Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Book Review: Born Round

Frank Bruni's memoir Born Round was presented in excerpted form on The New York Times website in July, and was deservedly praised in the press and 'round (ha!) the blog-o-sphere. I already knew, upon cracking the spine, that the author had struggled with what are politely called 'eating issues' (bulimia, laxative abuse, fad diets oh my!). But I admit when I read "I was a baby bulimic" on the Times website beforehand, I was shocked. I had read and adored Bruni's writing throughout his tenure as food critic, but had tended to assume, particularly after his review of the best fast food to be found on the road across the nation, that Bruni was one of those sorts of effortlessly athletic individuals who burned off calories as easily as a spoiled teen burns through a trust fund.

Far from it--Bruni was athletic (he was a competitive swimmer until college) but even the four hours in the water he spent during swim practices didn't give him the body he desired or balance off the calories he ate (or wanted to eat). One of the most beautiful and hilarious sections of the book details his mother's Thanksgiving (T-Day) preparations, an epic Battle of the Bulge or storming the beaches of Normandy with extra white turkey meat and ham. Bruni conveys perfectly the sheer excess of hysteria and calories of the event, but also how the need to fill every moment of the meal with food, even the between-course bits (like fruit and nuts between the second helpings and dessert courses) is a stand-in for his mother's need to fill every moment with her love for the family. I also have to note, to counter some comments about the book, as a half-Greek person, that I wasn't shocked at all about the volume of food prepared, even the sandwiches with leftovers to 'tide people over' on the long ride home from the feast. After all, I've been to Christmas parties where every woman bought a pastitio.

The narrative of Thanksgiving also shows his mother's talents in the kitchen and as an entertainer: Bruni's mother was a woman who had mastered the staples of traditional American, French and Italian cuisine, as well as homemade Egg McMuffins and women's magazines staples like Chicken Divan. She was also fluent in that other staple of women's magazines--the fad diet. When Frank Jr. showed a tendency to put on weight, given what Bruni depicts as a somewhat genetically 'hard-wired' big appetite, Frank was prompted to try the Atkins diet under his mother's supervision. Bruni became perhaps one of the first but sadly not the last school-age child to learn the word 'ketosis' as part of his vocabulary words for the week.

Thus the consequences of this American abundance were not all happy, contrary to some sunny food memoirs: Bruni is unsparing in his depiction of the depression and despair and alienation from one's physical self caused by over-eating and being over-weight. Ironically, hyper-consciousness about his body drove him even deeper into the cycle of starving and exercising, binging and vowing to never eat again. Bruni also talks with wonderful, open honesty about the havoc bad body image played with his sex life--far more than concern about his sexuality, weight was the 'weight' upon his conscience: his attempt to hide his body in an, um, sexy windbreaker in the middle of sweltering North Carolina shows the type of 'hot' date you don't want to duffer.

Finding a love for exercise again in the form of running, and later strength-training and pilates, saved Bruni--as did becoming the Times bureau chief in Italy. There, he reconnected to good food after years of numbing his appetite with take-out and convenience food, food eaten for the sake of speed and volume not quality.

Bruni hits on what I think is a central truth, better than any other author I've ever read--it's a common complaint that 'food is an IMPOSSIBLE addiction to kick' because unlike alcohol, drugs, or gambling you 'have to eat.' However, as I well know, the eating of a compulsive food addict is nothing like the eating habits of a healthy person. Standing with a spoon in one hand and a jar of peanut butter in the other, and telling yourself "just one more spoonful" (lies, lies, lies) is very different than having a peanut butter sandwich and then stopping. Eating disorders are just that--disorders of the METHOD of eating food, food itself is not the problem.

Becoming a restaurant critic took away that favorite defense of the dieter--that after this long weekend of a binge, "I'm NEVER going to eat again--okay, I'm going to live on lemon juice and boiled greens, this is my LAST piece of chocolate--well, better eat the whole thing because I AM NEVER BUYING THIS AGAIN." Bruni knew he was going to be eating out every night, as part of his job and that curtailed the binging and the starving. He even began going to bars and dating again, in another irony, given that so many people call having to eat out for a living a 'killer' for their social life--Bruni incorporated his family, friends, and love life into his criticism, as sharing his meals and portion control were so important to his new attitude towards food.

I loved this book, although I do admit the restaurant criticism section of the book seemed to deviate from Bruni's general theme of dealing with a complicated eating disorder that seems to defy an easy definition or diagnosis. The content detours into too many funny wigs and fights with Jeffrey Chodorow, not enough self-analysis. I suppose Bruni 'had' to to satisfy the section of his readership most interested in his life as a part of the New York dining scene, rather than his personal struggles, but the division between that part of the book and the rest of the work can be a bit jarring.

Still, Born Round was an eye-opener regarding my own mentality in the binge/starve cycle, and also about men and their struggles with food. Although you'd have to be blind not to notice the body-fixation in the male gay community (I used to go to gay bars in college with my gay male friends), there was always a part of me that thought, simply because men can eat more, that a man with an eating disorder couldn't be as tormented as a woman. After reading Bruni's book, I see that I was wrong.

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