Today on The Takeaway, we speak to the outgoing restaurant critic for The New York Times, Frank Bruni. Just as his stint on the food beat ends, he’s coming out with a book about his lifelong struggle with bulimia called “Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater.” Click through for the full interview transcript.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: The book is called "Born Round: The History of a Full-Time Eater." And we're joined by Frank Bruni, here to discuss how he fought his battle with food. Frank, thanks so much for coming in.
FRANK BRUNI: Hey, thank you for having me.
HOCKENBERRY: Who would have thought Frank Bruni does a diet book? But it's a deep memoir of your relationship with food.
BRUNI: Yeah, it's a very different kind of diet book. It's truly a life narrative, but organized around the principal of eating and food. And my main challenge over the course of my life, I realized, was to control my appetite and to find a healthy way to eat. And when I was offered the job of restaurant critic a little over five years ago, one of the main questions I had to ask myself was – and one of the questions that many people who knew me well asked me was – "Are you in a healthy enough place with your food consumption to do this?"
HOCKENBERRY: But, I mean, anyone looking at the title of this book and knows your name would assume, "Oh God, a restaurant critic who is having problems with his weight, duh" – that's an easy one. But, in fact, becoming the restaurant critic was your saving grace.
BRUNI: It was part of the answer.
HOCKENBERRY: That's amazing.
BRUNI: My particular kind of overeating, which I think is pretty classic, was a very binge/purge psychology. And I would allow myself to get drawn into these epic binges because I'd say, "next week or next month I'm going to be super, super virtuous." And that of course was a lie, and I would break that promise. Being in a job where you have to eat a certain amount, and a big amount, everyday meant that the only weight maintenance and weight loss mechanisms available to me were portion control and exercise and those are the best remedies of all.
HOCKENBERRY: Are you a cooking foodie or just an eating foodie?
BRUNI: I've never been a great cook, but it's been irrelevant over the past five and a half years. I eat out almost every single night.
HOCKENBERRY: I can't say that I feel sorry for you, but it does sound grueling.
FEMI OKE: So, on the front cover of the book there is this really adorable little boy with cute chubby cheeks. But you describe some really early disgusting eating habits that you had. For instance, when you were a baby, you had this huge, huge appetite.
F: And when your mom wouldn't give you stuff, what would you do?
BRUNI: When my mom didn't give me stuff, at a certain point, I would cry so hard I would throw up – and it was obvious ...
HOCKENBERRY: How old were you?
BRUNI: It started when I was 18 months old and apparently it went on for about a year. And I joke in the book that I was a baby bulimic – obviously I don't think you can be bulimic [at that age]. But the point was my obsession with food was that intense from a very young age and it was an obsession that was all about volume and shoveling things in my mouth.
HOCKENBERRY: What do you think that comes from?
BRUNI: I think it's mostly, probably genes 'cause it was there so early. In my case – and this is the story I tell in the book – that predisposition played itself out rather disastrously in a large sprawling Italian-American family where food was everything. Food was love, was generosity, food was wealth. And there was always food at the Bruni house.
OKE: Take us to a New Year's Eve at the Bruni house, 'cause that was a big splurge, so people can understand how much food your family used to eat.
BRUNI: We hosted Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving was our big holiday. And there would be, during the first 90 minutes when everybody got there, at least a dozen appetizers passed around; canapés, what have you. When you got to the table there had to be usually two types of meat plus a pasta dish – so we're talking three kinds of entrées. You know, innumerable side dishes – and what was most remarkable is the host's philosophy that you have to make enough of one thing that if every guest ate only that thing it would never run out.
HOCKENBERRY: Wow. So I guess you needed a few refrigerators or freezers to deal with the leftovers.
BRUNI: We always had at least one enormous freezer in the garage. And I remember the meat truck pulling up every couple months with the meat supply. We were a meaty family.
HOCKENBERRY: So they say that we are genetically predisposed – you alluded to this a moment ago– to associate food and our relationship with food to the presumption of scarcity. That basically we assume scarcity but that means we binge when lots of food is around. In an Italian-American family and going out to be Rome correspondent for The New York Times, that seems to be a prescription for real disaster there.
BRUNI: You know, Rome actually turned out to be a good thing because my Italian-American family was southern peasant immigrants. So for them, food– a lot of food as a reassurance that you were wealthy and ok in the world was vital. When I went to Rome I was moving around a different contemporary Italy and actually what I learned there, what I was reminded of there, was how much more important quality is than quantity. We all puzzle all the time over why French women don't get fat, why are western Europeans slimmer? They're slimmer because they don't have the Big Gulp, they don't have the all-you-can-eat buffets. They do not eat the portions and the volume that Americans do.
HOCKENBERRY: Where did you learn this type of discipline? We could almost call your book "Resize Me," or "Downsize Me," instead of "Super Size Me."
BRUNI: I hit rock bottom when I was 36 or 37 and I weighed in at about 270 pounds-
HOCKENBERRY: You? Little you?
BRUNI: -and I was wearing 42 pants. And that was my worst fear come true. It was at the tail end at that point of a life of yo-yoing.
HOCKENBERRY: I'm guessing you're in 34 (pants).
HOCKENBERRY: And this isn't a diet book, dude?
BRUNI: No, I do think it's funny. I mean, it's an odd kind of diet book. It's narrative, it's a story-
HOCKENBERRY: How much do you weigh now? Just so when we get a million e-mails.
BRUNI: I don't know. One of my psychological self-maintenance mechanisms is I don't get on scales. If my clothes fit the way I want them to fit, I walk on. I don't want to get as obsessed about weight as I used to be.
OKE: Frank, you're the outgoing food critic of The New York Times so we're going to squeeze in one more piece of food information out of you which is, if you could only eat one dish in your life, one dish left, what would you recommend that we all tried?
BRUNI: Uh! That's too hard. We live in a city with so many wonders. I mean, I just had a pasta dish at the new restaurant Marea, with octopus and bone marrow and it sounds crazy and it was wonderful. The steaks at Minetta Tavern, the best steaks if you're a steak person, and I am, those are fantastic. You can't ask someone who has been eating as much great food as I've had the one dish he'd go out on.
HOCKENBERRY: So if people who love to eat and who like to cook and go out to eat and eat well and go out to restaurants, what's the secret from Frank Bruni to maintain that discipline, to keep you as healthy as you look right now?
BRUNI: Get the things on the menu that you want, but don't eat them until the end if you are beginning to get full. So don't make yourself feel deprived, but don't be a pig.
OKE: Your grandmother was really special. Would she have loved the book?
BRUNI: I think she would have been so proud. This book pays very, very loving tribute to my mother and my grandmother. One of the reasons it was so rewarding to write was because it gave me the opportunity to do that.
HOCKENBERRY: You can just imagine the Bruni table there, you know?
OKE: It was heaving!
HOCKENBERRY: "Franky, Eat! Eat, Franky!" Well it's a great twist on a notion of a diet memoir, a book about one's relationship with food. Thanks to Frank Bruni for joining us. The outgoing restaurant critic for The New York Times. Author of the new memoir, "Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater."