Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater

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Overview

Frank Bruni was born round. Round as in stout, chubby, and hungry, always and endlessly hungry. He grew up in a big, loud Italian family in White Plains, New York, where meals were epic, outsize affairs. At those meals, he demonstrated one of his foremost qualifications for his future career: an epic, outsize love of food. But Bruni’s relationship with eating was tricky, and his difficulties with managing it began early.

When Bruni was named ...
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Born Round: A Story of Family, Food and a Ferocious Appetite

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Overview

Frank Bruni was born round. Round as in stout, chubby, and hungry, always and endlessly hungry. He grew up in a big, loud Italian family in White Plains, New York, where meals were epic, outsize affairs. At those meals, he demonstrated one of his foremost qualifications for his future career: an epic, outsize love of food. But Bruni’s relationship with eating was tricky, and his difficulties with managing it began early.

When Bruni was named the restaurant critic for The New York Times in 2004, he knew enough to be nervous. The restaurant critic at the Times performs one of the most closely watched tasks in the epicurean universe; a bumpy ride was certain, especially for someone who had never written about food, someone who for years had been busy writing about politics, presidential campaigns, and the pope. What qualified him to be one of the most loved and hated tastemakers in the New York food world? Did his decades-long love affair with food suffice?

Food was his friend and enemy both, something he craved but feared, and his new-job jitters focused primarily on whether he’d finally made some sense of that relationship. In this coveted job, he’d face down his enemy at meal after indulgent meal. As his grandmother often put it, "Born round, you don’t die square." Would he fall back into his old habits or could he establish a truce with the food on his plate?

Born Round traces the highly unusual path Bruni traveled to become a restaurant critic; it is the captivating account of an unpredictable journalistic ride from an intern’s desk at Newsweek to a dream job at The New York Times, as well as the brutally honest story of Bruni’s lifelong, often painful, struggle with food. Born Round will speak to any hungry hedonist who has ever had to rein in an appetite to avoid letting out a waistband and will delight anyone interested in matters of family, matters of the heart, and the big role food plays in them.
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Editorial Reviews

Dominique Browning
Bruni's prose is as robust as his story; he clearly enjoys writing as much as eating. He is also, at times, very funny. But the best thing about Born Round is that it is so embarrassingly, inspiringly honest. For a guy who has spent much of his life too mortified to take off his coat, this is one laid-bare story…His book does what a memoir should: it entertains and edifies, voicing pain that otherwise many endure in loneliness. It promises to give comfort to souls feeling confused or betrayed by their bodies. Such staggering generosity: Born Round is like the Italian dinners Bruni loves—served up noisy, fun, heaping and delicious. Bruni's readers, at least, are lucky he was born round.
—The New York Times Book Review
Susan Orlean
If Born Round, Mr. Bruni's new memoir, just detailed his obsessive eating, his serial bouts of bulimia, the barometric rise and fall of his pants size, his frequent episodes of self-loathing punctuated by midnight snacks of enough roast chicken to feed a family, it would be an unexceptional book; after all, confession culture, and particularly food- and diet-related confession, has been popular for 20 years and pretty tedious for about 19. But Mr. Bruni's book is distinctive and intriguing on several accounts. The author is male (most diet memoirs are written by, and for, women); he writes well and insightfully (rare in this often sloppy genre); and in spite of his problems with food, he has spent the last five years as perhaps the most influential eater in America: the restaurant critic of The New York Times. … Mr. Bruni's insights into why he overloads on food -- that eating won him attention from his grandmother and mother, that it's partly genetic, that it provides him with something to blame for anything in life that doesn't go his way -- are not new, but they are so well put and genuinely felt that they seem fresh. When he finally approaches near-slimness, he writes that his behavior and elation “were those of someone living in a country he never thought he'd see, with privileges he never thought he'd have.” It's a perfect description of how consuming, literally and figuratively, body image is, and how long and lonely and endless the journey to that country -- what he calls "the far side of fatness" -- can be.
—The New York Times
Joe Yonan
Bruni's unflinchingly honest look at himself as someone whose demons were always pushing or withholding food…Even the darkest periods are leavened by Bruni's black humor, which recalls that of Augusten Burroughs…or perhaps David Sedaris
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
More the gourmand than the gourmet, former New York Times food critic Bruni takes us through his love/hate relationship with food and catalogues everyone who ever fed him and what they served, every diet he went on and his fraught—even dangerous—relationship with food in this excellent memoir. Bruni is a talented reader with an intelligent voice, a perfect pace, impish humor and a contagious passion for his topic. Dieters may crumble under the weight of so many lavish descriptions of luscious treats, but Bruni's frank depiction of his eating disorders and his charismatic delivery make for memorable listening. A Penguin Press hardcover (Reviews, July 6). (Sept.)
Booklist
There are very few emotions that New York Times restaurant critic Bruni's autobiography does not invoke-all well and good for what should be an army of readers. His book is funny and sad, heartwarming and anger provoking, and candid and cagey. The author (who also penned the more serious Ambling into History, 2002, about George W. Bush's 2000 campaign) chronicles his struggles with weight over the four decades of his life, through literally thick and thin. At the same time, his gay identity caused him to be overly conscious of his looks, his clothes, his image, sometimes to extreme degrees. Bruni turned to bulimia, colonic/toxic cleansing, drugs, and a variety of diets. What worked? A personal trainer named Aaron, new learned behaviors, and a gradually acquired philosophy of food: "I took another bite of the dessert, just so I didn't seem to be avoiding it. But I stopped there. Somehow, I'd learned to do that. At least for now." His very public, very successful journalistic career is also profiled, from a full scholarship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Newsweek intern to various New York Times positions here and abroad and, now, ironically, the conquering of his eating disorder during his present tenure as one of the most prestigious restaurant critics in the country. It reads like a novel, resonates like true life, and resounds with a wise life perspective. Starred Review.
—Barbara Jacobs
Village Voice
It was a great surprise when, in 2004, The New York Times transferred Frank Bruni from his job as the paper's Rome bureau chief to the paper's restaurant critic. The journalist had made a name for himself covering the 2000 campaign and, later, foreign affairs. But what did he know about food? As it turned out, more than most. As Bruni would later write, "My life-defining relationship, after all, wasn't with a parent, a sibling, a teacher, a mate. It was with my stomach." . . . .[Born Round ] reads entirely differently from anything we've seen lately. The book does not contain paeans to the glories of locavorism. It's not a tale of bawdy kitchen exploits, or of finding your true self over a bowl of pasta in Rome . . . His memoir tells a story of food addiction, eating disorders, and a lifelong struggle with his voracious appetite . . . Born Round makes for a breezy read. Even at its darkest, it goes down easy . . . After reading Bruni for years, it feels odd to suddenly know his secrets, which put his reviews in a new context. His pieces were always well written, but hinted little of the big, funny personality that shines in the book.
Library Journal
Should best-selling author Bruni (Ambling into History) ever tire of journalism, he could easily make a career out of audiobook narration. In this self-read memoir, he opens with his 2004 appointment as restaurant critic for the New York Times, then tells of his lifelong struggle with food and weight (at his heaviest, he weighed 270 pounds). How he both deals with and fails to deal with his addiction to food makes this a fascinating listen. Compliments to Bruni for serving up such a candid and enthralling tale; highly recommended. [The review of the New York Times best-selling Penguin hc read, "Bruni's painfully honest, tartly humorous life story will…be a hit with anyone who has struggled with the numbers on the scale," LJ 8/09.—Ed.]—Cliff Glaviano, Bowling Green State Univ. Libs., OH
Kirkus Reviews
Foreign correspondent Bruni (Ambling Into History: The Unlikely Odyssey of George W. Bush, 2002, etc.) faces a menu of challenges after taking a coveted job as the New York Times restaurant critic. Growing up eating the lavish meals cooked by his Italian mother, it was apparent early on that Bruni would be forever consumed by food. But the author didn't just love to eat; he was obsessed with it, tossing down triple helpings and throwing tantrums when his mother refused further offerings. "I had been a plump infant and was on my way to becoming an even plumper child," he writes, "a ravenous machine determined to devour anything in its sights." Self-conscious about his expanding midriff, the soon-to-be journalist's disorder manifested into bulimia by college in an on-again/off-again battle that would stay with him through his tenure as a Times White House correspondent and later during a post in Italy. When he received the offer to sacrifice his European spot to become the Times' restaurant critic, Bruni was torn. Living in Italy was a lifelong dream fulfilled. More importantly, with his history of eating problems, could he maintain the healthy waistline he'd finally achieved when faced with plate after plate of New York's finest cuisine? "This decision is insane," he writes. "But it was also irresistible, even poetic, the kind of ultimate dare or dead reckoning that a good narrative called for." Taking the job, Bruni eased into the critic game like a pro, masking his identity from keen restaurateurs whose staffs were on constant alert. Keeping a constant eye on the scale, he often donned hilarious disguises to outfox his subject's purveyors, and hit the treadmill and Pilates classes tooutrun his caloric demons. A full dish of humor garnished with ample trimmings of self-examination. Agent: Lisa Bankoff/ICM
The Barnes & Noble Review
There are two kinds of people in the world. Not cat and dog people, not chocolate and vanilla. There are, I'd propose, people who will read Frank Bruni's autobiography -- in particular, the scene where he's scarfing precooked Tyson chicken breasts, one-handed, in his car while driving home from the grocery store and think, Oh, ew...and then there are people, my people, who will read it and think, Well, duh. That stuff smells good! And when you're hungry, you're hungry!

My people know what it's like to watch a sibling push a half-full plate away and wonder, How do they do that? Don't they see there's more? We're the ones who've been on every diet, endured every form of exercise, and can tell you, at a glance, the calorie count and/or Weight Watchers point value of every morsel you could put in your mouth.

Bruni, the departing food critic for The New York Times, is one of us. He was born with an obdurate, ineluctable appetite, a voice inside that eternally cried, More, more, more and never once whispered, Enough.

The good news first: His memoir, Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater, pulls off the impressive feat of being both mouthwatering and heartbreaking. There are drool-worthy descriptions of the meals young Frank enjoyed: his mother's lasagna, his grandmother's "frits": balls of fried dough with mozzarella and tomato sauce at their center, "like miniature thick-crust pizzas turned inside out, or rather outside in, only better, so much better, than any pizza could be."

And, of course, there are the consequences: the love handles that Bruni disguised with a "shapeless, floppy, pale green Army-issue Winderbreaker," the author photo that he had digitally stretched to suggest slimness, the desperate measures, from a flirtation with bulimia to a stint on Mexican speed, that Bruni employed to keep the excess pounds away; the boys he wouldn't date or wouldn't sleep with because he didn't want to be seen shirtless.

It says a lot about the shame of being fat in America that, for Bruni, coming out of the closet proves less painful than hanging pants with a 40-inch waist inside of it. It's revealing, too, to see the author lavish more description on the meals -- as opposed to the men -- that he's loved. Bruni shucks partners like peel-and-eat shrimp shells while making his way ever upward, on the scale and toward the Times...but maybe that's not surprising. Boyfriends come and go; Ben & Jerry's is forever. And, as Bruni admits, his "life-defining relationship, after all, wasn't with a parent, a sibling, a teacher, a mate. It was with my stomach." (Mom places a distant second.)

The book's final section finds Bruni relatively happy, having mastered, mostly, the art of portion control and vigorous exercise. It offers a procedural on weight management if your job involves eating most of your meals at the best restaurants in the world (taste, don't finish), details about the mechanics of being a critic (fake names always, costumes on occasion), and the frisson of a few boldface names (who knew Sarah Jessica Parker had such problems with parsley?).

My only problem with Born Round isn't Bruni's fault, but it's worth mentioning that his book will get more than its fair portion of attention.

Part of this has to do with Bruni's job, more of it, with his gender. A woman with a painful relationship with food and her own body is a classic dog-bites-man story, where a guy willing to lament his jiggly chest and widening waistline, or describe how he cried in a country club basement after his brother called him fat, is a little more man-bites-dog.

There is also the double standard that still applies to memoirs. Where a man is deemed brave for revealing his flaws and insecurities, a woman telling similar stories can depend on being called whiny, neurotic, or just plain nuts.

Instead of serving Born Round as a one-dish supper, I'd put Bruni's book on the buffet with Valerie Frankel's Thin Is the New Happy, Betsy Lerner's Foot and Loathing: A Lament, and Judith Moore's excoriating Fat Girl: A True Story. There are plenty of painful, funny, revealing books about appetite and its consequences out there, books that shouldn't be ignored simply because their authors were born round -- and born female. --Jennifer Weiner

Jennifer Weiner is the author of the bestselling novels Good in Bed, In Her Shoes, Goodnight Nobody, Certain Girls, and (most recently) Best Friends Forever. She contributes to numerous magazines and blogs at jenniferweiner.blogspot.com.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780594256168
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 8/20/2009
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Frank Bruni

Frank Bruni was named restaurant critic for The New York Times in April 2004. Before that, he was the newspaper's Rome bureau chief, a White House reporter, the lead correspondent covering George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign, and a frequent contributor to The New York Times Magazine. He is the author of The New York Times bestseller Ambling into History, about George W. Bush, and his restaurant-related articles for the Times have appeared in each of the last three editions of Best Food Writing in America. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing for his work before the Times at the Detroit Free Press.

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Read an Excerpt

Excerpts from Chapter One

I have neither a therapist’s diagnosis nor any scientific literature to support the following claim, and I can’t back it up with more than a cursory level of detail. So you’re just going to have to go with me on this: I was a baby bulimic.

Maybe not baby — toddler bulimic is more like it, though I didn’t so much toddle as wobble, given the roundness of my expanding form. I was a plump infant and was on my way to becoming an even plumper child, a ravenous machine determined to devour anything in its sights. My parents would later tell me, my friends and anyone else willing to listen that they’d never seen a kid eat the way I ate or react the way I reacted whenever I was denied more food. What I did in those circumstances was throw up.

I have no independent memory of this. But according to my mother, it began when I was about 18 months old. It went on for no more than a year. And I’d congratulate myself here for stopping such an evidently compulsive behavior without the benefit of an intervention or the ability to read a self-help book except that I wasn’t so much stopping as pausing. But I’m getting ahead of the story.

A hamburger dinner sounded the first alarm. My mother had cooked and served me one big burger, which would be enough for most carnivores still in diapers. I polished it off and pleaded for a second. So she cooked and served me another big burger, confident that I’d never get through it. It was the last time she underestimated my appetite.

The way Mom told the tale, I plowed through that second burger as quickly as I had the first. Then I looked up from my highchair with lips covered in hamburger juice, a chin flecked with hamburger bun and hamburger ecstasy in my wide brown eyes. I started banging my balled little fists on the highchair’s tray.

I wanted a third.

Mom thought about giving it to me. She was tempted. For her it was a point of pride to cook and serve more food than anybody could eat, and the normal course of things was to shove food at people, not to withhold it.

But she looked at me then, with my balloon cheeks and ham-hock legs, and thought: Enough. No way. He can’t fit in another six ounces of ground chuck. He shouldn’t fit in another six ounces of ground chuck. A third burger isn’t good mothering. A third burger is child abuse.

I cried. I cried so hard that my face turned the color of a vine-ripened tomato and my breathing grew labored and a pitiful strangled noise escaped my lips, along with something else. Up came the remnants of Burger No. 2, and up came the remnants of Burger No. 1. Mom figured she had witnessed an unusually histrionic tantrum with an unusually messy aftermath. But I’ve always wondered, in retrospect and not entirely in jest, if what she had witnessed was the beginning of a cunning strategy, an intuitive design for gluttonous living. Maybe I was making room for more burger. Look, Ma, empty stomach!

It became a pattern. No fourth cookie? I threw up. No mid-afternoon meal between lunch and dinner? Same deal. I had a bizarre facility for it, and Mom had a sponge or paper towels at hand whenever she was about to disappoint me.

As I grew older and developed more dexterity and stealth and more say, I could and did work around Mom, opening a cupboard or pantry door when neither she nor anyone else was looking, or furtively shuttling some of the contents of a sibling’s trick-or-treat bag into my own, which always emptied out more quickly.

I wasn’t merely fond of candy bars. I was fascinated by them and determined to catalog them in my head, where I kept an ever-shifting, continually updated list of the best of them, ranked in order of preference. Snickers always beat out 3 Musketeers, which didn’t have the benefit of nuts. Baby Ruth beat out Snickers, because it had even more nuts. But nuts weren’t crucial: one of my greatest joys was the KitKat bar, and I couldn’t imagine any geometry more perfect than the parallel lines of its chocolate-covered sections. I couldn’t imagine any color more beautiful than the iridescent orange of the wrapping for a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup.

And the sweetest sound in the world? The most gorgeous music?

The bells of a Good Humor truck.

Every summer evening, just before sundown, one of these trucks would come tinkling down Oak Avenue, a narrow road near the shoreline in Madison, Conn., northeast of New Haven, where my father’s parents owned an extremely modest summer house. I knew the options by heart. There was the Strawberry Shortcake bar, coated with sweet nibs and striped with pink and white. There was the cone with vanilla ice cream and a semi-hard hood of nut-sprinkled chocolate over that. An argument in its favor was the way the eating of it had discrete chapters: hood first, ice cream second, lower half of the cone after that.

And then there was the Candy Center Crunch bar, which was vanilla ice cream in a crackling chocolate shell, with an additional, concealed element, a bit of buried treasure. When you got to the middle of the bar, you bumped up against a hard slab of nearly frozen dark chocolate, clumped around the wooden stick. You had to chisel away at it in focused bites, so that chunks didn’t tumble to the ground — lost, wasted.

The eating of the Candy Center Crunch bar lasted longest of all. Almost without fail, that’s the bar I got.

I remember almost everything about my childhood in terms of food — in terms of favorite foods, to be more accurate, or even favorite parts of favorite foods.

Age 6: homemade chocolate sauce over Breyers vanilla ice cream. Mom used squares of semisweet chocolate, along with butter and milk, and as the chocolate melted in a saucepan in the galley kitchen, it perfumed the entire first floor of our Cape Cod in northern White Plains, a 45-minute train ride from Manhattan, where Dad worked. Mom made chocolate sauce every Sunday night as a special weekend treat, and my older brother, Mark, my younger brother, Harry, and I got to eat our bowls of ice cream (three scoops each) and chocolate sauce in front of the TV set while watching Mutual of Omaha’s ‘‘Wild Kingdom.’’ I always volunteered to carry the empty bowls back into the kitchen, because Mark’s and Harry’s were never entirely empty. There was always some neglected sauce hardening — like fudge! — at the bottom. I would sweep it up with a finger en route to the dishwasher.

Age 7: I discovered quiche. Quiche Lorraine. Mom baked it in the upper of the double ovens on the south wall of the eat-in kitchen in our Tudor on Soundview Avenue in a section of White Plains that made believe it was part of ritzier Scarsdale, which it bordered. The quiche needed to cool for about 45 minutes before it could be eaten. I knew because I’d often kept count.

Age 8: lamb chops. Mom served them to us for dinner at the table in the Soundview kitchen about once every three weeks. I ate not just the meat but also the curls and strips of fat at the edges of the meat. Mark and Harry winced when I did that and merely picked at their own chops, wishing aloud that it were steak night or hamburger night or pork-chop night. We were a meaty family, the chops, strips, patties and roasts filling a separate freezer in the garage. Wherever we lived, we had a separate freezer in the garage, a testament to Dad’s belief, instilled in him by his Italian-immigrant parents, that an abundance of food — or, even better, a superabundance of food — was the best measure of a family’s security in the world. Mom absorbed that thinking from him and made sure that wherever we lived, we had a separate freezer in the garage. She was mystified by, and censorious of, families who didn’t. How could they be sure to have enough kinds and cuts of meat on hand, enough varieties of ice cream to choose from? Was that really any way to live?

All of us could eat, but Dad and I could eat the most. I took after him that way.

During the Soundview years, he frequently took Mark, Harry and me into the city to watch the Yankees play baseball, the Knicks play basketball or the Rangers play hockey. Mark and Harry loved those games. I loved the peanuts, pretzels, hot dogs and ice-cream bars with which vendors roamed the aisles, looking for takers.

‘‘You’re getting another hot dog?’’ Dad would ask when he saw me waving down one of these vendors. He wouldn’t be opposed — just surprised. Mark and Harry would still be on their first hot dogs. Dad too. The game seemed to distract them.

I was only a year and a half younger than Mark. Harry trailed me by just two and a half years. And as in so many families with children of the same sex clustered so closely together, the three of us defined ourselves — and were defined by Mom and Dad — in relation to one another.

Mark was the charismatic and confident one, most at ease with his peers. Had there been fraternities in elementary school, he would have pledged the most desirable one and might well have ended up its president. He was also the agile one, adept at just about any sport Dad foisted upon us.

He ate steadily but boringly: plain bagels with butter, cheeseburgers with ketchup but no other adornments, slices of cheese pizza instead of the pizza with sausage, peppers and onion that Mom and Dad preferred. I ate both kinds of pizza and I ate Big Macs and I ate pumpernickel bagels with cream cheese. And for every bagel Mark ate, I ate a bagel and a half.

Harry had an extraordinary ability to focus on one task or thought to the exclusion of all others, and could spend whole days putting together the most intricate models, whole weekends building the most ambitious backyard forts. As an eater, too, he fixated on a single object of interest and lost sight of much else. For a while his fixation was French fries, and if Dad was working late and Mom took us to Howard Johnson’s or Friendly, he would get two orders of fries for dinner, then a third for dessert. He’d still be eating fries while I’d be eating the most rococo sundae or banana split on the menu. But if none of his special foods were around, he merely picked at what was in front of him, not so much disappointed as uninterested, never complaining of hunger or, as best as I could tell, experiencing it.

I was the one who got the best report cards and who preferred mental to physical activities, in part because I was so uncoordinated — the klutz, as Mom often called me.

‘‘How’s my big klutz?’’ she would say — tenderly — as she mussed my hair and investigated a bruise on my cheek that I had received from losing my balance on the way up the stairs and falling.

‘‘Watch it, klutz!’’ she would yell — testily — when I plopped an empty plate on the counter in a way that made a plate already there plummet to the floor and shatter. ‘‘How can you be so klutzy?’’

I didn’t know, but I suspected it had something to do with my weight. That was the most obvious physical difference between Mark and me, between me and Harry. By the time I was 6, I was bigger than Mark: not just taller, but heavier, by a good 10 to 12 pounds, only a few of them attributable to the then-slight discrepancy in our heights. I wore pants with a waist size two to three inches greater than his, and I sometimes had to be taken to the husky section of boys’ departments to find them. Husky: I knew that wasn’t a good thing, a flattering thing. Other kids made sure of that.

They joked that my initials, F.B., stood for Fat Boy. Mom told me to ignore it, but there were moments when she herself reminded me that I was larger than I should be. Frustrated by my failure to fend off an older girl at school who regularly taunted and shoved me until I gave her my lunch money, Mom said, ‘‘Next time, why don’t you just sit on her?’’ Mom had never seen her but made the safe assumption that I outweighed her.

Whenever I went to the doctor for a routine checkup, I hurried off the scale, trying my best not to hear him tell Mom, yet again, that I was more than a few pounds above the recommended weight for a child of my size. I could see, in the Christmas-card pictures that Mom took every year, how much fuller my cheeks were than Mark’s or Harry’s, how much broader my waist was, and I knew that in one of these pictures, I was holding Adelle — the last of us, born four years after Harry — because I had volunteered to, figuring that it was a way of obscuring the whole middle stretch of my body.

I wasn’t obese. I didn’t prompt stares or gasps. I was just chubby, and sometimes quite chubby, with a hunger that threatened to make matters worse and a gnawing, deepening self-consciousness that Mom picked up on and that she decided she might have a solution to.

Mom was a sucker for fad diets. Like Dad she was always heavier than she wanted to be, though her range was smaller — she’d be, at any given moment, between 5 and 15 pounds over her goal weight — and her resolve to do something about it was more frequently renewed.

She did some diet that required the consumption of a half-grapefruit at a half-dozen intervals during the day — it didn’t work, as I recall, but it certainly kept her safe from scurvy. There was a popcorn diet, and for a while the sounds that most frequently escaped the kitchen were the vacuum-like whirring of an air popper and the crack-ping-crack of the kernels. My mother believed that somewhere out there was a holy grail of weight loss, and she would be damned if she wasn’t going to find it.

But the diet I remember best, because I joined her on it, was Dr. Atkins’s low-carbohydrate diet. People who became wise to it only in the 1990s tend to forget that it made its initial splash back in the early 1970s, which was when Mom and I first gave it a whirl. Here was Dr. Atkins, saying that someone with an appetite that wouldn’t be tamed — an appetite like mine — didn’t have to tame it. He or she just had to channel it in the right direction, away from carbohydrates.

Of course I had never heard the word ‘‘carbohydrate’’ before, but I was thrilled by all the consonants and syllables in it. To me they meant that something terribly scientific — something nutritionally profound — was at hand. I interrupted whatever latest Hardy Boys mystery I was plowing through to crack open ‘‘Dr. Atkins’s Diet Revolution,’’ which Mom had bought in hardcover, anxious to get her hands on it, convinced it was a keeper. I read about blood-sugar levels and these chemicals called ketones and this charmed metabolic state in which you began to generate them or expel them or swirl in them or something along those lines. I didn’t exactly understand it but knew that my goal was to achieve this state, called ‘‘ketosis.’’ Ketosis was my preadolescent nirvana. It was what I wished for: ketosis, along with a new five-speed bicycle.

The Atkins diet prohibited certain things I loved, like pretzels and ice cream, but it let me have as much as I wanted of other things I also loved, like cheddar-cheese omelets with pork sausage at breakfast or hamburger patties — three of them if that was my desire, so long as I dispensed with the bun — at dinner. It allowed snacks like hunks of cheddar and roll-ups of turkey breast and Swiss cheese. I could even dip the roll-ups in mayonnaise and not be undermining the Atkins formula. According to Atkins, it was important to stay sated, because any empty crevasse of stomach was nothing but a welcome mat for a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. So I left no crevasse unfilled. And I felt relieved — liberated. Silencing taunts and getting into smaller pants wouldn’t mean going hungry.

For lunch on most days I had tuna salad. Mom tried to make it seem more special and eventful by presenting it in geometrically interesting and colorful ways. She used the largest dinner plate she could find. She covered the plate with several overlapping leaves of iceberg lettuce. She molded the tuna salad — always Bumble Bee solid white tuna, never chunk light, never Chicken of the Sea — into three large scoops, which she put over the lettuce, within a ring of cherry tomatoes. Three scoops looked prettier than one or two. Besides, there wasn’t any doubt I would be able to finish that many.

‘‘Aren’t you going to have some?’’ I would ask.

‘‘Maybe later,’’ she’d say, and then I’d hear the crunch-whoosh of the metal peel coming off another bright pink can of Tab, the worst diet cola ever made, the diet cola Mom never betrayed, her diet cola, its distance from sweetness and its metallic taste a way of patting herself on the back. When it came to beverages, was anyone more virtuous and penitential than she? Tab was her rosary, and she said it as many as eight times a day.

I drank Tab on Atkins. I drank Fresca too, and sugar-free iced tea of various kinds. I was concerned less with my choice and range of beverages than with the little paper strips in the medicine cabinet of the bathroom off my parents’ bedroom. The strips went along with the Atkins diet, and they were clustered in a tiny, cylindrical container, the way toothpicks might be.

In the morning, in the late afternoon and just before bedtime, I would slide or shimmy one of the strips from the jar, hold it in my left hand and get ready to pee. Then I’d pass the strip through the stream of urine and wait to see if it changed color. If it changed color, Mom had told me, the diet was working. If it changed color, I was in ketosis, and I was melting the fat away.

It didn’t change color on the second day. Or the third. But on the fourth, it did, going from white to a pinkish purple. And after just a few more days, I noticed a loosening in my pants. A tightening in my stomach. I was shrinking every second!

I stayed on Atkins for close to three weeks, losing something like seven pounds: enough to land me on the slender side of stocky. Then . . . well, Mom hadn’t really worked that out. The idea, I suppose, was that I’d be so encouraged by the change in my weight that I’d safeguard it with less gluttonous behavior, and I’d revisit Atkins for a tune-up from time to time.

But Atkins hadn’t been so easy to pull off, not with so many others at the dinner table eating different, less monochromatic meals. Not with the occasional naysayer outside the family questioning the wisdom of such a restrictive fad diet for an eight-year-old and saying I’d just grow out of my weight. And not with Grandma Bruni around.

At one point during the diet we went to see her. Except for the summer months, she and Grandpa lived in White Plains, just a ten-minute drive from us. Mom ushered me, Mark, Harry, and Adelle, just a baby then, into Grandma’s kitchen, where Grandma had a platter stacked high with hunks of fried dough—frits, she called them. The word, rhyming with treats, was an abbreviation of fritti, which in Italian meant “fried things.” Grandma served frits with nearby piles of sugar, which you dragged them through. They weren’t Atkins-approved, so I didn’t reach for one.

It took Grandma all of two seconds to notice.

“What’s the matter for you?” she asked in her thickly accented, preposition-challenged English.

“It’s fine, Ma,” said Mom, who addressed Grandma as if Grandma were her own mother. Grandma wouldn’t have it any other way.

“He’s not eating!” Grandma bellowed. That was a shock in and of itself, on top of which it was offensive. Not lunging for and mooning over whatever fried, baked, boiled, or broiled offering Grandma put before you was a violation of the unspoken covenant between her and anyone she cared about.

Mom and I held our ground, neither of us eating frits. Grandma glared at us and banged pots and dishes and utensils loudly on the counter and complimented Mark and Harry more than usual on their own consumption.

“You love Grandma’s frits?” she checked with them.

They nodded.

“Then you love your Grandma!” she said, throwing another big glare at Mom, and then a small one at me, whom she blamed only partly.

To her thinking, Mom and I had done the equivalent of turning our faces away when she went to kiss us. We’d resisted the most heartfelt gesture she could make. We’d denied her the form of expression at which she was most fluent.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 40 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 40 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 5, 2010

    Buyer beware...

    First off, a really well written and nice little book.
    Unfortunately when I purchased it I anticipated insight in what it was like to be a food critic at the NYT where the difference of one star could make or break a chef and or a restaurant. Living in 'The Big Apple.' Stories about the food industry, restaurants, wonderful or terrible meals.
    Instead, three quarters of the book is devoted to his eating disorder and coming to terms with his sexuality and family. Sadly, much of that is self indulgent and repetative. A guy can only read so much about the vomiting, the laxatives, the size 36 pants vs the size 42 pants, the running, the excersise, etc.
    His writing about his early family life... growing up in an Italian culture where food is king is marvelous. (I couldn't eat enough sausage and peppers when reading about his youth. Not to mention more than a few cannoli.)
    Again, a good book and the fault is my own for not understanding more before my purchase. Sort of like ordering the veal saltimbocca and having a plate of James Beard's meatloaf and mashed potatoes set before you. Still really good, but not what you had your stomach set for.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 12, 2010

    Exceptional Memoir--and Cautionary Tale

    I read Frank Bruni's memoir while recovering from triple bypass heart surgery, so the lovingly detailed descriptions of Italian family feasts struck me as more of a cautionary tale than it might most readers. Given the lengths Bruni went to embrace fad diets and his denial about even checking the scales, it wasn't a surprise that he avoided doctors' medical advice. "Born Round" is nevertheless a pleasure to read; Bruni's struggles with his weight are universal even if his own career path has been unique. Bruni has had an exceptionally varied career as a journalist, and if you only know him for his restaurant reviews, you're in for a pleasant surprise. His struggles to adhere to diet and exercise follow him as he covers George W. Bush's first campaign for President as well as his years covering Detroit and the Vatican. By the book's ending, I wish he had reflected more on our Western society's obsession on body image and the media's role in forming that, but he does summarize well the lessons he's learned as he enters middle age. "Born Round" is a welcome memoir. Recommended.

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  • Posted June 26, 2010

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    Not Just Born Round but Born Talented. . .

    I'm a huge memoir fan and so glad I got a chance to pick up Frank Bruni's Born Round. The writer bares his soul and you can't help but want to be there for him. Moments when he gave in to over-indulgence, I really wanted to jump into the book and give him a kick in the pants and drag him to the gym. In the end, it was his own determination that got him back on track to being healthier.
    I've been following F Bruni on twitter even before I read this book, just to get a feel for what he's like nowadays. He's an interesting twitterer. He'll be doing readings and Q/A in New York early July-2010. I'll be there to see him in person. . .

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  • Posted March 17, 2010

    The Dangers of the Clean Plate Club!

    Mr. Bruni's tale of connection inter-related connection with food, family and love is a charming and, at times, poignant read. Particularly touching is his relationship with his mother, who at times abetted his eating and at others encouraged restraint. The irony of Mr. Bruni's appointment as restaurant critic of the New York Times is not lost anyone, particularly Mr. Bruni himself. Bruni writes in a clear and accessible fashion. Mr. Bruni's ability to engage in healthy relationships directly derives from his ability to love himself and his relationship with food. I recommend this to anyone who battled with mothers, food and the Clean Plate Club in their youth!

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  • Posted February 8, 2010

    Delicious

    I have gotten to know the intimate soul of the artist. I feel that I can address him by Frank. Frank does a wonderful job of humorously telling his life story and his loving participation with his family and food. Frank has insecurities regarding his weight and does a brillant subtle job of telling a story that sadly is the story of many. In the end he has managed to be the master of his desires; knowing that negativity about his physical shell is the real task he will have a lifetime journey with. Frank, you tell the story of many and you tell it well!

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  • Posted November 16, 2009

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    An uninspiring read

    By a cursory glance at the title, and glancing at the inside cover, I purchased the book looking for a character I can empathize with, being raised in a family environment where food was doled out as a pain salve, and being stigmatized by being overweight for the majority of my childhood. In reality, it focused on the manifestations as to how one reacts to food, rather than a sympathetic character being saddled with being overweight his entire life. The author was born in a loving family, with all the privileges of an upper middle class lifestyle, and in fact was an accomplished athlete in high school and writer in his adult life. If you purchase the book with the expectations of obtaining an intimate look at the struggles of being an overweight child, and the impact of that stigma as you enter adult hood, not sure if this specific read will offer you that insight.

    Despite the title being a bit misleading, and the subject uninspiring, Mr. Bruni is a talented and entertaining author, and would reocmmend the purchase for anyone who has suffered through the angst of food.

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  • Posted November 13, 2009

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    Left me craving for more

    Is it wrong to enjoy reading how one man has struggled and was tortured his whole life because of his weight? One has to admire Frank Bruni's bitter honesty recounting all the ways he has attempted to lose weight or maintain his weight since he was a baby. I think that everyone in some way, shape or form, can relate to his ordeals, whether it was to shed some baby fat, the freshman 15 in college, or dieting before a wedding. However, the irony in Bruni's life is that when he finally found a regime that was healthy and successful in getting to his goal pants size, he becomes a food critic who is required to dine out for almost every meal of the week! It is a truly inspiring and touching book and a definite read for foodies.

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  • Posted October 23, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Born Round

    "Born Round" is Frank Bruni's tale of how he dealt with his fluctuating weight throughout his life. Interesting were the stories of his family and how everything seemed to revolve around food. Since both his mother and grandmother were passionate about cooking, it didn't help Bruni with his weight problem. He controlled this by becoming a swimmer in high school but was bulimic during his college years. He discusses not only his weight, but his journalism career, his homosexuality, and life in the city.

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