FRANK BRUNI's Born Round chronicles the ex-New York Times food critic's complicated, and at times disastrous, relationship with food. As he writes of his history of weight gain and loss, binging and self-enforced starvation, Mexican speed, laxative abuse, and bulimia, his future as a food critic looms. How could the job not simply ruin him? The surprise is—with a little help from Italy and an aggressive trainer—it does just the opposite. I recently spoke with Bruni about the ups and downs of his lifelong struggle with food.
MERCURY: Your terrible relationship with food began in infancy. Is that right?
FRANK BRUNI: Whenever my mother would talk about her kids, before she mentioned when I learned to walk, she mentioned how much I ate. I think I have hardwired into me the ability and desire to eat a great deal. I began struggling with that from a very early age. When I was six years old I was chunky enough that people would joke that my initials, F.B., stood for Fat Boy. I had this enormous appetite and this enormous shame at looking heavy. Those are hard things to reconcile. Not just for me, but for a lot of people. That's why I wanted to write this book. I think that 75 percent of people who read this story will see a very familiar, if exaggerated mirror of themselves. The diet industry wouldn't be as robust as it is if we all weren't wrestling with appetite.
Do you think that's just the American condition?
In every prosperous culture there's a tension between enjoyment of food and maintenance of a healthy shape and weight. But America has never adjusted for our "bigger is better" mentality. We have the all-you-can-eat buffet. In Italy, I never saw an all-you-can-eat buffet. What would be the point of stuffing yourself beyond satiation? There was no Big Gulp or super-size option. None of the American tropes that say value equals quantity, and quantity equals the most pleasurable experience you can have. That's the big difference. In Italy I could still be obsessed with food, but I could channel that obsession into quality rather than quantity.
There's a lot of tension in Born Round when it comes to your difficult relationship with food and your eventual assignment as the New York Times food critic.
It's true to life. When I took the restaurant critic job, I was only about two and a half years beyond the point in my life when I had really lost control and ballooned up to the kind of weight I'd spent my life dreading I'd be. When I took the job there were no small number of people who indicated this was a very risky thing to do. There were a lot of people in my life who were looking for a disaster to happen.
But it sounds like after your time in Italy you had found some peace with your relationship with food.
I felt I'd come to understand where I'd gone wrong. I wagered with a great deal of confidence I could take the job and be okay. Becoming a restaurant critic and lashing myself to the kind of eating I would have to do was a kind of brinksmanship that whipped me into shape. It wasn't just that I thought I had my demons licked, it was that I thought the structure and rhythm and metaphor of restaurant criticism was going to be a boon to me being healthy and not eating in a disastrous fashion.