It's nothing new for New York restaurant critics to pen lusty "I can't believe I ate the whole thing" memoirs. Gael Greene wrote Insatiable: Tales From a Life of Delicious Excess at the end of her long run at New York magazine, chronicling her dining as well as dalliances with Elvis, Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds. Ruth Reichl wrote several after leaving the New York Times in 1999 (Greene's escapades had nothing on hers). Ditto her predecessor in the 1970s and '80s, Mimi Sheraton, author of Eating My Words: An Appetite for Life.
Beyond these books' entertaining tales of foie gras and other transgressions, they have a mission. Each serves to justify the author's stint as arbiter of all things delicious. Portraits emerge of eaters to the manner born — lifelong gourmands and world travelers, people who have done hard time in kitchens and dining rooms.
Departing New York Times food critic Frank Bruni's new memoir, Born Round, is refreshingly different. One devours page after breezy page, only to look up and say, "This guy is nuts."
It's a coming-out story. Yes, he's gay (Page 66), and yes, his cloak of anonymity is pulled aside (photos throughout), but the bigger revelation appears on Page 9. This professional eater has had the worst relationship with food imaginable.
A chubby kid, he started young with fad diets (Atkins at age 8, no lie), graduating to full-blown bulimia and laxative use. It is estimated that between 1 and 3 percent of American adolescents suffer from the illness, but of that number only between 5 and 15 percent are male. Bruni's a statistical anomaly.
Measuring his life by pants sizes, he charts his professional and romantic course by his waxing and waning bulk. Isn't it paradoxical, then, that this slave to food ends up in the country's most important food critic job and that, while doing that job, gets healthy and thin?
I don't think so.
Best job in the world
In all likelihood, food critic beats out rock star or astronaut for number of times acquaintances proclaim it "the coolest job in the world." What's not to like? A publication pays you to eat and drink lavishly, and repeatedly, with friends and family, which you then repay by grousing and nitpicking in print.
Alas, as newspapers and magazines shrink, there are fewer food critics out there. (Currently, 78 of the 275 members of the Association of Food Journalists describe themselves as critics.) There are probably fewer than 100 full-time, staff food critic jobs in the country, making it a tougher aspiration than NBA player (450 on the rosters) or U.S. senator (100).
And of all of these jobs, the most coveted is that at the New York Times. It's the city where trends are incubated, where culinary superstars are born and where eating out is a competitive sport.
Bruni came to the job in 2004, having previously covered politics, presidential campaigns and the pope for the paper. As in politics, being perceived as an "outsider" had its perks. With no strong allegiances or vendettas in the culinary world, no known biases (predecessor Bryan Miller was a notorious Francophile), Bruni could come to the task with fresh vision.
And by most measures, he did just that. Even-handed and intrepid, he ate his way through that city nightly, sometimes with multiple meals each evening. And he slimmed down.
No magical thinking, no sleight of hand. A food critic eats differently than a recreational diner. When considering the artistry of the plate before you, you use your eyes more, eat more slowly, eat less. In the face of so much food, one must abandon membership in the clean plate club.
In 352 pages, Bruni does not cook a single thing. He doesn't even pretend to know his way around the kitchen. But over the course of his tenure at the New York Times, he learns how to eat differently. Sure, we're all addicted to food — but some of us manage the addiction better. The matriarch of a loving and happy Italian-American family, Grandma Bruni liked to say, "Born round, you don't die square." Maybe so, but while serving as the country's most enviable professional eater, Frank Bruni sure gave it the old college try.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining.