Table of Contents
ALSO BY FRANK BRUNI
Ambling into History:
The Unlikely Odyssey of George W. Bush
A Gospel of Shame:
Children, Sexual Abuse, and the Catholic Church
WITH ELINOR BURKETT
THE PENGUIN PRESS
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published in 2009 by The Penguin Press,
a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Copyright © Frank Bruni, 2009
All rights reserved
Grateful acknowledgment is made for permission to reprint excerpts from the following articles by Frank
Bruni published in the
The New York Times:
“Life in the Fast-Food Lane,” issue of May 24, 2006; “Giving Luxury the Thrill
of Danger,” February 7, 2007; “Where Only the Salad Is Properly Dressed,” February 28, 2007; and “A Plea for Respect for a
Familiar Fish,” August 1, 2007. Used by permission of
The New York Times
Photograph credits: Page 228: The White House; 287: Davina Zag ury; 313 and 331: Soo-Jeong Kang;
346: Katharine Q. Seelye; Other photographs courtesy of the author
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Born round : the secret history of a full-time eater / Frank Bruni.
eISBN : 978-1-101-13345-3
1. Bruni, Frank. 2. Bruni, Frank—Childhood and youth. 3. Overweight men—United States—Biography.
4. Compulsive eating—United States—Case Studies. 5. Reducing diets—United States—Case studies.
6. Food writers—United States—Biography. 7. New York Times Company—Biography.
8. Italian Americans—Biography. I. Title.
Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
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To my brothers
Mark and Harry
and my sister, Adelle.
You three are the luckiest hand I ever drew.
And to my nieces
Christina and Annabella,
because you missed out the last time around.
The names and certain identifying details of a few people in this book have been changed out of respect for their privacy. And while none of the people, events or conversations in this book were invented, some conversational details lay beyond the reach of memory, so dialogue has been reconstructed through interviews and other reporting, and fashioned in line with what I know and remember of how the people, including me, spoke. I can’t vouch for its pinpoint accuracy in all cases, but I can vouch for its truth.
I got the phone call in early January 2004, as I looked out over the uncertain expanse of a new year.
I was in my office in Rome, and I was probably drinking an espresso. I was almost always drinking an espresso. The newspaper’s Rome bureau, like any self-respecting Italian workplace, had a proper espresso machine, and my assistant, Paola, like any self-respecting Italian, knew how to make a proper espresso. So whenever she said, “
Ti serve un espresso?
” I said, “
” even if she’d last served me one just forty-five minutes earlier. An espresso allowed me to consume
without consuming anything of caloric consequence, to finagle a pleasure along the lines of eating without actually eating. And the acids and caffeine in it revved up my metabolism. I had read that somewhere. Or maybe I had simply made it up and then, as with so many of the greater and lesser food lies I’d told myself, made the executive decision to believe it.
On the other end of the line was an editor in charge of a department of the newspaper different from mine. I worked for the Foreign News desk, keeping one eye on a sinking Venice, the other on a flagging Pope. She supervised several “soft” sections: the Style pages, the Home pages and—the reason for her call—the Dining pages. I assessed prime ministers; she, prime beef.
But she had a thought about that. She had an idea.
“Restaurant critic,” she said.
I wasn’t sure I’d heard her right.
“Restaurant critic,” she repeated, in the middle of a sentence explaining that the job was open, that there were people at the newspaper who thought I might be right for it, and that she happened to be one of them.
She wanted my reaction. She wanted to know: How did I feel about eating for a living?
Eating for a living?
Without meaning to, I laughed.
She didn’t appreciate the robust absurdity of what she was asking, the big, fat irony of whom she was asking.
Because she had stayed put in New York while I’d moved frequently and traveled widely for the newspaper, she hadn’t laid eyes on me for the better part of a decade. She wasn’t clued in to what had happened to me during that time: the way I’d given in to my crazy hungers and crazier habits; how large I’d grown; how long I’d been trapped at that size, in that sadness; how determinedly I’d slogged my way back to a leaner, better place.
The Rome assignment had presented itself toward the end of that slog, in mid-2002, when I was living in Washington, D.C., and part of what it promised and then delivered was a clean break, a new beginning. In Rome I made friends who hadn’t known me at either my fattest or my fittest, hadn’t watched me ricochet between the two, back and forth, up and down, never at rest, never at peace. They saw me afresh: a fairly average guy in his late thirties, maybe fifteen to eighteen pounds over the strict medical ideal for someone just under five feet, eleven inches tall, certainly chunkier than the Italian norm, but broad-shouldered and attractive nonetheless. Nothing unusual. Nothing humiliating.
In Rome I ate relatively ordinary meals and I ran or went to the gym at least three times a week and I wore jeans again—I finally wore jeans again, not worrying about how much more snugly than chinos they fit. I had a serious romantic relationship, my first in more than seven almost entirely celibate years. At the beach I took my T-shirt off. Not right when I got there, and not all the time. But some of the time: if there weren’t too many narrower people around; if I was standing up or stretched out; if I’d done a decent run or workout that morning or the night before; if I was feeling light and good.
Was this how I’d be from now on? Was I finally safe?
I couldn’t know.
But some sort of confidence—maybe even courage—had apparently taken hold.
I didn’t cut the editor’s call short. With welling interest I listened as she made a case that I was a quick enough learner, a self-assured enough thinker and a nimble enough writer to set off in an unanticipated direction and try my hand at something wildly different.
And then I told her I’d consider it.
It wasn’t likely to go anywhere, anyway. In my nine years at the newspaper, I’d written about politics, religion, crime, immigration, movies, books and the Miss America pageant. I’d never written about food, not unless you counted stray paragraphs about George W. Bush’s fondness for peanut butter and Cheez Doodles, not unless you factored in a feature story about Las Vegas residents larding themselves at all-you-can-eat buffets. (That was one from the heart.)
I knew more about papal encyclicals than about Peking duck, and had little more reason to believe I’d get this restaurant-critic job than to believe I’d be anointed the next Pope. But why not revel in the compliment of being thought capable of such a stretch? Why not let the idea bounce around my head, imagine the miter on
head? It was a harmless fantasy.
And then it wasn’t.
Just weeks after that first call from the editor in New York came another: the job was mine if I wanted it.
Saying yes would mean leaving Rome about midway through what was typically a four-year stint, and that gave me pause. While I had made my way to Sicily for stories on three occasions and had managed four trips to Florence, I was still trying to find a justification for Capri and Positano, and in time I was sure I would. And my Italian had finally progressed from deducible to out-and-out discernible. Serviceable was right around the bend.
Saying yes would also mean putting myself in the path of sometimes withering scrutiny in New York, where the newspaper’s restaurant critic had a significant effect on the fortunes of chefs and restaurateurs, who sporadically (and understandably) fought back. I didn’t long for that.
But there was, of course, an even more compelling reason not to say yes, and it came up during one more call, this one from an editor higher up the newspaper’s chain of command, an editor who
seen me over the past decade.
She wanted some reassurance, but not about my confidence in tackling this new subject matter or my comfort in switching from correspondent to critic. And not about whether I had made peace with leaving Italy, when living there had been a lifelong dream.
Speaking as a friend more than a boss, she pressed me on a different issue altogether: whether an agenda of eight to ten major meals a week in serious restaurants—a mandatory program of night after night of ambitious and sometimes excellent food—was a risk I really wanted to take. Something I could really handle.
“Are you sure,” she asked me, “that you’re willing to sacrifice the good shape you’ve gotten into?”
I was sure I wasn’t. And for reasons I was still working out in my head, I’d come to believe I wouldn’t have to. I told her that, and we agreed that I would set off on this strange adventure, in spite of a past in which appetite and circumstance had combined to such neurotic and sometimes pitiable effect.