For as long as Frank Bruni can remember, food has played a lead role in his life.
In his Italian-American household in White Plains, N.Y., every family gathering was marked by culinary creations. He was a ravenous eater, with chubbiness to show for it. And bulimia made an early appearance — when he was still a toddler.
A look into the rearview mirror reveals that it wasn't competitive swimming or the Atkins diet that helped him break the cycle of binging and purging. It was professional eating as the restaurant critic for the New York Times, a position he took the calculated risk of accepting.
The Newport Beach Public Library will host the 49-year-old veteran journalist, an op-ed columnist since 2011 and former Rome bureau chief for the Times, on Friday and Saturday. As the next guest speaker in the venue's Witte Lecture Series, he will discuss the effect of the Internet and technology on human behavior and politics. The program will be preceded by a reception and followed by Bruni signing copies of his 2009 memoir titled "Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater."
Bruni spoke to the Daily Pilot ahead of his appearance in Orange County. Below are excerpts from the conversation:
What made you decide to come to the Newport Beach Public Library for a lecture?
It sounded like a good audience and a good venue. I like this area of the country. It's always pleasant to visit Southern California — I have relatives here, I have friends here. So it just made sense.
What do you plan to discuss?
I'm going to talk about the way that the Internet and cable TV and other forces in modern communication and technology have essentially fractured public life and allowed people to dwell in little micro-niches. If you like one thing, you can find that thing over and over again on channel options, find it over and over again on the Internet, and so I'm going to talk about the way Americans increasingly find these micro-communities of interest and sometimes lose common points of reference and what that means for politics as well.
What prompted your choice of this topic?
I picked this because it's a topic that concerns me. I think it's important and one of the interesting developments of modern life is that the Internet, in theory, opens up this enormous world of possibilities to everyone. You can use the Internet to travel quickly and far in a lot of directions, and it makes the acquisition of information easier than ever before, but the way I see a lot of people using the Internet is not to broaden their worlds but to kind of tailor what they receive to specifically what they like. It's something that I see all around me, it's something that I find myself tending to do, and I think it's a facet of modern life that's interesting.
There are examples all over the place: If you go onto the Internet and, with the spread of blogs, you can now bookmark 10 different news sources that all give you the news with a very particular slant. Before you had bookmarks, you couldn't do that. When you go onto things like Spotify or Pandora, what you're doing is you're saying, "Here's what I like, give me more of what I like," and so you're able to burrow deeper and deeper into your particular interest, but it takes a certain amount of serendipity out of the equation.
What I'm saying is, I think there's a danger to it. And the danger is that this technology and all these implements that could connect us, end up disconnecting us because if you're in a micro-community, you're not in a larger community. You're in a community of like-minded people. What I like to say is cyberspace, it turns out, is a lot like suburbia — there are gated communities.
I could write you a whole book on that. I picked journalism because I like to write, because I like to have an excuse and a reason to go out and observe different corners of the world. I picked journalism because it gives you credentials and a passport that carries you into some very interesting places, some very interesting situations. It's a kind of ticket to see the world and various corners of the world that you would never be invited into if you weren't a journalist.
Was becoming the Times' restaurant critic a planned move, or did it surprise you?
There are journalists who are very much generalists, and there are those who are very specialized. I think right now we are entering an era where there's more specialization, but when I got into journalism, there was no shortage of generalists.
And so before I went to the Times, I had done a bit of foreign reporting, I'd been a movie critic, I'd done some social issues reporting and light features — a really broad spectrum of stuff. And when I went to the Times, one of the reasons I was excited and one of the conversations I had as I came in the door was when the top editors said to me, "We don't hire people for jobs, we hire people for careers." And what they meant is they wanted the newspaper to be a place where, if you were someone whose intellect and eye roved, they wanted you to be able to follow those different passions and indulge those different interests. I always hoped and planned that my career at the Times would include an assortment of different jobs, some which I wouldn't be able to predict. Would I have predicted restaurant critic was going to be one of them? No. But in a kind of metaphoric sense, it is very much in line with why I was at the Times and what I was trying to do there. And what I was trying to do at the Times was really explore a whole bunch of different things.
Tell me about your love for food — has it always played an important role in your life?
Food was an enormous part of my upbringing. As is true in a lot of Italian-American families, every event we had, every holiday, every get-together, was swimming, drowning in food. Food was a kind of currency. It was a kind of communication, and so, in that sense, food from the earliest memories that I have was an enormous part of my life.
As someone who struggled with bulimia in your youth, was your appointment as a restaurant critic a cause of worry at all?
I wouldn't have taken the job if I felt I hadn't overcome certain issues. And so I kind of had a gut feeling — I thought it out and believed — and it turned out to be correct, that the kind of enforced, rhythmic, steady eating of a restaurant critic's life would actually help rather than hurt me. That it would prevent the kinds of binge-purge cycles that had been a part of my youth. Because if you're eating for a living, you can never purge. And if you know you can never purge, it becomes an insurance policy against binging. And I kind of intuitively knew that it would play out that way, and that indeed was the case.
Does being an op-ed columnist tap into a different skill set than some of your previous positions?
I was a gazillion things before I was a food critic. A lot of the things I was before I was a food critic were logical precursors to being an opinion columnist. So when people say, "How do you go from being a restaurant critic to an opinion columnist?", the real question is, how do you go from being a broad-based news journalist, which I was, who wrote about politics, the Pope, international affairs, how do you go from that to a restaurant critic? The restaurant critic was the sort of exception. So if you look at my path and you subtract that, it's not at all unusual that I'm doing what I'm doing now.
But my feeling about all of it, whether you're talking about covering a presidential campaign, whether you're talking about being a restaurant critic or whether you're talking about being an opinion columnist, all of those things rest on the same foundations, on the same fundamentals. All of journalism is about observing things with an open mind and a keen eye (hopefully), figuring out how to make sense of what you're seeing and how to distill it, and then making sense of it and distilling it in the clearest and most evocative writing you can. The rules of that writing change a little bit based on the format. You can do things in an opinion column that you can't do in a news column. You can do things in a restaurant review that wouldn't be appropriate in other places, but the process by which you produce those things is the same in every case — it's just journalism.
Does your public opinion — as arguably one of the most widely read writers today — bring with it a sense of responsibility?
I don't see myself as one of the most prominent and highly regarded journalists in the country. It's hard for me to answer that question because you're describing me in a way in which I don't see myself. I see myself as someone who has a terrific job and who has a very privileged position, but it's a privileged position in a universe of a great many people doing what I do. So I take what I do very seriously and I think I have an obligation to readers to make an effort, to make an effort to be lively, and an obligation to try to be readable. But I don't think there's some greater weight of the world on my shoulders because I don't exaggerate or have delusions about the size of those shoulders.
How does being a journalist differ from being an author?
Being those things [isn't] different, producing those things is different. A book is a very different exercise — you live with it for a very long time. It requires sustained focus and patience that daily or weekly or even monthly journalism doesn't necessarily require. And then there's the whole process in which you put a book out to the world and you talk about that piece of work extensively in a way that you don't about a piece of journalism. So the process is different, but being a journalist versus being an author — the truth is many journalists are book authors, they are all kind of part of the same thing. The forms are just different in their production.
Over the course of your career, you've probably — no, definitely — had some unforgettable experiences. Any that come to mind?
There are so many. I'll never forget a visit that I made to George W. Bush's parents, meaning the first President Bush and Barbara Bush at their Kennebunkport house during the 2000 presidential campaign, about George W.'s bid for the presidency. I'll never forget sitting there and talking to them. He had walked such an unlikely path to the presidency, and that was the subject of my book, "Ambling Into History," and it was just kind of remarkable talking to his parents, and even though they were sitting there with a journalist and they kind of know they're on a certain behavior, they could not hide their surprise and wonder that of their children, George W., had gotten to the precipice of the presidency and might be president. It was a very fascinating glimpse into what an unlikely story his was even within his own family.
There have been many moments like that. I'll never forget being brought up to the front of Pope John Paul II's plane when he was flying back from a trip to Poland. It was very late in his papacy, it was very late in his life, and I was seated next to him. I was a very fairly new addition to the Vatican press corps and I hadn't yet gotten my picture with the Pope, which was apparently a tradition — it wasn't something I asked for — and I went and sat next to him. We were all watching him at masses and seeing how unbelievably frail and compromised his health was, but sitting next to him and seeing that he was having a hard time breathing, that he couldn't even really turn around and look at me — I mean, it was just a shocking glimpse of just how physically grueling those last years of his papacy were. That sticks with me.
If You Go
What: The Witte Lecture Series presents "A Conversation with Frank Bruni"
Where: Newport Beach Public Library, 1000 Avocado Ave., Newport Beach
When: 7 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday
Cost: $45 for members and $50 for non-members on Friday; $30 for members and $35 for non-members on Saturday
Information: (949) 548-2411 or http://www.nbplfoundation.org