'NYT' Restaurant Critic -- About to Leave Post -- Reflects on Lifetime of Eating

By: Obsessive relationships are often the meat and potatoes of autobiography.

But for Frank Bruni, meat and potatoes ARE the obsession. Along with a never-ending parade of other goodies, from French haute cuisine in all its flavorsome complexity to more basic foodstuff, such as the elongated, chocolate-coated wafers of a KitKat bar, described in reverential, almost spiritual terms.

"My life-defining relationship ... wasn't with a parent, a sibling, a teacher, a mate. It was with my stomach," he proclaims in "Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater." And it's this contentious relationship that Bruni, for five years the chief restaurant critic for The New York Times, chronicles with startling, intimate directness. It's a thoughtful tale, unsparing in Bruni's analysis of himself, but hugely entertaining in his almost "Rocky"-like determination to make things right after countless slip-ups.

These struggles are depicted alongside a loving portrait of an Italian-American family (the most affecting part of the book), a family that in many ways served as an enabler for this favorite, full-figured son to devour everything in sight.

There are wonderful snapshots of his mother and his paternal grandmother, both excellent cooks and ardent champions of the philosophy "more is better," particularly in the kitchen. But then the entire Bruni clan is defined by meals served and consumed.

Bruni's ravenous appetite, of course, had consequences: a constant battle with weight that grew more fierce as he grew older and his seemingly futile attempts to reach what he describes as "the wondrous Xanadu of the willfully emaciated."

Purging. Pills. Spurts of intense exercising, particularly after the openly gay Bruni started dating. Nothing seemed to work for very long. The only thing that remained constant was his appetite-as he went from college to a career in journalism and eventually a job at the Times. It was an appetite that was put to an extreme test when Bruni was given the high-stress assignment of covering George W. Bush's presidential campaign.

His weight and waist ballooned, as did his unhappiness. Finally after his Washington stint, Bruni began a serious, consistent exercise program tempered by portion moderation. "Less is more" became his new mantra.

Bruni, 44, is a nimble, observant writer. What makes his restaurant reviews so entertaining-often a lot more enjoyable than many of the establishments he critiques-is a combination of his love of eating coupled with a sharp journalistic eye.

Bruni's enthusiasm for eating borders on adoration, and he knows how to turn readers into true believers when it comes to praising a restaurant. Or warn them when things aren't up to snuff.

Yet "Born Round" is more than just amusing, gossipy anecdotes for serious foodies, although the tidbits Bruni supplies should satisfy them, particularly descriptions of his extensive planning to dine unrecognized.

The book is as much a psychological journey as it is a gastronomical adventure. You root for Bruni's triumph over size 42 pants, a goal tempered by the realization that the battle against creeping weight gain is never really over. (He now wears size 34 jeans.)

Still, it's his elaborately detailed descriptions of food, such as his grandmother's strascinat (her signature pasta dish) and his mother's calorie-laden chicken divan, that make you want to pull up a chair in their kitchens. Second helpings, please. We'll go to the gym tomorrow.


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