My mom likes to tell the story of my first childhood foray into “real” food. She was feeding my brother and me lunch. I was a wee (six or eight months, my mom now guesses), sitting in my high chair. My brother was four, sitting at the table. She gave him a peanut-butter sandwich—made, as always, with crunchy peanut butter. Meanwhile, she was getting ready to feed me baby food (which she made herself back before the Béaba existed and it became the trendy, hipster-mom thing to do).
But I had a different agenda. Apparently, I had decided that I’d had enough baby food. Despite the fact that I had no teeth, I wanted that crunchy PB & J. So, I did what any spoiled brat would do. I stole my brother’s sandwich. And I gummed it delightedly (Yes, I ate peanut butter before I was two. I also learned to ride a bike without wearing a helmet. These were dangerous times). If the rest of the fam was going to eat delicious foods, then I would, too.
That first PB & J was just the beginning. As soon as I got my front teeth, I used them to scrape the meat from artichoke leaves. Food and I became fast friends.
I love homemade strawberry shortcake and strawberry-rhubarb pie, my mom’s amazing Thanksgiving sides (turkey just takes up room on the plate that can be better filled with more corn pudding and more stuffing and more wild rice), my dad’s sticky buns and pot roast, crusty breads with real (European) butter, ice cream, steaming hot soups, and about a billion other culinary delights. There are very few foods (yellow curry, olives, some varieties of mushroom) that I don’t like.
Loving food is in my genes. Both of my grandmothers were excellent cooks. Grandma Cassel got her Master’s in home ec from Cornell (her thesis was on the science of making perfect, puffy éclairs). And Nana Rokutani made the best homemade pies in the history of homemade pies.
When I was eleven or twelve, my grandmothers both made attempts to shape my relationship with food. Grandma Cassel tried to teach me, step by step, how to make an expert, fluffy soufflé (regrettably, at the time, I really didn’t care and didn’t pay much attention). Meanwhile, Nana’s contribution to my food education was more passive-aggressive. For holidays, she deliberately sent me clothes that were at least a size too small. It was a not-so-subtle reminder of the havoc those delicious holiday meals could wreak. She was Japanese and 90 pounds at her heaviest, and she didn’t look very fondly upon the impact my father’s German genes had on my tiny frame.
Admittedly, Nana was a bit of a bully (I say that in the most loving, respectful way). But my story is not that unusual. For anyone who loves food (like really loves food) and doesn’t have a ridiculous, supernatural metabolism, food—and eating—can be both a blessing and a curse.
And that’s what Frank Bruni’s memoir, Born Round, is all about.
Bruni is best known for being the chief food critic for The New York Times from 2004 to 2009. While the memoir touches on his experience as a food critic briefly, the book mainly talks about his love of and struggles with food, beginning as a young kid.
The book is full of personal anecdotes, memories, and family history revolving around food. But it is decidedly not an homage to food. Instead, it is more like a reconciliation with food. As Bruni gets older, he comes to appreciate the importance of food (not only for the traditions and memories surrounding it, but also its contribution to his livelihood). He learns to revere and respect food, rather than alternate between gluttonously devouring it and guiltily despising it.
Rating: 3/5 (Miracle of miracles! Finally, a memoir that I didn’t loathe!) 🍗
Bruni comes from a big, happy Italian family. His Irish mother learned how to cook from her mother-in-law (Bruni’s very Italian grandmother). They cooked well and in large quantities. A typical special-occasion meal spanned several hours and many, many courses. Throughout the book, Bruni recalls these family meals in delightful detail—it’s no wonder he loves food as much as he does.
But the first two-thirds or so of the book has a dark air underlying it. There’s a lot of description of his weight yo-yoing and his fad diets and his battles with bulimia (and Ex-Lax and Mexican “diet” pills and Metamucil). He struggled with his weight. A lot. I hope I don’t sound horribly unsympathetic when I say that I didn’t need to hear about it in such excruciating (and drawn out) detail.
The last section of the book is about the beginning of his career as a restaurant critic, and that’s a lot of fun (it reminded me of Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires, which I talk about in a little more detail below). This is what Bruni is known for and, I suspect, what many of his readers are most interested in. I wish he had tackled this section with the attention and detail he employed when he wrote about his weight struggles.
Who should read it: the entire Cassel family (i.e., people who understand what it means to love food).
If you’re looking for a fun memoir about being a restaurant critic: read Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise.
You know Reichl—she’s the witchy-looking judge on Top Chef Masters. Reichl was the restaurant critic for The New York Times before Bruni (well, before Biff Grimes, who directly preceded Bruni) and she wrote fun reviews like this one. Garlic and Sapphires takes you deep into the life of a restaurant critic. Each chapter focuses on a new restaurant—she walks you through her dining experiences, her disguises (she believed that her job as a critic was to evaluate the restaurant experience that a “normal” diner would have, so she went to great lengths to remain incognito), and, of course, the food—and includes the ultimate review of each restaurant that was published in The New York Times.
One final note: There were two random anecdotes in Born Round that I personally loved and feel compelled to share:
1) Soon after Bruni’s mom passes away following an over six-year battle with cancer, he notices a cookbook on his shelf in the kitchen. It’s called Where’s Mom Now That I Need Her? He describes it as follows: “It wasn’t exactly a book, but a binder filled with sewing tips and cleaning tips and many blank ruled pages onto which whoever bought it was supposed to paste, scribble or staple favorite recipes for whoever was receiving it. Mom had pasted, scribbled and stapled dozens.”
The very same book sits with the rest of our cookbooks in an antique pie safe next to our kitchen. Bryan’s mom gave it to him when he left for college. I knew Bryan’s mom for less than a year before she lost her own battle to cancer, but thanks to that book (and tons of other photocopied and hand-written recipes we pilfered from her kitchen), Bryan and I can still make her delicious recipes (like her barbequed chicken, chicken squares, and chocolate pound cake). Where’s Mom Now That I Need Her? is an awesome legacy, and Bruni’s description of it resonated with me.
2) One of the worst results of my getting sick last year was that Bryan and I had to cancel a long-planned trip to Napa and Sonoma. I had somehow managed to get dinner reservations for us at The French Laundry, and we’d been looking forward to going for weeks. I almost cried when I made the call to cancel that reservation.
The French Laundry is on my bucket list (I will go one day!). In the meantime, it was fun to live vicariously through Bruni when he ate there as research for his four-star review of Thomas Keller’s NYC restaurant, Per Se. He makes it sound better than I even imagined.