Sunday, October 17, 2010

I was also born round

For many years, I was a human yo-yo. I had several fat phases and then relatively slim phases. Now, since I turned 30 more than 5 years ago, my body thinks that there's nowhere to go but up (and down and sideways). My current weight is the heaviest I've experienced. No worries though. I know I'm in good company. Frank Bruni, the ex-restaurant critic of The New York Times, also had the same problem.

In Born Round, Bruni's very readable memoir, the critic chronicles his life from his toddler years to the time that he had the best job in the world (i.e., dining in 5-star restaurants and then writing all about his gustatory experiences). Born Round is one enjoyable read. It doesn't come off as a memoir that takes itself too seriously. In fact, the breezy pacing of the book has the atmosphere of fiction.

Bruni states that he was born round, which is true, judging from the pictures in the book. You could see that, despite being the middle child, he appears to be the eldest because of his girth. One funny bit is when he mentions that he usually barfed food when he was still a toddler just to make room for more food. This particular period would foreshadow what would happen during his college years, a period when he was bulimic.

Bruni's Born Round is painfully honest. When he writes about how he gorges on buffets and family reunions, somehow I can relate to him. It's hard to say no when you're presented with so many options, yes? There's always the "just one more bite" mentality. And it didn't help that Bruni came from a family with Italian roots, a family that used food to display their wealth and show hospitality.

Born Round tells significant events that happen in each stage of Bruni's life. During middle school, Bruni became a champion swimmer, even though he didn't have a swimmer's body. He writes about his experiments with different kinds of diet, most of these under the guidance of his mom. The part when he and his mom were on Atkins is one of the most poignant in the book. In college, he was bulimic and tried different drugs just to keep his weight in check. After graduating from college, he took on several journalism jobs, which included being part of the press corps of President Bush and being nominated for a Pulitzer. Everything is captured in wonderful detail.

But the highlight of his career was when he joined The New York Times as a reporter. He didn't start as a restaurant critic though, far from it. His first major stint was when he was assigned as the Times correspondent in Rome, writing about affairs of the Vatican, which usually had no significant value. But it is in Rome that he was exposed to eating in different establishments and then earning a reputation of being someone who's in the know as to the best dining places in Italy.

So when the people at the Dining section of the Times called him up, he accepted and then moved to New York. I never knew that being a restaurant critic was hard work, but it is, almost terribly so. Bruni had to invent different names and then come up with disguises just so that he can dine anonymously and not be given preferential treatment in these restaurants. He writes that he often eats out 5 to 7 days a week and sometimes has 2 dinners in one night, just to make sure that he visits restaurants at least 3 times to write a good review.
For every visit to a restaurant I used a fake name and typically reserved a table for four. I needed three companions to order different dishes and help me cover as much of the restaurant's menu as possible. If I was making my first visit, I usually laid down only one rule for my tablemates: no duplicate orders. Four different appetizers. Four different entrees. Four different desserts. If I was making my second or third visit, I'd call our the dishes that had been previously tried and shouldn't be ordered this time around. [page 289]

His attempts at varied diets, his period of bulimia, his on-off discipline when it comes to working out, and his taking of drugs (e.g., speed) all contributed to his weight fluctuating until his late 30s. Unfortuntately, when he was offered the critic position, he was in his best of health: he was working out and thus had a leaner body, he was eating healthily, and he had a healthy romantic relationship with his partner. I understand the dilemma. Would you sacrifice all your hard work just to take on a job that would require you to eat for a living?

Born Round is one of the most touching memoirs that I've read. It offered me a glimpse of someone who had the same problems that I did. Except for his stint as a restaurant critic, one would be tempted to say that Bruni's life has been unremarkable up to that point. But I think not. Bruni's style of writing makes you live in the moment; I often pictured myself present in those family dinners that he writes about. When he describes his separation from a lover, I felt truly sad. And I reveled and cheered for him in his triumphs. Born Round, like the best memoirs, made me feel empathy.

My icons: Bruni and Martha Stewart

Read this book if:
  1. You've always dreamed of becoming a restaurant critic.
  2. You were, like Frank and me, born round.
  3. You've constantly struggled with your weight.


C.B. James said...

This sounds like an entertaining read. While I can see that being a restaurant critic would be hard work, it's hard to feel sorry for him. Eating out five nights a week, even in disquise, sounds great to me.

Tina said...

Ah always manage to unearth books that intrigue me. I had just bought a basket to hold several memoirs that were calling to me, and had decided to make 2011 the year of the memoir, reading at least one a month. This one is definitely going into the basket. Thanks for a great review.

Peter S. said...

@C.B. James: It does sound great, doesn't it? Now if only we'd get that job. Hehehe.

@Tina: That would surely be an interesting year! I'll look forward to your posts, Tina!

Linda said...

I just picked this one up from the library. Sounds like a great read. I can't wait to dive into it!

ןıuǝ oɟ ɟןıƃɥʇ said...

I had major weight issues growing up. It wasn't until I hit my early twenties when I had an epiphany and gave up ~ 55kg. I believe that our bodies are a physical manifestation of our soul's relationship to the material world and the primary categories in this way are not skinny or heavy -- but at peace or in conflict. =)

Peter S. said...

@Linda: It is a great read!

@line of flight: I never thought of it that way.

kwesifriends said...

I love the book, when I was young I looked like that kid on the book cover. Nice one. Now I look like a stick, dreadful.

Peter S. said...

Hi, Kwesi! I agree! You look way too thin! You should attend more discussions. We'll fatten you up. hehehe.