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Ed Levine's Serious Diet, Week 81: A Frank Chat with Frank Bruni on Being 'Born Round'

"I was objectively chubby by age four, fat by age six, and was on the Atkins diet for the first time at age eight." --Frank Bruni

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Photographs by Robyn Lee

20090821-bruni2.jpgFor all of the serious eaters who overdosed on the hype surrounding Julie & Julia (hey, the back of my head was in the movie, so if I'm guilty as charged there's a good reason for that), I'm giving you a heads-up that the hoopla accompanying the publication of Born Round, now former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni's memoir, is going to make Julie & Julia seem like it was an under-the-radar phenomenon. The book is in stores today, so let the Bruni media madness begin (it actually began with his appearance on Nightline Wednesday night).

Anyway, I read the book with great interest, but not to learn any juicy restaurant critic gossip (in fact, very little of the book has to do with Bruni's restaurant critic stint.) Instead he reveals that, like me, he has grappled with a weight problem virtually his whole life. Grappling may be an understatement.

Though Frank and I are not close friends, we have broken bread on three or four occasions during his five-year tenure as the Times restaurant critic. We had pizza a couple of months ago, and mid-slice Frank started talking about what the book was about. We realized that he and I had covered a lot of the same ground in dealing with our weight issues. Our discussion touched on everything from immigrant grandmothers who loved cooking massive amounts of food (and egging us grandchildren on to overeat), to the very nature of our complex and complicated relationship to food. I'll save our grandmother exchange for another post.

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Frank Bruni at Fairway Cafe on the Upper West Side.

As Frank himself put it in a subsequent email: "The book is ultimately about how to integrate a love of food with a healthy body/lifestyle." So when I interviewed him this week, we focused on that and not on being a restaurant critic.

Ed Levine: When and how did your relationship with food become unhealthy? [Ed. note: I asked him this because I can't remember a time I didn't have an unhealthy relationship with food, until I started my serious diet.]

Frank Bruni: When? Early on, if unhealthy means I couldn't seem to control the sheer amount of it that ingested--and that I wanted to ingest. When I use the phrase Born Round, I'm in part talking about a predisposition to big quantities of food and an accordant destiny of being overweight. Anyway, I was objectively chubby by age four, fat by age six, and was on the Atkins diet for the first time at age eight. And it just got more and more turbulent from there on.

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How did it happen? The convergence, I guess, of a big appetite and a set of life circumstances, including a sprawling, loving family in which food was king, that let that appetite roam wide and far.

EL: As this is my Serious Diet post and I am on Martha's Vineyard writing it, I also want to ask about food binging. For Frank, like me, it was a major part of his food life for years. Many of my worst food binges over the last 25 years have taken place on this island. For various and sundry reasons I would get anxious up here and would try to quell my anxiety with a whole Mrs. Blake's pie and a pint of Häagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream.

This week, for example, I am grappling with losing our beloved Brass, which has been very tough to deal with indeed. In the old, pre-Serious Diet days, that would have been enough to send me spinning out of control, diet-wise.

(Now back to the interview)

In the book, you seem to acknowledge that you still go on (at least) mini-binges. What triggers those binges? How do you reverse course when you have already snarfed down a pint of Häagen-Dazs? I've had to pull the plug on binges and compulsive overeating completely. I guess I'm afraid that once I let the genie out of the bottle, I will never be able to put it back in again.

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FB: That's interesting, that that's what you've found. I think we're all different, and one of the conclusions I came to in the book, as I try to puzzle out my own story and figure out where the lessons for other overeaters are, is that each of us has to first and foremost get to know himself or herself. What really has worked in the past, what really hasn't, what's reasonably sustainable, what's not. We all have a lot of good sound knowledge about, and advice for, ourselves if we just get brutally honest, brutally realistic.

For me, never allowing a binge becomes like water rising on one side of dam--it's going to rise too high, and lap over. But my binges now aren't like the old binges. The old binges lived up to the true meaning of that word, in that they became uncontrolled. A pint following a pizza leading into cookies and on and on.

Now it's a decided permission to do the whole pint. It's a green light to a whole roasted chicken. And it's once a month, once every three weeks, tops, preceded by, or followed quickly by, a day of really serious exercise. That compromise/bargain seems to work better for me than a dictum of no big crazy moments of food gluttony ever.

EL: So serious eaters, I ask you. Can you indulge yourself with controlled, discrete binges like Frank? Or do you have to go cold turkey when it comes to massive pig-outs, like me?

The Weigh-in

Although I haven't gone on any full-scale pie binges this week, I've had a couple of slices of Mrs. Blake's pie and some fried clams that I hope have been offset by all of my tennis-playing. Here we go: 214. Up a pound from last week. I should have played one more set of singles, I guess. But all in all, I did pretty well, I think.

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