Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Book Review: Born Round by Frank Bruni

Once again I'm sorry for the lack of blogs lately. I've been in a whirlwind of activity lately with theater and concerts and parties and such. I eat on the run way too often. I'm hardly home to cook these days. (I'm not following Emily's advice and writing a few blogs per week it seems.)

While I don't have much time to cook, I do spend much of my time on trains these days and therefore I have plenty of time to read. I recently finished Born Round, by former NY Times food critic, Frank Bruni. I picked it up at the bookstore thinking that it would be a fun read and that it would be nice to review it for TERP. I always say I need to review more food-related books here.

The back cover gives very little detail about what you will find inside. You start reading knowing one thing: the book will talk about how hard it is to be a food critic when you struggle with your weight. I think I was expecting something along the lines of Ruth Reichl's Garlic and Sapphires. What I got was an intensely personal memoir not just of the life of a restaurant critic, but about food, weight, and love.

Bruni starts out with a humorous look at his childhood. Right from boyhood he was a person who loved eating. As a toddler he would demand second and third helpings, and if his mother didn't deliver, he would throw up, as if to prove he could make more room for more food. His family was a typical Italian-American family where large meals are a way of life and how much you're willing to cook (and how much you're willing to eat others' cooking) is the ultimate expression of love. Bruni indulged openly.

It's interesting to see how food can be such a central part of family life. Yes, my family is Italian too (at least partially) and many of us are big eaters (including me). I too have Bruni's love of food. There are times when I just want to cram my gaping maw with everything delicious. It just amazed me how meals in the Bruni family were always without limits. The description of the Bruni Thanksgiving (a turkey, a turkey breast for sandwiches later, a ham, two kinds of sweet potatoes, cheese course, homemade desserts, cannoli - I'm not even scratching the surface here) where not having ample leftovers meant you didn't cook enough food, made my jaw drop. How can you not be fat in this environment?

As Bruni grew older he began to become self conscious about his weight. He knew he was heavier than his brothers. He would go on diets and he was a successful competitive swimmer but his weight often would yo-yo. As he grew older, the more self-conscious he became and the more extreme his measures.

Right from high school Bruni is brutally honest about his sexuality. His first mention of it in the book is when he is in high school and a female friend asks him why he didn't have a girlfriend. He told her that he didn't want a girlfriend. He wanted a boyfriend. Bruni is a few years older than I am, the same age as my brother, so this must have been back in the late 70s or early 80s. It wasn't quite the era where teenagers usually felt comfortable being out. I admired his courage in deciding to accept and who he was at such a young age.

Throughout college we continue to see his struggles. He tried illegal Mexican speed. He became bulimic (with purging, laxatives and "running it off"). He never felt any real self-acceptance, and while he often met interesting men, he could not bring himself to have relationships with many of them. In one poignantly funny chapter, he would go to a potential suitor's apartment and refuse to take off his jacket.

As his career in journalism progresses we continue to join Bruni on his journey of loss and gain and the highs and lows of his self esteem. He took a job with the Detroit Free Press and continued his running regimen. At this point he met a man whom he was not sure he really can love, but who was extremely accepting of him. The two of them moved in together and enjoy exploring the restaurants in the area. But the relationship ended badly when Bruni relocated to New York to work for the Times. We see him continue to avoid relationships because of his weight. In another chapter he met a man whom he really felt he had a chance with, but he didn't want to actually go on a date with him unless he could lose a few pounds. He felt all he needed was a week or two. At the beginning of the week he ate well for a few days and then lost willpower only to pig out over the weekend. That caused him to postpone the date. Eventually the object of his affection was tired of waiting and lost interest.

He ended up covering Bush's campaign. It's nonstop eating on the campaign trail and there is no time for exercise. Bruni returned home from the journey fatter than he had ever been. He continued to work in Washington, but he was very reclusive. At home at night he would go home and order takeout from 3 different restaurants and eat it all alone in front of the TV. There were major upheavals in his life as his siblings married and had children and then his mother died of cancer. He seemed to measure his life by how many pants sizes he was going up. One day one of his brothers called him out and called him fat. That became a defining moment. He felt all of that depression over the loss of his mother, his failed romantic relationships, and his lack of control over his weight and his life. He knew he wanted to make a change.

While still in DC he began to take more positive steps. He signed on with a personal trainer who is extremely tough and doesn't take any nonsense. He took up running again. He even began dating.

The real light bulb went off in his head when he was transferred to Rome. He noticed just how thin Italians are. As a man of Italian extraction himself, Bruni had assumed all Italians loved food. He tried to understand how they did it. Italians aren't that active. They don't walk the way the French do (they prefer their little motor scooters). They don't smoke as heavily as many Americans think they do (and like other European countries have been doing in recent years, they have been curbing smoking in public places). They also eat more sugar than Americans think they do (sweet pastries are a typical breakfast).

What Bruni came to realize is that Italians are masters of portion control. In Italy a roast chicken can serve 6 people instead of 2. Pasta isn't mounded onto the plate. It just covers the bottom of the bowl. Italians eat many different foods in one sitting, but they only eat a little of them. Everything is eaten in moderate amounts and savored. Bruni began to adapt the same habits. He also continued to stay active. (It's hilarious reading about how hard it is to actually work out in a Roman gym. You need a doctor's note just to join. Doc had better administer a stress test if you want to use the treadmill.) While in Italy he was also able to meet someone special and have a healthy, stable relationship.

Although it was scary for him to return to NY and be a food critic, he did find that he could apply the principles he learned in Italy. He would bring other diners with him to share things. He would eat just three of four bites of the foods he ordered. He continued to work out and managed to stay at a healthy weight. Bruni doesn't go into too much detail about his life as a critic and staying undercover the way Ruth Reichl does (that's not really the point of the book) but he does have plenty of amusing anecdotes about how restaurants treated him and how he tried to fly under the radar.

Bruni's conclusion about dieting was simple. There are plenty of diets and gimmicks out there and he has certainly tried them. He and his mother were early adherents of the Atkins Diet. It always boils down to just eating less.

As someone who also really loves eating and who also struggles constantly with her weight, I did find I could relate to this book on a few levels. Perhaps both my eating habits and my neuroses about them were never to Bruni's level, but I still knew exactly what he was talking about with his rationalizations: Break your diet on Wednesday? Well, let's not start till Monday when we have a fresh start. Now pig out from Thursday to Sunday as a last hurrah. I know it well.

I know that feeling of just wanting to shovel food in my mouth. I have family members who worried when you didn't take a second helping (my paternal grandmother was champion of that). Fat has never stood in the way of a relationship, but it has often made me self-conscious about doing some of my favorite activities. I love dancing, but I hate to watch myself dance because I'm a dancing troll. Reading about Bruni conquering his food demons was a true inspiration for me.

Born Round is definitely a must-read for anyone who wonders if she loves food too much.


The Blonde Duck said...

Portion control was, and still is, one of the hardest things for me. I was taught to eat heaps of food fast, and I could inhale a lot of food without gaining as much weight as most people, thanks to my metabolism and working out. When I had to start eating different because of that stomach condition, it was hard to learn portion sizes and to cut back--like not drinking a bowl of queso or not eating a burrito the size of my arm.

polwig said...

I loved all the Ruth Reichl books especially garlic and saphires. My sister was just visiting from australia and potion sizes was one thing she was so taken back by. Most dishes could be good for 2-3 people in Austalia.

yujiayao said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
The Blonde Duck said...

And I know I love food too much.

The Blonde Duck said...

Have a great weekend!

The Blonde Duck said...

Happy Tuesday!

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