I thought -- I hoped -- I had an interesting, fresh perspective to offer on the kind of relationship some of us forge with food. There I was, eating professionally as the New York Times restaurant critic, exalting the glories of food, exhorting people to savor those glories, and yet there was a missing admission, an overlooked reality: many of us, and certainly me, have or have had a tough time figuring out how to enjoy food without being undone by it, without being tyrannized by it, without overdoing it. When I would mingle with other writers and editors whose focus was on food, I'd witness some of the most careful, managed, conscious eating imaginable, and yet that seldom informed their or my writing and talking about food. "Born Round" was intended in part as a corrective: yes, food gives us great pleasure, but food also can cause us great consternation and struggle. I'd struggled with it my whole life, in a way that I thought many others, whether food obsessives like me or casual dieters, could relate to. I thought my story was worth sharing, in short.
In your book, you say "My defining relationship...was with my stomach." A lot of readers will identify with that statement. Where did that obsession come from?
That's a big part of what the book tackles. The answer is really in there, and I say that meaning: it's subtle, it's complicated, it's ambiguous, it's multi-layered. The answer, that is. I think that as with so much, it was in part something that was hard-wired into me, and in part the result of my family circumstances.
Your family consistently elevated food to a higher level - in terms of presentation, preparation and quantity. You'd overeat and then attempt to offset your overindulgence. Instead of reinstituting sensible eating, you'd try out some of the dangerous diet practices that you'd read warnings against. Can you give a few examples?
There are so many examples. I fasted, or tried to. I did the no-carb diet probably a dozen or more times over the years. But it wasn't just fad diets, which so many people fall prey to, believing the hype and the promise over the science and the experts. It was stuff of my own ridiculous imagining: eating just bread for two days on end. Eating just fruit for a day. I had such a hard time with the drudgery of moderation, and I had such a big and fierce appetite, that I wanted to will a reality in which I could eat in a relatively unrestrained fashion by finding some magical formula or combination. I was looking for a eureka secret.
These regimens didn't work but they weren't really dangerous. Let's not forget the more extreme remedies you used, including large quantities of fiber, laxatives, speed and ipecac. While at college, you became quite adept at throwing up after a binge. How did you keep this all under wraps?
I never used ipecac, but I did go through a period of bulimia in college. I kept it under wraps, at least for a while, by knowing where the least-used, most hidden bathrooms were around campus. By making sure I was near one when I had the kind of excessive meal that might then lead to my throwing up. Laxatives I didn't use that often, only a couple of times, because as I describe in the book, it could end up causing a lot of pain and discomfort. All of this stuff is very dangerous, at least or especially if you do it in a concentrated fashion over a long period of time. My good fortune was that I always seemed to pull myself back from any brink before I got into real trouble. I was lucky that way. Other people aren't.
True. Even though you were a chubby kid, it didn't affect your ability at sports. Can you talk about that aspect of your youth?
Around the age of 6 or 7, I happened to discover that I had real talent as a swimmer, and by the time I was 12 I was nationally ranked in my age group and was training as many as 3 1/2 hours in the pool on many days. Because of that training, I went from being outright fat as a 7-year-old to being pretty fit as a teenager--I swam through my high school years--but I was always heavier than other swimmers, because my appetite was so big.
And yet, despite your tremendous success in the pool, you still suffered all the agonies of poor body image while at the pool. Can you talk about that?
For one thing, I didn't have the body that most swimmers had. That was objective truth. I was a bit chunkier -- thicker -- than most top athletes, period. So there was a kind of odd joke and cruelty to swimming being the sport I excelled at, as it forced me to parade around close to naked. Male swimmers in those days wore very tiny, bikini-bottom-like suits. But I no doubt saw myself as even heavier than I was. My self-consciousness was epic, as is many people's, and in my case it was concentrated on my love handles, my thighs.
Your grandmother was a key figure in your life. Food was love and showering her family with it was a gift which you could not refuse without hurting her feelings. Meals were a production. Tell us what Thanksgiving at her house was like.
My grandmother didn't host Thanksgiving. My mother did. In my extended family the various matriarchs each had her own holiday to host, and tried to outdo the other matriarchs with the amount of food. It would literally take pages to describe how much food my mother put out for Thanksgiving: as you know from the book, there's practically a whole third of one chapter laying out my mom's execution of a Thanksgiving feast. Suffice it to say that she hosted about 25 people and made food enough for 100.
I stand corrected; your grandmother hosted Christmas Eve. There was the ritual involving her dresser drawer. And her foolproof way to guarantee a clean kitchen, even after all the massive and elaborate food preparation. What can you tell us about that?
As far as the dresser drawer goes, my grandmother kept a baby Jesus figurine there, a pretty large one though not quite as large as an actual infant, and at the stroke of midnight Christmas Eve, she would put Jesus in the enormous manger on her front lawn, where Mary and Joseph were already waiting for the arrival of their newborn. As for her clean kitchen, it remained that way because she seldom used it. She did most of her cooking in a separate kitchen in the basement, so that if people dropped by for coffee, the first-floor kitchen would always be spotless.
Neat trick! When you were heavier, you'd put things off until you were thinner. This pattern kept you from buying new pants, seeing old friends, romantic encounters. You went through contortions to get an acceptable photograph of yourself for your new book. Can you tell us more about this mindset?
I was always convinced that I was on the verge of the diet or exercise regimen or whatever that would work. I was always convinced I was on the precipice of the willpower I hadn't summoned to that point. And I figured, I'll put off clothes shopping or a date or whatever for two or three or four weeks, after which point I'll be a better, thinner me. And the cycle would repeat itself.
Ironically, things turned around before you began your stint as a restaurant critic in 2004. The number of rich, heavy meals scheduled every week was daunting. But, you write, "[t]he structure I had now was based on indulgence, on what I must have and that made all the difference. I was celebrating instead of abusing food." Can you flesh that out a little for us?
Flesh? Interesting verb choice. It's very hard to describe succinctly, but it boils down to this: for me at least, HAVING to eat a set number of full meals a week meant I couldn't justify the sorts of binges of my past by saying: I'll eat all this now because for the next three days I'll eat only 800 calories a day or whatever. Because I knew I'd have to eat at least 2,000 calories each of the coming days, due to my job. So moderation within meals and regular exercise were my only weight-management options. And of course they're the best ones.
Actually, 2,000 calories a day doesn't sound like so much, especially considering all the dining out. Did you suffer qualms about keeping up your success once the restaurant stint was over? How did you keep the formula going without that self-imposed structure of forced eating?
I was using 2,000 as a basement. In fact I'm sure I usually ate more like 3,500-plus most restaurant-critic days. My point is I couldn't EVER do any fad diets or such anymore. The structure of the restaurant stint made so much eating sense for me that it's been harder keeping weight off since I stopped, and I'm probably 10 pounds heavier than I was then. But I don't yo-yo as in the distant past, I don't binge-purge, I don't obsess: it's a reason I'm not on the scale enough to know the exact poundage. I'm calmer and more accepting of the fact that I'm never going to be a wraith: it's not who I was meant to be, and I don't torture myself.
You sound remarkably well-balanced, Frank. In the course of dealing with your unhealthy eating habits, you let go of a lot of secrets. Did that free up time or energy that was previously focused on food?
You know, I'm not really sure. The various work demands and commitments from different periods of my life are different from one another that it's too apples-and-oranges for me to know if I have more time and energy and use it more efficiently now than in the past. I certainly don't accept or decline social invitations based as narrowly on my feelings about my weight at a given moment.
Your dramatic turn-around seems to disprove your grandmother's saying: "Born round, you don't die square." Anything else you'd like to add before we wrap this up?Maybe just that people shouldn't be extreme or extravagant when it comes to their resolutions, their images of self-improvement. We're told from the get-go that patience and moderation are virtues, and that's not a sexy message, but it's true. It's so very true.
Thanks so much for talking with me, Frank. It was fun and I really loved Born Round . It will speak to anyone who has ever gave food more than a passing thought.