Why He Was So, Well, Frank

By Corby Kummer

Every restaurant critic has different reasons for taking the job and different ways of doing it. Frank Bruni's way of doing it, we know. If the first duty of every critic is to make readers want to read a review start to finish, week after week I saw Bruni work hard to write compelling, structured narratives.

That isn't easy. Reviews are about restaurants and food, sure, and need to be useful guides. But they're also columns that take up space in a paper--space that was always contested and today is only getting scarcer. As a longtime Times veteran, Bruni knew just how contested that space was. And one of his best friends, mentioned frequently only by her first name in his new Born Round, is the extremely entertaining Maureen Dowd.

Bruni also came at criticism the way he came at every subject in a career that included covering the White House and all of Italy--as a reporter. His own first loyalty is clearly to the truth. This is an impulse different from many memoirists, who can be fabulists first: if a story is good, make it a little better. Sweeten it.

Born Round is the story of the complicated relationship Bruni had all through growing up and making his mark as a reporter with food, and the role food played in his loving, overabundant family and then in his largely lonely adulthood. He's honest about everything, and that honesty is often painful to read. He isn't afraid to make himself vulnerable, something that takes real courage to do--and isn't something reporters are obliged to do. Quite the reverse: truthful as they are expected to be about the world, reporters are seldom called on or expected to put themselves into a story.

Because that relationship was so painful for so much of his life--it included throwing up after meals for a brief time, taking amphetamines to control his appetite (standard, doctor-prescribed procedure in the 1960s and '70s), and eating to curb a loneliness that only grew as his weight did--early readers of the excerpts that appeared as a cover story last month in The New York Times Magazine assumed that the point of the book was to help others through similar eating disorders.

Nope, Bruni says in a surprisingly honest post. Sorry, scratch the surprising part: it's Bruni's entire impulse to be honest. And so he is about the reason he wrote the book and the process he went through of shaping the story and keeping the focus where he wanted it--on eating.

Eating, not food. If the first duty of every food critic is to keep readers reading, the second duty is to love eating. You do a lot of it, especially with a weekly deadline. And through all his troubles with his weight--troubles he came to terms with, mostly through self-control and exercise--Bruni loved to eat. It came through in his reviews, especially when the subject was red meat (I'm not sure I've ever read a critic who would go to the lengths Bruni did to get and judge good steaks--and, in his valedictory piece in the Times dining section, he said all his friends and guests wanted steak above all). It comes through in his new book. And in his article for us.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/08/why-he-was-so-well-frank/23689/