Born Round by Frank Bruni
Born Round is one of the mystery recommendations on my list. Did it come from The New York Times, who surely must have reviewed a book written by its former restaurant critic? Did it come from Nancy Pearl (unlikely, since I think this was published after Book Lust)? In any case, it was on my list, and I’ve been on a nonfiction kick recently, which shocks me just as much as it must shock you. It sounded interesting, and I took a perverse pleasure in reading this book while I ate, since it was the only time during finals I had to read.
Born Round is, more or less, Frank Bruni’s memoir. An Italian-American journalist, Bruni has always had problems with food, faced with conflicting messages about how eating someone’s food is a way to express love and how attractive people are skinny. Struggling with fad diets, bulimia, and energy pills, Bruni finally found himself in a good place when he received the call asking him to become The New York Times’ food critic, a position he ultimately took. How can someone with such a history with food find contentment as a restaurant critic?
I’m making it sound a bit more dynamic than it actually is. It’s not that Bruni’s life and struggle with food isn’t interesting, but, for the most part, it’s an untaxing memoir about food, weight, and how it complicates his life. The pace is steady, Bruni affectionately writes about his friends and family, and there’s plenty of pictures. (I, shamefully, have a hard time telling Bruni from one of his brothers, but that is neither here nor there.) I just have a hard time with memoirs about people that I don’t already care about. While I was happy to read about Bruni and his struggle, it wasn’t as focused on his food issues as I thought it would be, and it wasn’t as analytical as I thought it would be.
Not that I expected him to psychoanalyze himself, but I was expecting a bit more thought put into why he has these issues. (For instance, Bruni never once considers the idea that big men can be attractive; I suppose fat positivity isn’t on his radar.) To be fair, there is some. Considering that his only sibling with weight issues is his sister, Bruni wonders if the fact that they’re both attracted to men and must adhere to the narrative of what is attractive to a man has something to do with it. He chalks up his years of celibacy to his weight, but as an excuse—if someone isn’t attracted to him, it’s because he’s fat, not because of anything else. But he particularly focuses on the family dynamic that boasted enormous amounts of food and eating as a display of material wealth and love. There’s a wonderfully illuminating scene where the young Bruni, already concerned about his weight, refuses some food from his grandmother. She promptly shames him and heaps praise upon his brothers, who must really love her because they’ll eat her food.
But Bruni, after years of trying to control his weight and failing, ultimately finds a solution in the simplest thing—moderation. From 2002 to 2004, he was The New York Times’ Rome bureau chief. After assuming for years that the largesse of his family was because of their Italian heritage, he discovers that Italians eat extremely good food in moderation. Combined with all the walking and a new exercise regime, Bruni becomes comfortable with himself. (To be totally accurate, he’d lost a lot of weight before this posting, but he didn’t want to be seen as the fat guy who lost weight.) And that makes the portion of the book that covers his career as a restaurant critic (Bruni left shortly after the publication of this book to become an Op-Ed columnist) light but fun. He relates anecdotes about how restauranteurs try to discover his identity in order to show him special consideration to bolster their potential rating, and a specific fight with a restauranteur that left him in the unique position of having to sneak into a restaurant to review it three times. I really wish we’d seen a bit more of Bruni’s food writing, however—there’s a beautiful description towards the beginning about eating a certain ice cream in chapters. We just get snippets of it here. I suppose I’ll just have to go through the newspaper archive to find some.
Bottom line: Frank Bruni’s Born Round is an untaxing memoir about his struggle for weight and how it affected his life; unfortunately, it’s not as analytical as I was hoping. If you’d like.
I rented this book from the public library.