Born Round: A Story of Family, Food,
and a Ferocious Appetite
by Frank Bruni
Penguin reprint, June 2010
Paperback 368 pp., ISBN: 978-0143117674
Everything on the menu is so cheap, I reason, that it just makes sense to order the dumplings and the noodles. And their special is the basil tofu, which reheats so nicely over rice, that I’ll order one of those too, with the intention of saving all but a bite for lunch the next day. I phone in my order and then practically have to sit on my hands to stop myself from snacking until the food arrives. Finally the doorbell rings and the large brown paper bag is on my counter. Then, only because I don’t know which food is in which white paper carton, I open them all at once. Once the food is staring me in the face, it’s impossible not to jump back and forth between all four cartons (dumplings, noodles, tofu, rice), mixing flavors, slurping noodles, taking dumplings to where they’ve never been before.
The leftovers hardly qualify as lunch.
This sort of out of body experience, the one where you finally stop eating because you realize that you’re actually short of breath, is only too familiar to Frank Bruni, a journalist most famous for his tenure as chief food critic for the New York Times. His memoir, Born Round: The Secret History of a Full Time Eater, actually spends little time discussing this particular job (though the pages are justly proportional to his life; he was only the NYT food critic from 2004-2009.) I’ll admit that I picked up Born Round in order to hear the secrets of that mysterious man or woman who can make or break a restaurant in one of the best restaurant cities in the world. Bruni does indulge his readers’ interest, taking us in the final chapters on a little Behind the Scenes Making of a New York Times Restaurant Review type adventure. The real story in this book, however, is not of Frank Bruni, restaurant critic, but of Frank Bruni, over-eater.
But don’t dismiss Born Round as another story of "the fat kid," because Bruni’s journey through life with food is anything but cliché. As a toddler, baby Bruni would eat until he threw up, and then cry until he was allowed to eat some more. As a teenager, he often came home from dinner and clandestinely cooked up three hamburgers on the grill in his garage, eating them rare as a "matter not of taste but of haste." Even readers who have overindulged more than once at the Thanksgiving table or eaten an entire pizza after a night of drinking will stand in awe of how much food Bruni was able to pack away.
Not surprisingly, Bruni was often overweight and hyperaware of this fact. He describes his debilitating self-consciousness and shame in a way that is honest and sometimes heart-breaking. He was the "fat kid." Then he was bulimic. He wore nothing but stretched out corduroys and large t-shirts to hide his love handles. He canceled dates because he was afraid that he had gained weight since the initial invitation. We see him get caught in such a spiral of over-eating and self-loathing that by the time he’s driving to Tijuana to buy the Mexican speed he uses as a weight loss pill, you’re begging him to stop the madness.
But it’s not all bad. His family, headed by his Italian grandmother, understands the joys of food. There are bowls of sauce-covered, thumb-molded strascinat (a pasta similar to orecchiette), and platters piled high with balls of fried dough ready to be dragged through an adjacent pile of sugar. His mother makes him snacks of hotdogs wrapped in bacon, light-as-air manicotti, even homemade egg McMuffins. Frankly, when reading about the glories of the Bruni table it’s hard to imagine growing up there and not becoming a bit overweight.
It’s also evident that his background in food, and more precisely all that delicious food made by loving family members, gave him the skills he would need to get that coveted job at the New York Times, to experience life as the bottom line in New York restaurants. His life wasn’t always as enviable as I had imagined, but Bruni’s way with words truly makes reading about his life in food as rich as his mother’s lasagna. And if he wants to write a follow up, I’ll definitely have a second helping.
October 8, 2010