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August 23, 2009

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A critic's confessions

RESTAURANT critic for The New York Times is, for those of us who love food, one of those dream jobs: getting paid to dine out all over the country. I, for one, am still trying to find someone - anyone! - to agree that the perfect date would begin in one place for cocktails, move to another for a main course, and move yet again for dessert.

Over the years, reading the Times reviews of Frank Bruni, who has held the position since 2004 (and takes another job at the paper this month), I could feel the profound pleasure he took in his work - both the dining and the writing.

No matter whether he was covering slow food or fast, fancy or fraught or both, he seemed to want to invite everyone to the table or to spare his readers the pain. His writing has always been muscular and clear.

Now that I have devoured his memoir, I hold him in even greater estimation, not only for his discernment and accomplished prose but for his bravery. "Born Round" is a book about growing up with a love of food, family and friendship. And it is, more important, a book about a lifelong struggle, one that drives an endearing, heartfelt narrative. "Born Round" is about being fat.

Bruni's self-consciousness about his weight - and his fixation on food - began early, during a childhood in New York's Westchester County. "I was a baby bulimic." His mother's WASP reserve crumbled "in the face of Grandma Bruni's spicy, fatty, Italian sausages." Cooking became the center of his mother's life; "she cooked with a ferocity."

Bruni describes himself as a lazy boy who loved to read and avoided physical activity. His mother worried about his weight, but any diet she imposed was stymied not only by her need to feed everyone, but by Grandma.

The problem was simple: food was love. "You love Grandma's frits ... Then you love your Grandma!" The chapter about Adelina Bruni, who came to New York as a 17-year-old in 1929, is pitch perfect; he captures the ethos expressed around countless dinner tables of a generation of Italian-American immigrants before World War II.

Grandma Bruni is a force of nature, and you can't help falling under her spell. She provides the title for the book with her favorite maxim: born round, you don't die square.

By the time he was 11, Bruni had discovered competitive swimming, and this vigorous exercise not only helped keep his weight down, but it gave him some standing in his family of achieving, athletic brothers.

Still, he always carried at least an extra 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms). "Once a fat kid, always a fat kid, never moving through the world in ... carefree fashion." By the time he attended college, he had become adept at deploying a panoply of weight-loss tricks. The love with which Bruni writes about his family is breathtaking.

His relationship with his mother was one of ferocious tenderness; as I read Bruni's description of her struggle with cancer, I was choked with tears. You, too, will want to put the book down to call your mother.

Bruni's love life, however, was deeply unsatisfying for years. As he put it, his life-defining relationship "wasn't with a parent, a sibling, a teacher, a mate. It was with my stomach." He was able to be open with his mother about his homosexuality, but Grandma never knew.

As his weight ballooned, and in spite of such sadness that he tricked a doctor into giving him Prozac, his career was skyrocketing. He began a grueling stretch in 1999 as part of the press corps covering George Bush's presidential campaign for The Times, and his weight hit an all-time high of 268 pounds. His anxiety about food and fat is so palpable that it was all I could do not to reach - empathically, of course - for another box of Oreos as I read on.

By the time Bruni gets the call to become a restaurant critic, he no longer loves food for all the wrong reasons. He is stationed in Rome as the Times bureau chief, and he has learned the art of portion control. That, and having a love life. If you think the French have mastered the nifty trick of eating all they want and staying slim, well, the Italians can top that: they're happy, too!

In a matter of weeks, Bruni goes from "political analyst and papal chronicler to gastronomic double agent"; he is fascinating on "the intricate scheduling and elaborate arithmetic of the job" of restaurant critic, and food lovers will appreciate getting a peek at chefs' shenanigans, some of which are truly appalling. Food drives lots of people crazy, in lots of different ways.

Bruni's prose is as robust as his story; he clearly enjoys writing as much as eating. He is also, at times, very funny. But the best thing about "Born Round" is that it is so inspiringly honest. For a guy who has spent much of his life too mortified to take off his coat, this is one laid-bare story.

His book does what a memoir should: it entertains and edifies, voicing pain that otherwise many endure in loneliness. It promises to give comfort to souls feeling confused or betrayed by their bodies.

"Born Round" is like the Italian dinners Bruni loves, served up noisy, fun, heaping and delicious.


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