These days more and more people are overweight, but most of us don’t like to talk about it. Former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni, however, is eager recount being “born round,” a favorite saying of his immigrant Italian grandmother, in his delicious memoir “Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater.”
Bruni can hardly be blamed for his childhood huskiness, although he does try, noting that as a baby he would eat two hamburger patties and, denied a third, vomit up the first two in a hissy rage. Okay, so maybe he was a big eater. But he’s Italian, and his mother and grandmother live up to every Olive Garden-fueled stereotype and more. Grandma Bruni would tell Frank he looks fat, then ply him with pastas and meats and sweet desserts and was, of course, personally insulted if he didn’t eat everything eagerly. The dichotomy is especially ironic coming from his perpetually dieting mother, who took great pride in whipping up 50-serving batches of lasagna and kept an entire freezer full of food in the garage. “She was mystified by, and censorious of, families who didn’t. How could they be sure to have enough kinds and cuts of meat on hand, enough varieties of ice cream to choose from? Was that really any way to live?”
Interestingly, for his childhood and much of his adult life Bruni was only 10 to 15 pounds overweight, fairly significant as a 7-year-old but much less so as a tall high school student. Bruni was a swimmer, and a good one to boot, enough to place nationally in several events. Helpfully placed pictures throughout “Born Round” provide a chronological visual of his weight, and as a high school student he appears merely healthily filled out, not overweight at all. In this sense his plight seems less desperate as he pales in comparison to the hoards of fat Americans today. However, he regains credibility in his early thirties when he ballooned to 268 pounds. He notes that he began to avoid cameras in the Capitol building, where he was covering Congress, after one day Bruni in all his rotundity appeared in the background of a politician’s front-page snapshot.
Bruni’s prose is lean but satisfying (come on! I had to say it), forsaking deep literary description in favor of self-deprecating reflection and reconstructed conversations about quiche lorraine. Nevertheless, Bruni manages to deftly portray his lifelong struggle with his weight in a way that is neither pitiable nor disgusting, merely engrossing. He sticks with his hefty narrative loyally, detouring into topics such as his homosexuality, his journalism career or his mother’s early death from cancer sparsely and typically in ways that relate back to his weight.
Recounting his first date in college, for example, Bruni notes that he wore a loose black windbreaker while making out in the guy’s apartment. “As long as I kept it on, he couldn’t get a good sense of my body and possibly discover that I wasn’t as trim as he’d hoped I was and as I meant to be.” Bruni’s weight and its various psychological implications clearly took a serious toll on his emotional growth; his entire adult life is marked by only a handful of serious relationships, and most of those in his late thirties, after he had begun to come to terms with his body.
Furthermore, Bruni’s considerable writing career — marked by a Pulitzer-nominated feature writing stint in Detroit, covering George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign for the New York Times and working as the Times’ Rome bureau chief and ultimately restaurant critic — is largely treated as a side note to his ballooning weight. Bruni rarely mentions his occupation except to describe the copious meals provided Bush’s press detail (apparently a thick slice of RNC money that year went to egg-and-sausage breakfasts, cheese platters and steak dinners with martinis for the press). As well, of course, as his five-year run as the Times’ restaurant critic, a job that by necessity meant eating dinner out around nine times a week — yes, nine, as some nights meant multiple dinners. The final portion of the book recounting his adventures trying to remain disguised as he reviewed entire menus and brought the ire of haughty restaurateurs is largely a departure from his weight-loss narrative. He does describe how he managed to maintain a healthy weight while scarfing down sampling every dessert each restaurant offered, but by that point in his life Bruni seemed to have a handle on his love handles.
By necessity “Born Round” is an intensely personal memoir. There’s a lot to love: his descriptions of Rome’s fresh cheeses; his mother outing him to his family one by one; his elaborately gluttonous family Thanksgivings. There are a few things to hate, perhaps most notably his irritatingly frequent use of the word “epicurean.” Bruni does succeed, however, in portraying his weight obsession not only with comedy but also poignantly. His reflection, with the benefit of hindsight, never crosses the line into trite observations about the obesity epidemic or a self-pitying regret-fest. Instead, he deftly and accurately explores the psychology of the overweight, the ups and downs and sideways, ultimately overcoming a mental block and fully forming emotionally as well as physically.