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I (heart) Frank Bruni: A Book Review September 9, 2010

I just finished reading Frank Bruni’s memoir, Born Round. When I got to the last page I was a little choked up, feeling like I’d found a real kindred spirit. He’s like another Foodie McBody! Someone who loves and appreciates food, AND who wants to be healthy and fit. I know so many fit people who truly seem unmoved by food, or who see it purely as fuel (and not so much as a source of pleasure) OR as the Enemy. Anybody who knows me knows that I am constantly striving to find ways to have my (cup)cake and eat it too. And of course I also know the foodies who turn a blind eye to fitness or health. Please, can’t I have both?

Enter Frank! OMG. For the first (more than?) half of the book, we follow him through his childhood, where he is a ravenous toddler, and then a huge eater at family feasts orchestrated by his mother and grandmother. The descriptions of the incredible food-a-paloozas were enough to make me faint. Pasta! Italian food! Roast turkey! Frites! (fried stuffed yummy things)

And there’s Frank, simultaneously loving all the food and mortified by his plumpness. And I’m nodding like one of those dashboard bobblehead doggies with its head on a spring. Sigh.

I followed, completely rapt, while Frank joins the swim team and slims down, then joins up with his mother on endless diets (Atkins! I did that one with my dad, back in the 70s), back and forth, back and forth. Ultimately it gets into some pretty dark territory, of bulimia and then bingeing.

It’s a classic tale of Too Much of a Good Thing, when something turns and then doesn’t feel so good anymore. And I feel like I am constantly trying to find that balance. I still want food to be a Good Thing. And it is, until it isn’t. I don’t ever want to fear food or not enjoy it. So it was kind of awe-inspiring and very happy making to read about Frank’s ultimate challenge and job: to be the food critic for the New York Times. How could he manage to eat out 7-8 times a week, at amazing multi-star restaurants, and stay fit and healthy?

Exercise. Of course. Lots of exercise. And portion control. Right? Of course that’s the key. Calories in, calories out. I loved reading about Frank’s bootcampish trainer, Aaron, who sounds like a much meaner version of my own trainer. I was intrigued by his description of Pilates. It was fun following Frank on his transformation from couch-potato-dom to athlete.

The writing in this book is fantastic. Funny, poignant, honest, real. I laughed out loud a LOT, and also cringed and wiped a tear or two. And there was a crazy moment of recognition, much like when I read Kate Moses’ Cakewalk and remembered that I ALSO bit the toes off of rubber alligators from Disneyland (WHAT??? Really!). Maybe not quite as bizarre, but like Frank Bruni, I also had a mad love for cold noodles with sesame paste, something I’d long forgotten (I can’t find this stuff in San Francisco). I used to be obsessssssssssed with those cold noodles when I lived in New York, and my favorite spot was this teeny tiny hole-in-the-wall called OMei in NY’s Chinatown. My friend used to bring me those as a special treat after I moved away. It’s been so many years since I’ve had those noodles, and… sigh. Reading this book brought it all back. (Frank! if you or anybody else knows where I can find these noodles in San Francisco, pleeeeeeeeeease tell me!)

Anyway. Back to the book. I loved it. For someone who loves both Top Chef AND The Biggest Loser, it really spoke to my heart (and my taste buds?).  It made me feel like I had company, in the best way. And after I read it, Frank Bruni joined the ranks of my invisible fit-foodie-community. I finished the book on Monday and in the evening, I was contemplating going out to the cemetery to work out. But it was a Holiday. And I was tired. Suddenly, the voice of Frank’s trainer Aaron popped into my head. “Don’t be a wimpy quitter!” I went out there and did 3.5 miles, and added on 50 pushups and 480 stairs. Then I came home and looked for something really, reallllllllly good to eat.

 

Book Review: Cakewalk May 31, 2010

What business does a diabetic Weight Watchers leader have reading a book that is so filled with butter and chocolate and sugar that it almosts wafts from the pages? I don’t know, but I do know that I could barely put this book down. Thank goodness for the ankle injury and the 3-day weekend that allowed me to finish  it this morning.

I loved this book, Cakewalk, by Kate Moses. I LOVED THIS BOOK so much. It’s going on my Top Ten list. And for people who have seen my house and my miles of bookshelves, you’ll know this is saying a lot.

Where do I begin? Well, for one I loved it because it brought my childhood back to me, and in the sensual food-memory way that the madeleine brought Proust back to his. Only it wasn’t anything as delicate and refined as a fancy French cookie, it was her unabashed love for 1960s junk food that made my heart beat faster. And it was the way that she described the Ding Dongs and the Baby Ruths without an ounce of embarrassment or remorse: just, this is what we ate, and it gave us pleasure. She loved the badger Frances books like I did, and especially for the food descriptions: not only the bread and jam, but also ode she sings to Lorna Doone cookies.

Kate Moses is roughly the same age as I am, so reading this book was like a tantalizing time-travel through my own life. It was shocking to squeak out, as I was reading, “Me too!” even down to a bizarre coincidence involving rubber alligator toes. Reading this book was in so many ways like a channeling of my own life.

Each chapter of the book chronicles a different era of Moses’ life, her annual moves to yet another new state, new town, new school. Early on she learns to use her baking skills as a way of making friends, or of comforting herself through some new familial trauma (and there are some doozies). Every chapter ends with some amazingly droolworthy recipe: Chocolate cake, homemade It’s-Its, homemade pink and white animal shortbread cookies (which she brought in a basket to her reading: SO delicious! and exquisite), pecan birthday cake and jam tarts. I swooned and sighed over all of these recipes. (um, except the moose turd “candies”)

Although she mentions being called “fat” by her classmates in a particularly poignant fourth-grade chapter, she doesn’t dwell on this. It’s not about that.  So many memoirs of overweight childhoods are drenched in shame and guilt, and this book was refreshingly free of guilt. Which I appreciated so much.  It’s about an often terribly painful and confusing, chaotic childhood and youth that is sweetened and soothed by the pleasure of food. It’s about food as a means of connection and community. It’s about becoming a writer, which made my heart pound as much as the cake recipes. It’s a moving chronicle of family and how people change and don’t change, about forgiveness and honesty and redemption. The writing is so, so, good, and I found myself sighing over individual sentences and paragraphs. Like this:

…we bought boxes and boxes of donuts, baker’s dozens, all different flavors. Then we drove up and down the empty streets for hours, fast past the houses of everyone we knew, past our own, all night long, in our high heels and our new high-school graduate outfits, the convertible top down and our hair flying loose and tangling across our faces, eating just one bite of each donut before flinging the rest out of the car. When there were no more donuts, we reached for our silky blue graduation gowns, pulling them out from where we’d tucked them, and we threw them out, too, letting them catch in the wind we were speeding through, sailing them out into the bright lasting night, the northern lights spraying ribbons of color above us, waving like handkerchiefs as the ship leaves its anchorage.

 

 
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