni family was obsessed with food. It signified love, prosperity, and accomplishment. Bruni’s paternal grandmother, Adele, came to New York in 1929, virtually penniless. Her story is the familiar one of hardship and work, which ended in some measure of prosperity. By the time Bruni came around, feeding her family was Adele’s main purpose in life. She would sit and form orecchiette with her thumb for hours.
If Bruni’s grandmother epitomized the old-country urge to feed guests to bursting, his mother—a prolific cook herself—schooled him in the American art of fad dieting. You name it, they tried it: grapefruit for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; a period following Dr. Atkins’s meat-heavy prescription; a popcorn diet, and so on. As he grew up, Bruni implemented more extreme methods—real, grown-up bulimia, laxatives, and speed—interspersed with starvation diets and binge eating.
Bruni generously lets us see him at his worst. From on-demand vomiting as a baby, to becoming perhaps the only eight-year-old in history who relishes sucking the marrow out of lamb bones, to cultivating a familiarity with every bathroom on campus, Bruni catalogs his addiction to food in agonizing detail. Around the time he covered the 2000 campaign, Bruni finds himself larger than he has ever been. He takes to wearing an enormous windbreaker, no matter what the weather. Some nights, he orders pork lo mein, cashew chicken, and barbecued spare ribs. Then he calls Domino’s and gets a large sausage pizza and buffalo wings. And for dessert, a pint of Ben and Jerry’s, an ice cream bar, and Nutter Butter cookies.
But beneath the dysfunction, Bruni’s love of food has its roots in his relationship with his grandmother. One of the most memorable passages in the book is also the most moving: “As she got on in years, Grandma’s smorgasbords became less coherent but no less abundant . . . ‘Mmmm,’ I’d murmur as I continued to chew, as if too focused on the food to pause. ‘Quanto sei bello!’ she’d yelp. It meant, ‘How beautiful you are!’ Then she’d cup my face in her hands and commence another fusillade of kisses.”
You can’t help but root for Bruni as he claws his way toward normalcy—finally attained with the help of a sadistic personal trainer and a diet of (surprise!) moderation. Then, just when he was feeling at peace with food for the first time in his life, the Times called, offering him the most gluttonous job in the world.
Born Round makes for a breezy read. Even at its darkest, it goes down easy. But the book bogs down in details like Bruni’s mom’s kitchen renovation and accounts of too many fruitless dates (it’s hard to have sex if you won’t take your windbreaker off).
After reading Bruni for years, it feels odd to suddenly know his secrets, which put his reviews in a new context. His pieces were always well written, but hinted little of the big, funny personality that shines in the book. As his job as the world’s best-fed man draws to a close (Sam Sifton takes over the position in October), we can breathe a sigh of relief for him. There’s nothing better than eating as a civilian.