By Joe Yonan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater
By Frank Bruni
Penguin Press. 354 pp. $25.95
Plenty of readers who pick up "Born Round," Frank Bruni's new memoir, will skip right to the pictures, or to the chapter about the pseudonyms he used when making restaurant reservations, or to the part about his comical attempts at disguises.
Such is the curse of a book by someone who, until this month, has held one of the most influential and feared positions in the world of New York dining: New York Times restaurant critic. What does he really look like? Which hosts were smart enough to "make" him when he attempted anonymity? For a certain segment (read: the restaurant-obsessed or -employed), all that dish is hard to resist. Don't believe it? Months before the book was released, New York magazine's Grub Street bloggers made their own index based on an advance proof, complete with such categories as "Influencing, attempts at."
To flip through "Born Round" for those nibbles of insider gossip -- gratifying as they may be in the moment -- is to miss out on the more satisfying meal: Bruni's unflinchingly honest look at himself as someone whose demons were always pushing or withholding food.
When he writes about how his Italian family treats cooking and even eating as competitive sports, and about his compulsion as a little kid to join his mother on the Atkins diet (nearly breaking his pasta-making grandmother's heart), it's easy to spot the glimmers of future eating disorders. And sure enough, by college he's learned the not-so-delicate art of bulimia, and also abuses laxatives and Mexican diet pills. Throughout most of the book, his weight is up and down (reaching 268 pounds at its peak), and his attempts at dating are complicated by his irrational body image, binges and even "sleep-eating."
Just when you think Bruni's tale is going to get too, er, heavy, he slips in some witty accounts of lighter moments, such as his mother's wrap-everything-in-bacon phase: It culminated in "hot dogs wrapped in bacon, which were arguably as close as she could come to wrapping bacon in bacon without being flagrantly redundant. Before she would wrap the hot dogs in bacon, she'd use a knife to carve grooves in them and fill the grooves with cheese. Her pig-on-pig action apparently needed a little cow."
And, of course, there are those dishy parts, such as his continuing inability to keep his roster of fake names straight when reviewing restaurants. One night after trying a couple of possibilities, he is forced to tell a hostess that his reservation must be under the name of "whichever party of four is in your book for nine forty-five!"
Even the darkest periods are leavened by Bruni's black humor, which recalls that of Augusten Burroughs, who happens to write a testimonial on the back cover. One of the most touching chapters, in fact, sounds like Burroughs (or perhaps David Sedaris, who also praises the book) as it chronicles the typical denial-upon-avoidance that would come when Bruni met a new guy he was interested in dating.
"He calls two days later," Bruni writes. "You're thrilled. You're panicked. When he asks if you have plans for the coming weekend, you tell him you have an out-of-town friend visiting, even though you don't. You just can't see him this weekend. More accurately, you can't let him see you. The weekend is only three days away, four if you sign up for Saturday as opposed to Friday night, and that's not enough time. In four days you might be able to lose three pounds, tops, and that's assuming several five-mile runs. You'd like to lose four to five."
Such resolve leads to a long run, followed by a day of virtuous eating, followed by a pizza-delivery binge when there's nothing in the fridge, followed by a confrontation in the bathroom mirror: "You don't look thin, and you're not going to look thin in four hours." Finally, the date gets postponed with a lie ("I think I'm getting sick, and I'd hate to get you sick"), never to be rescheduled.
"Born Round" vividly illuminates the reality that gay men appear particularly vulnerable to eating disorders, no doubt because of the community's body consciousness. A 2007 study found that almost 16 percent of gay or bisexual men had suffered from eating-disorder symptoms, a higher rate not only than heterosexual men (5 percent) but also than heterosexual women (8 percent) and lesbians or bisexual women (10 percent).
Is it even riskier when the gay man is a food writer? Bruni builds the narrative in "Born Round" around being courted for the restaurant critic's job. He'd finally learned how to suppress his food issues, thanks in part to some good relationships and personal trainers. Would his constant exposure to restaurant eating resurrect them?
The title of Bruni's book is taken from his grandmother's saying, "Born round, you don't die square," a no-confidence vote in people's ability to change.
It might be a spoiler to say that by the book's end, Bruni seems to have mostly kept his food demons at bay. Frankly, though, his conversion comes across as a bit too easy, and readers might wonder whether he truly understands enough about the roots of his food issues to prevent a relapse. His jacket photo is a snapshot of his success, at least as of press time: A decidedly unround Bruni, with a wry smile, looks determined to prove his grandmother wrong.
Yonan is The Washington Post's Food and Travel editor.