My News and Thoughts
Another Reader Shares A History of Struggle with Eating and Weight
Nancy Newman, a reader from Minneapolis, Minn., sent me this account, along with her permission to attach her name to them. She said they appeared in slightly different form in a magazine called Woman in 1984:
"It still seems like a miracle. For 45 years I was a woman who believed that only a miracle could release me from my physical and emotional bondage to food. I can still recall the pain, the anger, the sobbing prayers, the hopeless desolation. Today--ten years later--it's just a memory.
I was a closet eater. No one ever saw me "pig out"....they saw a disciplined dieter, a model of good eating. My family did know that I used the technique called T & S (Taste & Spit), but I always did the spitting out of sight. Today I realize how close that was to bulimia. I was never what anyone would call fat -- 20 pounds overweight at most. But I fought a war with food; I both hated and loved it. I was the classic, white-knuckled dieter who'd starve and binge, starve and binge. Only those closest to me knew I had a problem. The comment I heard most often, "You don't have to worry about food...you're so lucky, you're so thin," made me wince, thought I worked to maintain that image. But in private I struggled and suffered wile my whole life focused on food.
My weight yo yo'd--up 10 pounds, down 5, up 15--so regularly that I marveled at friends who bought off-season clothes on sale: how could they assume those clothes would fit when the next season arrived? I had my fat clothes, my thin clothes, and my somewhere-in-between clothes. And always, there was the one pair of jeans that represented victory whenever I could get into them. They were the measuring stick of my success.
Today I'm free, released from the bondage of food, yet free to enjoy it. And enjoy it I do ... even more than before.
There was no sudden turning point, no magic solution, no single, absolute answer. I discovered a few significant principles and began practicing some small behavior changes, and the combination added up to success. With the passionate hope that my experience may touch a nerve in someone else's tender psyche, I'll share that experience.
I had begun by tentatively trying some behavior modification techniques: eating slowly, putting my fork down between bites, and not eating between meals--but also not letting too many hours elapse before eating so that my body didn't go into starvation mode. It amazed me how those simple changes helped. At the same time an awareness was growing that a fear of food was the core of my problem. I was afraid to eat a forbidden food for fear I'd lose all control and go "hog wild" (an apt phrase, I now realize). I began to see that "forbidden" translated into "desirable." When foods were forbidden I fantasized about them; if I knew I could have them, they didn't seem so important. So a larger awareness grew: I CAN EAT ANYTHING I WANT! The trick would be to eat in reasonable and limited quantities.
Glowing with hope, I dared one day to accompany a friend to an Italian restaurant, tossing aside my belief that all pasta is fattening and forbidden to dieters. Halfway through a plate piledhigh with spaghetti, I suddenly felt uncomfortably full. Old feelings from my diet mentality returned in a flash: How could I leave the spaghetti uneaten? And how could I leave on my plate that which I'd paid for? Two thoughts--maybe they were the miracles--crept into my mind: The price I'd paid was for a meal that would satisfy me, not for a given amount. If I was now physically satisfied, hadn't I gotten my money's worth? I also asked myself, "Is there a law that says I can never eat spaghetti again?
The realization struck me that I could eat spaghetti again tomorrow if I liked.
I left the plate half full and passed a milestone. (Today my frugality would probably cause me to ask for a doggy bag!)
I began to think more in terms of choices. Since I truly could have anything I wanted, I'd choose for reasons other than availabilityy..No longer did I need to think, "I'll eat it all now, and tomorrow I'll diet." No more of the thinking that says, "Today I've been bad, but tomorrow I'll be good." I began to relax with food instead of fighting it. I began to lose the fear that just tasting something would send me crashing into gluttony. A bit of one cookie wouldn't inevitably lead to the gorging of a dozen. The fear had always created the fact and had become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
A second discovery--embarrassingly obvious--was that the lingering taste of a food in my mouth was what made me crave more of it. If so,the simple and also obvious answer was to get rid of the taste, by rinsing my mouth or brushing my teeth. But as dieters everywhere will quickly respond, "Where do you get the will power or even the desire to stop stuffing the food long enough to do either of those things? I want to eat more."
Fair enough. But consider this: You will always want more unless you continue stuffing till you are completely gorged or physically sick. You can indeed choose to do either. But if you decide that is not what you want, you're left with the question, "Where do I stop?" The answer is to decide logically where that point will be, recognizing that there is no point at which the taste won't continue to lure you. Therefore, make the decision: one bite or three bites or one cup or whatever. And then stop. Go brush your teeth. Recognize that there is no point at which you will not want more, so why not stop at the point that leaves you feeling good about yourself? Make sense?
There are many techniques I practice which are supports in the lifelong eating style I'm building. I eat only when I'm hungry and only till I'm comfortable full. I eat slowly...the amount of food seems greater because it lasts longer. Though I now choose foods primarily for their health value, which means I include some that I accept but don't quite love, I make sure that every meal includes some food that I really look forward to. If a meal has nothing I can anticipate with pleasure, it may satisfy me physically but certainly not emotionally.
A word about exercise: The word is "essential." There is reliable evidence that our appetite control centers do not function properly when our bodies are sedentary, that exercise helps us control our appetites more easily. How has that affected me? Aside from the other wonderful benefits I get from exercise--increased energy, aerobic fitness, and just "feeling good"--there is the simple fact that I can eat more. Not a lot. But enough to allow the extras that keep my diet from seeming spartan.
The word "diet" has a new meaning for me. It no longer means something I go"on" and therefore inevitably go "off." It mean "the food I eat, day in and day out." I still love food. But now food is in its proper place in my life, and I'm in control and not it.
That's the end of the story, but here's the epilogue and the response to your book. I am now 81 years old and have had many physical problems, from cancer and chemotherapy to hip replacements and shoulder repair, but I still consider myself healthy. My physical activity is not what it was 25 years ago, but I walk a lot, ride my bike, snowshoe, and do yoga exercises. It's not always pretty but it's fun! And I'm 5'5" and weigh 117 lbs. so you can see I'm still having a happy relationship with food."
A Note from a Reader on the Diet Treadmill
A year and a half after "Born Round" first came out, I still get at least an email a week from a reader who saw much of herself or himself in the book's depiction of a person struggling with appetite, food compulsions, food neuroses and body image. Here's one that came in this week, from a young woman who expressly said, at the end of the email, that I was welcome to post her comments, without her name, on this site.
(A side note: 95 percent of the emails I mention are from heterosexual women or gay men. Why is that? I'll offer some thoughts in a future post, but if you have your own and want to email them to me at AFrankJr@gmail.com, for subsequent posting in this space, please do. Just let me know whether you want your name attached to what you've written or not.)
Here's the email I got this week:
"I just reluctantly finished Born Round, after days of sneaking a read whenever I could. Mostly, and somewhat fittingly, I read your book during my daily gym routine of an hour on the elliptical. I have to admit that I am not a fan of memoirs, by and large --- generally, I find them self-serving and indulgent. But I learned so much, about myself and about food, from your book that I feel compelled to send a letter of thanks.
Surely you've received dozens of e-mails along this line, but I am also struggling with a substantial set of "food neuroses," as I've come to title them. Since I was 10 I've been on a diet --- initially Weight Watchers, though after several years the point-counting system morphed into a more calorie-focused mental log. Exercise has been a daily ritual for nearly four years now, my workouts growing in intensity as I grow older. I "experimented" (rather poorly) with more extreme weight-loss solutions like food deprivation and throwing up, with no real success. Mostly, I think those digressions were about seeking control and monitoring particularly stressful or indulgent eating circumstances, rather than looking for a get-thin-fast approach.
By and large I eat a healthy diet, but am constantly and perpetually haunted by concerns about what my next meal will entail (or more accurately, what sinful foods it WON'T entail). As a food writer myself, your debate about taking on the restaurant critic job rang true. Not only do I struggle with how to eat well and pleasurably while fighting off the anti-food demons in my head --- I also feel guilty and hypocritical about the joyful tone of my writing. Only I can know how that joy is dampened by a hasty attempt to avoid all but the vegetables on my plate, and quickly calculate the caloric damage of a meal, and how many hours of cardio will set my waist at ease. Or perhaps, you know this feeling as well.
A newfound, intense relationship has made me take a hard look at my food neuroses - but they fail to recede. Surely you know the jealous pains associated with watching a perfectly at-ease, healthy man scarf down whatever food is in sight, no matter the hour of day or proximity to the next meal. I feel myself growing anxious whenever an unplanned snack or meal in his company is approaching, worrying that that morning's exercise doesn't justify a late-night snack (even if just an apple, as I generally permit myself). I worry that he will unearth my fears, or that they will come to an unpleasant head one day, bubbling over as I snap at him for no reason better than my own insecurities. All I can hope is that he loves me enough to understand, rather than to dismiss my anxieties as superficial, misguided angst.
Thank you for putting your struggles into words more eloquent than I could ever manage. Thank you for allowing me to have some insight into myself, at a time so crucial in my personal and romantic development. As I juggle the college lifestyle with freelance writing and trying to keep up a thin figure, I often feel like I am floundering with no kindred spirit to provide advice. Now I can turn to your words as a friend when I am feeling particularly fat, particularly lonely, or particularly full of redemptive spirit."
More Interesting Reader Response
Although I get at least one message like this a week, and sometimes as many as three, I sometimes don't have explicit permission from the message's author to post it, or I'm sometimes too tied up in other work obligations to do so. Luckily, this following message's author made clear that I could share her story, and it came to me on a week when I had a second to transfer that story to this public space.
I make it available to you for the same reason she made it available to me, and for the same reason other such messages are here: in other people's stories of their struggles with eating, weight and body image, we find some comfort, some encouragement to keep working to make ourselves better and a community of sorts.
"Dear Mr. Bruni,
Thanks to a full-time job, small freelance positions, and a deep commitment to a long distance relationship, I hadn’t read a book since the summer of 2009—a choice I didn’t necessarily make, but rather it just happened. A former English major, this is the longest dry spell I’ve ever been through. For some reason, no one ever tells you that 23 is intense and chaotic, though I’ve found hard work and tremendous tenacity yields moderately rewarding experiences. At any rate, I picked up my first two books in over a year over this past Labor Day weekend—two beautiful memoirs about coming of age with some sort of mental debilitation. They were John Elder Robison’s Look me in the Eye and your own exploration of adolescence, family, friends, ingestion, and mental maturation.
"I wanted to genuinely thank you, Mr. Bruni. To be honest, I came to my own conclusions about my relationship with food just recently, without any actual help from you or your book; but your writing—the elegant prose and quirky anecdotes that recall struggles similar to my own served as much needed confirmation that I’m not alone in this over-indulgent world. Yes, you can suffer from an eating disorder of the mind and test your own “food science” and obscure theories without formally not eating; yes, you can feel an extreme disjoint between your brain and your stomach; and yes, although you never become unaware of a partially great, albeit partially awkward, relationship with food, you can return to a sense of normalcy. All of this, as you write, takes both care and candor. But you know this already.
"Like you, I come from a family who appreciated food long before Dunkin Donuts became ultra calorie-cognizant. I like to think that my only true affiliation with my Jewish heritage is my appreciation for holiday meals equally for the company and for the cuisine. My greatest memories? Fall evenings when my dad returned home from work at his small-town chocolate store just five minutes from the house, promptly at 6:00, when my mom would serve my (much) older brothers and I golden chicken cutlets—meagerly blotted of their oils—and a hefty bowl of bow-tie pasta with Canadian bacon (bad Jews, I know) and pine nuts. Winters when my mom figured out how to continue to barbeque succulent sirloins from the butcher shop of my favorite restaurant, Bryant & Cooper—my preference over Peter Lugers for the simplicity of the salt-and-pepper seasoning and their exclusion of a cloying butter glaze. Even I had my limits. Butter on beef was one of them.
"During my middle school years I truly believed that the higher the calorie count, the better, if only to piss off my home-economics teacher who practically fainted when we were told to bring in the box of our typical breakfast to learn about nutrition. She scorned me for using two packs of frosting atop a single cinnamon roll, though I wasn’t sure what was so horrible about 700 calories a serving at the time. I was a growing girl! Plus (and I’ll give you a preemptive warning and request that you don’t slap me for this) I was skinny. A twig of a girl growing up, thanks to my family’s speedy metabolism.
"And we were lucky—because, while other indulgences didn’t trail far behind, chocolate was my weakness, of which we had an endless supply at all times. My dad is the 3rd generation of a 4th generation chocolate store, my brothers representing the latter era. So sugar was just part of my blood. Nut patties, dollops of fresh and homemade caramel, radioactively green marzipan enveloped in both milk and dark chocolate—I was impartial to what or how much I ate. For a while, it didn’t matter either.
"It wasn’t until I hit the years in which women inevitably grow out instead of up that I recognized the possibilities of weight gain. The outcome wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great. While I’m not sure I have the capacity to quite balloon out, I could look great, or I could veer to the mushy side. College, with the delicious offerings of Ann Arbor, like craft beer, deep fried breakfast potatoes, post-football burritos, and, oh yeah, late night chicken ziti rolls to cure the drunk munchies, I certainly got mushy. The typical freshman 15, no doubt. The next four years would be a struggle to figure out how to find balance, and living abroad in Prague for four months, frequenting fried cheese sandwiches and pork knuckle, didn’t help.
"Ten pounds chunkier than healthy and twenty pounds beyond what I ideally wanted to be, I embarked on a journey I wasn’t prepared for. It lasted from the summer of my Junior year until I graduated, and it happened during a time that also entailed a terrible break up from a boyfriend/best friend, the loss of a close friend’s mom to breast cancer, and the daunting task of graduating and finding a job in this economically depressed city. I was sent into a whirlwind of consumption contemplations, because weight was something I needed to control. I should add that my mom and brother have ulcerative colitis, the Eastern European stomach affiliation which causes severe weight loss. Was it wrong to compare myself with the sickly-thin?
"Without boring you with too much detail and sounding like every other girl striving for a svelte figure, I can sum it up with the message I tried to relay in a personal essay I wrote for my English class during Senior year. I was unhappy with myself. The ultimate representation of myself is and always will be my body, which I had a rapidly deteriorating relationship with. But ultimately, I wasn’t starving for food—I was starving for stability.
"When life spirals out of control, I think that the most insightful of individuals are able to at some point find a clearing—a space in time when you can look down upon yourself and reflect. In so many ways, running was just this. It was, I like to think, a mix of endorphins and the chance to be alone with myself in nature, in the city, with music, in silence. It was my time, not anyone else’s. Beginning with a mile or two at first, I didn’t see any changes. One affliction women suffer is that it takes an enormous effort to drop five pounds, let alone ten or fifteen, whereas a guy can switch to Bud Light and run for the bus and drop a pant size. You saw it yourself—you could fluctuate somewhat easily if you put your mind to it. I started with coming up with my own comparable ideas about food, and how to eat it in order to lose weight. I tried things (though I hate the word things, I’m using it to refer to much of what you talked about) I’m ashamed of, though it didn’t last long. I now run between 3-6 miles, 5 days a week whether the air is humid or frozen. I do yoga. It’s my time, and it proved worth it in the end. I found mental and physical stability in just an hour a day.
"Like you conclude, there are relapses. There are self-doubts. There are good days, and then there are not-so-good days. To me, the strongest person can simply recognize this and admit to both the positive and negative, the good and the bad. It’s about awareness more than anything, which is why I have permanently iked on my hand as a reminder the Yiddish words ich bin, which translates to “I am.” You can fill in the blank from there in an effort to be mindful of every decision in life. You can be happy, tired, fat, skinny, purple, if that’s what you choose. Just be it, and be it really well.
"Your book, your writing, and your story unequivocally helped me not to close a chapter of my life but to reflect on it enormously."
A Reader with Similar Roots, and a Similar Struggle
After too much time away from this blog and updated Journal posts, I share this recent reaction to the book from a reader. Her Italian-American upbringing echoes my own in so many ways, and was fun for me to read, as I hope it will be for you, too.
More important, her eventual approach to weight-management -- portion control, plus using vigorous exercise as a down payment on culinary indulgence --- is one that has at times worked for me, and that I heartily endorse.
Without further ado, here's what the reader wrote, saying I was free to share it with you:
"First, the parts about your parents and family history really made me laugh
at times because there are so many similarities. My parents and family are also from the region of Puglia. They grew up in Molfetta and moved to northern NJ in the 70s. Food was, and still is, a big part of our lives, the cornerstone of any holiday, celebration, even a short, impromptu visit! Not only is there an abundance, but it's all so delicious. My grandmother has tried to teach me how to make strascinati, but I could never really get the technique down.
"We also make fritelle on Christmas Eve. They're these little pockets of deep fried dough filled with mozzarella and tomato or this awesome onion-mortadella filling. It sounds very similar to the frits you referred to. They're awesome. It's become quite a production with my family because all of my cousins, my sister and I help. We gather early in the day at either my mom's house or my aunt's house (they take turns hosting duties each year) and we get a little assembly line going. My aunt also has a basement kitchen where all of the cooking is done. The one upstairs is simply for basic assembly and some plating. It's also next to the sitting area that has the "good" couches and furniture from Italy (you know with the claws, floral fabric, crazy carvings,etc) we were never allowed to sit on or play near when we were little.
"I have also struggled with my weight. Since I was little, I was always chubby. I played sports and was pretty active, but I also ate a lot. Through my high school and college years I tried to lose some weight here and there. I even gave the South Beach diet a try before the lack of carbs got to me. But I never saw myself as overweight. I saw other girls watching what they ate, etc but I simply concluded I was different, could eat whatever I want and still look good, I was just curvy and proud of it!
"On my 25th birthday, everything seemed to change. It was probably building up before then - an unflattering picture or two would get to me and I would resolve to eat better for at least the next few days. But all of a sudden I just didn't like what I saw in the mirror anymore. Nothing fit right, my face was round, and my butt was too big. I woke early up on a following Saturday and decided to start walking. That following week I joined Sparkpeople, a free site to help lose weight and stay fit.
"Walking on the weekends quickly turned into running and working out on a regular basis. Soon the pounds started coming off and I completed some local 5ks. A little over 2 years later I've lost about 50 lbs and 5 dress sizes and have kept it off for over a year now. I love to work out and challenge myself. I work out with a personal trainer and she really helps me stay accountable. I'm also training for a half-marathon in November.
"When I first started my journey to lose weight, I made a deal with myself. I'm not going to give up the foods I love, instead I'm just going to try to take some control over what I ate and how much of it I ate. This part was so important to me since food has been such a big part of my life. I love cheese and sweets too much to just turn my back on it. I basically still eat what I want, but in moderation. But in order to do so, I know that I have to give 100 (sometimes 110) percent when I work out. Some days, I plan out my long runs to end close to a local bakery for one of their delicious scones and a coffee.
"That's basically my story."
What to Do with a Ravenous Kid?
A mother who is apparently familiar with my story, perhaps because she read "Born Round," recently wrote:
"My seven-year-old son eats constantly. He is growing (out as well as up) but, to be honest, he just loves food. I dont want to give him a complex but what do you do when he is begging for a snack 30 minutes after supper? What could your mom have done differently, if anything, to ward off your eating?"
Because a lot of parents face the challenge of a child who eats too much and is gaining weight in a way that's unhealthy and could wind up causing the child unhappiness, I thought I'd share much of my response to her:
"I don't know that one answer fits all, or what would have been better for me . . . You could tell him that you feel bad that he's hungry so soon after dinner, and suggest he eat a bigger dinner to avoid that, and then make the expanded portion of the dinner something relatively healthier and lower in calories than the snack would be.
"You could tell him in a very non-appearance-related, non-judgmental, flat tone that you think that so much snacking isn't 'healthy,' without using the word 'fat,' and say that in your interest to encourage healthier eating, you'd like to strike a deal with him whereby if he wants a snack within two hours of the end of a meal, it has to be x, y or z: stuff that doesn't include ice cream, cookies, etc.
"What I think you must NOT do is ban those things from his life entirely and demonize them. You can try to make clear that this isn't about the intrinsic evil of those foods or about their caloric load; it's about the importance of balanced, healthy eating. I think language is key, and it's vital to frame the goal as healthier eating, not eating that will avoid excess pounds and help him look better per se.
"We're such an appearance-conscious society that whenever anything gets framed in terms of staying slim or staying attractive, then the impulses prodding us toward actions in conflict with thinness and conventional physical beauty get suffused with so much anxiety that we can go off the rails.
"Beyond all of that, are you setting an example for him by not snacking a lot yourself, by exercising with apparent enthusiasm and enjoyment, etc? And, without making your home an ascetic, fraught environment that makes him crave 'forbidden' foods even MORE, are you making sure there's a preponderance of healthy alternatives around? It stands to reason--and experts say--that children emulate their parents' eating and dieting and exercising behavior as they do so much else. My story suggests that: Mom's eating adjustments were often odd rituals and fad diets. And thus mine were too."
I want to add a few quick things that, in my hurry to make sure I sent her a response before getting sidetracked by other tasks, I didn't put in.
She notes that at 7, he clearly loves food, really loves it. I'm assuming she means in part that he has a big appetite, but also that food exerts a sort of special pull on him. If that's so, I wonder--an open question--if making food a BIGGER part of his life, and not in terms of quantity, might be constructive. Let me explain: I found that when I started writing about food as a critic and hunting down the best this, that and the other, it was a bit easier (though still not easy!) to restrain the sheer volume of my eating than in the past, because I'd channeled my food obsessions in a different direction. I was fixated on food quality, food adventures, etc. Discernment replaced a purer, more banal gluttony, and in that way, I think I moved a bit closer to the Western European attitude about, and approach to, food. As I describe in "Born Round," it helped that I turned this corner in large part while living in Italy and observing how quality trumped quantity there.
Can that logic and dynamic be applied to a child? If a food-fixated kid is encouraged to help shop for the food and cook the food and try this and that and the other, can the "one more cookie please please please" requests be diminished?
The Lure of Food TV
At drinks with a friend the other night, the subject of "Top Chef" and other food television came up, and he remarked that his early twentysomething sons watch more than a few cooking programs, as do many of their friends. He'd overheard the discussions that attested to that. But none of these young men, he said, were home cooks. Nor did they seem to aspire to be. They just like the programs, and not solely the ones, like "Top Chef" and its imitators, that have elimination-competition suspense built into them. They like more straightforward cooking demonstrations, too.
That shouldn't really be surprising. The proliferation of food television suggests that its audience is not only huge but also varied; otherwise, there wouldn't be such a vigorous push to conceive and distribute so many food-related programs on the Food Network and on its relatively new spawn, the Cooking Channel, and on Fox (Gordon Ramsay screams some more!) and on Bravo and, well, I could keep going like this for several paragraphs. It now seems that at any hour on any day, you can choose between a half dozen shows that will let you admire (or gasp) at someone's culinary efforts and ogle the food he or she produces.
But how many of the people doing the admiring, gasping and ogling like to cook, dream of cooking or want to know more about the mechanics of cooking?
Even if it's a majority, that still leaves a lot of non-cooks in the audience. What prompts THEM to tune into food television?
My friend has a theory I find interesting. He wonders if there's a sort of broad cultural nostalgia at work. By that he means: as fewer and fewer young people know the much-talked-about ideal of home-cooked meals and of families gathering at the table at night to eat them, do the glossy, dreamy culinary demonstrations on TV tap into, and satisfy, a kind of curiosity and longing? For these young people, does the televised cooking have the appeal of a missive from a lost Utopia? Is it like an artifact from a bygone era?
The lifestyle porn of food television is more often discussed in terms of aspiration: would-be home cooks with limited budgets and time watch Martha and Ina and Giada go through their fluid, calm, dexterous paces and fantasize that they can or someday will do the same. But for younger viewers, is this same lifestyle porn more of a "Little House on the Prarie" or "Leave it to Beaver" experience?
As my friend was laying out this theory for me, I remembered a conversation a year ago with a recent college grad working for a glossy men's magazine. He wasn't a big home cook. He wasn't a big restaurant goer. He didn't have the money to make those things happen, and beyond that, his culinary curiosity wasn't all that keen.
But he was a committed fan of "The Barefoot Contessa" on TV. Why? He just loved Ina's kitchen. He just loved the idea that he was in there, with her, watching her cook, presumably for him. It pleased him. Lulled him.
This leads me to one of my own theories about the popularity of food television among those who don't cook. When many people turn on the television set, as opposed to picking up a book or doing something more interactive, they're looking for a passive, mind-resting experience. They want something that doesn't require close attention, the way a twisty plot might. Something akin to visual music. Something ambient, in a way.
Much food television gives them that. It's a banquet of colorful, seductive and familiar images, presented rhythmically, with a soundtrack of oohs and aahs.
I don't watch a lot of it, but when I do happen to turn to a cooking program and then get distracted, I sometimes lose any active awareness of it and don't even remember, for hours, that it or the cooking programs that follow it are on. I don't change the channel. I sit at the nearby computer while, just 12 feet away, chops are being grilled and vegetables sauteed and potatoes mashed. Is this footage not so much exhorting me to the stove or priming my appetite but, in some corner of my brain, simply putting me at peace?
Weekend Reading, Weekend Eating
Did you catch the front page story in the New York Times on Saturday about Thomas' English muffins?
On the surface, it was a tale of corporate secrets and intrigue, and a good tale at that. But what I loved about it--and why I bring it up--is that it was also an affirmation that a very particular aspect of an otherwise ordinary food can make it magical, irresistible, addictive. It showed how much the details count, and how specifically and painstakingly the details are sometimes achieved: exact dough composition, exact baking temperature, etc., etc.
In other words it was a tribute to food obsessiveness, in terms of both the making and the eating. (Here's a link to the story, by the way, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/07/business/07muffin.html)
I've always liked Thomas' muffins, and I've liked them for those very nooks and crannies that their maker lords over rival muffin manufacturers. (The Times story was about how carefully the Thomas' folks guard the recipe that gives rise to the nooks and crannies.) Can the topography of a muffin half really matter so much? Oh yes. It makes the textural experience of a toasted Thomas' unique, but more than that it governs an uneven butter distribution that's the real clincher. Butter spread on a hot Thomas' muffin slides down a jagged edge and gathers in what looks like a minuscule tidal pool, and when your bite takes in that pool, you get a rush of liquid richness more intense than you'd expected. The decadence takes you by delicious surprise.
Am I mooning too much over a mass-market muffin? Maybe. But it's probably good to remember, at a time when we're exalting all things artisanal, that "mass-market" isn't always and necessarily awful. At least not from a gustatory (as opposed to ethical) perspective. Like Hellman's mayo and Heinz ketchup, Thomas' muffins are mighty impressive for what they are. And like Hellman's and Heinz, they engender fierce, fierce loyalty. That was one of my thoughts as I read the Times piece, and it was another prompt for this post.
The tight lid that the makers of Thomas' muffins keep over the recipe and production process reflects the tight allegiances that we as eaters form with our preferred foods. When I was a kid, if one of my brothers or my sister or my father opened the bread drawer in the morning to discover that my mother had for some reason purchased an English muffin other than Thomas', a groan went up. Maybe even a wail. A hope had been dashed; an anticipation of a particular and dependable pleasure had gone unrewarded. And in the Bruni family, no letdown was as painful as a food letdown.
Speaking of letdowns, I had a lobster roll over the weekend. I was by the sea, and there were seafood shacks lining the road, and it seemed criminal not to stop at one at some point and have both a lobster roll and some fried clams.
The fried clams were fine, mainly because they weren't strips, but rather whole clams, bellies included. Belly inclusion is crucial. (Can I get that stitched onto a throw pillow?)
The lobster roll, though, was a bust. Instead of chunks of lobster meat, there were thin, stringy strands of it: it had been shredded, more or less, before being mixed with similarly shredded cabbage and celery and the like. The result was a braid-cum-mash that made it impossible, visually, to see exactly how much lobster was there. (That was the goal and point, I think.)
As I registered the lobster roll's general blandness, I realized that two out of three times, I regret getting a lobster roll, and that the lobster roll, like the street-vendor pretzel, is one of those foods that's usually more pleasurable in theory than in practice. The idea of the lobster roll most often trumps the reality of the lobster roll.
Those of us who love great lobster and have tried at least a few dozen lobster rolls in our lives have eaten some sublime ones, with tender HUNKS of flavorful lobster meat that weren't diluted with too much dressing, too many sidekicks. We got lobster, glorious lobster, without work, in big mouthfuls. And the memory of that keeps us going back for more.
But the serendipitous lobster roll, ordered and chosen at a random place, without prior research or reliable recommendations from discerning friends, typically disappoints. And it disappoints at a high price point: insult upon injury. It's as if many purveyors of lobster rolls figure that a smattering of lobster, a buttery roll/bun and an iconic phrase are enough. No real effort or merit necessary.
The fried clam, in contrast, never bums me out as much. It's cheaper. And whatever else it does or doesn't have going for it, it's fried.
At lunch today in a run-of-the-mill Midtown restaurant, a bread basket was placed on the table, as a bread basket so often is. It wasn't especially tempting: maybe six objects in all, most in the focaccia family.
I laid waste to four of them.
When will I learn? I've advised fellow weight watchers to send the bread basket away, unless it truly seems to be one of the restaurant's points of pride and labors of love. I'm all for making an exception when there's a promise of extraordinary pleasure.
But most bread baskets are pretty ordinary. And they're magnets for absent-minded, gratuitous, nutritionally negligible eating. Like the kind I did at lunch.
For some of us, such eating is all but unavoidable, unless we construct and manipulate the circumstances around us so that it's indeed impossible. If there's no bread basket there's no reaching . . . no reaching again . . . no reaching again.
The bread basket is like the bowl of nuts on a bar: we dive into it, push it away, forgot we pushed it away, and the cycle repeats itself, ad infinitum. How familiar is this ritual? And how counterproductive? It's the essence of eating on auto pilot, without even wringing much enjoyment from the act. And eating without enjoyment is a spectacularly wasted opportunity.
In the wake of lunch I had to remind myself of that, as I have to remind myself all the time of the lessons learned during a life of intermittently compulsive eating. A lesson learned is not necessarily a correction made, not unless the lesson is remembered and revisited time and again.
Why did I lunge for the bread basket in the first place? Because I erred in another way I too often do: I ate nothing between 7 a.m., when I woke up, and 12:30 p.m. By the time food was in front of me, I was hungrier for it than I should have been.
I still skip breakfast too often, as was noted by several friends and strangers who emailed me after the New York magazine online food blog, Grub Street, published an account of six days of my eating. The link, which I think I also provided in an earlier post, is here: http://newyork.grubstreet.com/2010/07/frank_bruni_succumbs_to_heat-i.html.
I read it and thought: my eating over a day isn't as paced and measured as it should be.
The effort continues.
The Pull of Family
Usually I use this site and these posts to talk about food-related or weight-related matters.
But why not talk about family here?
The book is, in large measure, about that. Uh-oh. Should I use the words "large measure" in connection with "Born Round?" Is it a phrase too freighted and, um, weighty? Let's say the book is "in significant part" about family. That's better, safer.
I spent much of last weekend in Sunapee, N.H., where my older brother, Mark, and his wife, Lisa, have a house in the woods near the big lake. Lovely. But the setting wasn't the best part. The best part was, really, getting to know his three kids even better than I already do. They're 13, 11 and 9: little adults, almost. And I find myself pulled toward and invested in and protective of them in ways I can't even explain.
It's amazing, isn't it, the sort of primal tug one can feel toward family, at least--or especially--if one's experience of family has been a relatively positive one? It makes me understand tribalism, tribes being extra-large families of a kind.
The tug I'm talking about seems almost to be encoded in my genes or something. It feels that fundamental and visceral and automatic. I love the three little people my brother and his wife have produced, and I want the best for them. And, yes, maybe a big part of that is because I've been taught and conditioned to feel these feelings, by the rituals and the articulated values of my family through time. But that doesn't fully explain my sense of connection to them.
I certainly see their weaknesses, their faults. Sometimes they're very entertaining, but sometimes much less so. None of that shakes my commitment to them, which runs deeper than any of that, and which isn't, I'll shamefully admit, expressed through time spent with them. Six months can go by between our visits, though four is more likely. Doesn't matter. I'd be with them in an instant if one of them really needed that.
Where does that come from? And why does simply looking over at them as they watch the end of a Yankees game or as they take their last bites of dinner provide such gentle contentment?
I don't want or mean to romanticize family, which can make demands, be inconvenient, be disappointing. In a family acrimony bubbles up quickly and comes easily to a boil; injustices are perpetrated, feelings overlooked, insults inflicted.
Even so, there's a peace and a sense of belonging. There's a bond that transcends a moment's circumstances, and that doesn't even need to be nurtured much by physical contact or frequent communication.
The other day a cousin came over to my apartment for what was supposed to be a brief visit and for a specific purpose. She ended up staying for 90 minutes as we chatted, wine glasses in hand, with an ease and candor that suggested that these chats of ours happened all the time. In truth we hadn't talked like that in many, many years.
But she was family. I felt that in my very bones.
Asked and Answered, Part 2
When I meet restaurant lovers, New York Times readers and people familiar with my memoir, certain questions come up time and again. As I did in a post earlier this week, I'm reproducing some of those questions, along with my usual answers, so that they're more easily and widely accessible to anyone curious about these topics.
Q: In an era when critics are frequently recognized, are restaurant reviews as valid?
A: Yes, I think so. First off, critics have long been recognized. In big and sophisticated cities where the economic stakes are high and where restaurateurs are savvy, the major critics quickly become visually known. Restaurateurs will find a way. I remember, in my first months as the Times's critic, being gawked at by industry people who would walk into a place where I was dining, stand in the vestibule for a few minutes just for the purpose of laying eyes on me, and then leave. I learned through the grapevine that they had been alerted and summoned by the staff where I was eating, and they wanted to give themselves a better shot at spotting me should I ever walk through their front doors.
Bloggers' and industry people's ability to post and share photos on the Internet---and to take pictures surreptitiously with cell-phone cameras---have made it harder for critics to keep a low physical profile. That's certainly true. But critics can still, with pseudonyms and fake phone numbers and such, keep restaurants guessing about when they might come. And restaurants suddenly faced with a critic in the dining room can't change the menu instantly. They can't go shopping right then for better ingredients. They can't get a better service staff, or re-train the line cooks, etc., etc. While a recognized critic's portions may be slightly different from another person's, and while the kitchen may take special care with the order going to a critic's table, the fundamentals that make the restaurant great or mediocre remain in place. And while the service can get better for a critic, it can also get worse: hyper-solicitous, nervous, intrusive.
At the end of the night, a recognized critic still has plenty of insight into the merits of a restaurant. And the only way to have truly physically anonymous critics would be for publications to change critics every three to six months. There'd be no benefit to that. Readers wouldn't be able to figure out how a given critic mirrors or departs from their tastes, and the critic wouldn't develop the long-term frame of reference that helps him or her judge merit in the context of what has and hasn't been achieved in a given city.
Q: Where are you eating tonight?
A: In every city I visit, several people ask me this question, and it always makes me smile, because there's usually such a local-pride sweetness embedded in it. The questioner wants to hear that there's a local establishment I'm dying to try, or wants to know what about his or her city caught an outsider's eye.
But my answer, usually, is, "I don't know." Or, "Nowhere, really." And I mention that for the following reason: too often, those of us who swim deeply in the food culture of the moment give the impression that every dining choice made is a deeply considered one, that life is a series of carefully researched, freighted judgment calls about the content, and destination, of every single meal. But is life really lived that way? Can it ever be? Do any of us really have the time or energy (or budget) for that?
I know I don't. And as often as not, when I wrap up a day on the road around 9 p.m., I'm tired enough or eager enough for a solitary moment or interested enough in NOT thinking so hard about eating and food that I just get room service, or plop myself on a bar stool at a restaurant that I select spur-of-the-moment, or do something along those lines. I make a deliberate decision NOT to deliberate too much. I eat incidentally, serendipitously, in the service of basic nourishment, not epicurean enlightenment. I've never had a room-service burger I hated, maybe because I could never hate the indulgence of eating something in bed, with a bad TV rerun of some kind playing a few feet away, and with the knowledge that someone else has cleanup duties.
In fact, the reality of incidental, catch-as-catch-can eating was underscored for me when, at the request of the New York magazine Grub Street web site, I kept track of six days of eating. They debriefed me at the end of it. The results were published recently as part of their New York Diet series. Here they are: http://newyork.grubstreet.com/2010/07/frank_bruni_succumbs_to_heat-i.html
And they show a mix of thoughtful and thoughtless eating. Which is the mix I think most of us have in our lives.
That said, I tripped across a few memorable meals on the road. The relatively new restaurant Frances, in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco, is an American bistro of sorts that's cozy, that has a succinct and appealing menu of small and larger plates, that spotlights a very talented chef (Melissa Perello), and that has the best chickpea fritters I've ever tasted. In fact, I never loved chickpea fritters before: they always seemed to me like ostensibly virtuous but less satisfying alternatives to the thick-cut French fry. But the Frances fritters are somehow custardy on the inside, providing a textural contrast that no French fry could. Wow.
I was also struck anew by how much and how wonderfully coffee culture in this country has advanced over recent years, and by how the West Coast has led the way. In Portland, all around, were coffee alternatives to the big chains, places that had individual spirits, like Heart, where I had coffee between appointments one morning. And in San Francisco, the individually made cup of drip coffee I had at Blue Bottle was, seriously, one of the best cups of coffee I've ever had. I grew sad as I reached the bottom of the cup, the way I do when my dinner plate is almost clean. I didn't want the pleasure to end.
Q: Did you get a lot of interesting feedback, after "Born Round" was initially published, about being a man talking about disordered eating, which people more often associate with women?
A: All in all, the many book readers who sent me emails telling me they recognized their own troubled relationships with food in my story were more often women than men. But it wasn't a big disparity. And I did notice this: the men who wrote did so in a much more emotional vein, saying expressly that they have long felt isolated, in terms of how few men talk openly about their food and body-image problems.
But the more interesting---and, quite honestly, upsetting---reaction I got was from some people in the therapeutic community, who initially, upon hearing about the book, reached out to me, excited about the prospect of a new spokesperson for eating-disorder awareness. (Something, incidentally, I was neither volunteering, nor refusing, to be.) Once some of these people read the book, they pulled quickly back, upset that my story was of someone who got past the worst of his disordered behavior on his own, without a prolonged struggle and without therapy, and upset that I didn't write the words "eating disorder." One even said to me: "I'm worried about you. I don't think you've dealt with your issues at all." Another warned me of the hostile reaction I could count on getting from mental health professionals.
I was stunned. I hadn't been reaching out to, nor running away from, any particular group or orthodoxy. I hadn't consciously tried to use or tried NOT to use any particular language. I had written a memoir, a personal story, in the most personal and logical and (I hoped) compelling and readable language I could. And I could only portray and relate my own experience and truth; if that story didn't gibe with approved messages and lessons, then it simply didn't. It wasn't an attempt to contradict or challenge such messages and lessons. In fact, I think I probably SHOULD have spent some time in therapy earlier in my life. It might have saved me some grief. But the fact that I didn't undergo extensive therapy doesn't necessarily mean I haven't made progress and am in a dangerous place because of the omission.