Before Frank Bruni became The New York Times’ restaurant critic in 2004, he covered the White House and reported on the Vatican from Rome. He also obsessed about his weight. And after reading his engaging new memoir, Born Round: The Secret History Of A Full-Time Eater, it’s easy to sympathize. His Italian-immigrant relatives on the paternal side equated prosperity with abundance, and each aunt and grandmother sought to outdo the others; even Bruni’s mother, of Irish descent, joined in the competition. Holidays weren’t complete without three or four kinds of meat, 20 side dishes, a dozen appetizers, and an extra turkey breast especially for post-prandial sandwiches. And if Frank and his fad-diet-enthusiast mother failed to accept a plate of fried dough immediately upon entering the house, Grandmother dramatically claimed that she was unloved. It’s no wonder that Bruni carried around an extra 15 pounds on his 5’11” frame throughout his youth, even though he became a nationally ranked swimmer. But in college, where he sought to kick-start his romantic and journalistic careers, his dysfunctional relationship with food began to feature regular bouts of bulimia and no-prescription-needed Mexican amphetamines.
Perhaps there aren’t any shocking revelations in this tale of unhappy weight-watching. The details are so keenly observed, however, that every mood swing and temporary burst of willpower is palpable. As Bruni tentatively makes his way into the gay dating scene, he repeatedly re-enacts one of his first sexual encounters, featuring a sweaty nylon windbreaker that he refused to take off because its supposed slimming properties served as a shield between the man he was kissing and the inevitable disappointment of his own body. Whether in Chapel Hill, Washington, Rome, or even Iraq during a stint as a war correspondent, Bruni puts off relationships until he can lose a few pounds, making excuses to give himself more time before the first date, then finding that few are persistent enough to wait.
The problem with Born Round is that there’s no big transformation coming after all this angst. The solution Bruni finds to a lifetime of ranging from overweight to obese is to exercise hard and eat less. What makes that conclusion special, though, is that he has to do it when it’s his job to eat one or more dinners a night, seven days a week, at the finest restaurants in the culinary capital of the nation. And maybe his solution constitutes a prescription for American excess of all kinds: Don’t deny yourself anything, but take only a few bites of everything. Play as hard as you work. Know your limits and repent your inevitable lapses. It wouldn’t make a very good diet infomercial, but it does make for wonderful reading.