Thought for Food
BY Matthew Breen
August 05 2009 12:00 AM ET
Dressed well but determined to call as little attention to himself as possible -- he even dons wigs and fake moustaches when necessary -- Frank Bruni enters a chic restaurant. He gives the hostess a bogus name. His dining companions have been instructed not to reveal their true identities. Aliases are assigned.
The group's members dine heartily, sampling as much of the menu as possible, testing their new personas on the service staff. Bruni periodically slips off to the restroom to text top secret messages or whisper surreptitiously into his mobile phone, careful not to be overheard. When the bill arrives Bruni already has passed a pseudonymous American Express card to a companion to give to the server as if it were her own. If there's a camera anywhere in the room, Bruni senses it and ducks out of sight.
Secretive as his work is, Bruni, 44, isn't an undercover agent. But as the New York Times restaurant critic, a post carefully scrutinized by the entire gastronomic world, he had a job that demanded extraordinary measures, and yet his carefully guarded anonymity was not the greatest of them. His work took him to grand restaurants and tiny diners, sampling haute and comfort cuisine, sometimes eating four or five dinners in a single evening, all in the city that prides itself on epic dining. But Bruni had a problem. A problem with food.
"It amazes me to this day that you'll hear people say, 'Oh, I've been so busy, I forgot to eat,' " he says, incredulous. "If you're the kind of person who is metaphorically born round, you never forget to eat."
Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-time Eater , Bruni's new memoir, traces his life through his defining relationship -- with his stomach. Throughout his youth and into his adulthood as an award-winning journalist, Bruni was a voracious eater plagued by his growing and shrinking waistline, half-baked fad diets, periods of bulimia, and popping amphetamines and laxatives, all the while looking for a magic bullet for weight control.
"I'm fully aware of when my last meal was and what I want my next meal to be," he says. "There are those of us who are just wired to obsess about food. If you're not in the tiny minority who are blessed with one of those amazing rid-you-of-all-sins metabolisms, you've got a challenge in your life."
His career led him to posts at the Detroit Free Press , the New York Post , and The New York Times ; he worked in Washington, D.C., as well as Detroit and New York, and, for a time, on the road. "Some of the compulsive feasts that I would stage at night alone at home bore little relation to hunger," Bruni says. "They resembled nothing so much as a drug addict's nose dive into his or her drug of choice."
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