Critic Frank Bruni: Hungry for Meaning

A talk with former New York Times restaurant critic, now op-ed columnist, Frank Bruni, on teaching food writing at Princeton this semester.

Connections: Frank Bruni's food writing course at Princeton emphasizes "how the way we eat mirrors so much about our lives."

Frank Bruni, restaurant critic of the New York Times from 2004 to 2009 and author of Born Round, the 2009 best-selling memoir about his sometimes difficult relationship with food, is teaching a weekly seminar at Princeton University this spring. Now a Times op-ed columnist, Bruni has covered the White House and other political and foreign beats, and was its Rome bureau chief before becoming its restaurant critic.

Sixteen undergrads won seats in “Writing with Appetite,” which aims to “introduce students to a wide range of food writing, with special emphases on how the way we eat mirrors so much about our lives and how the challenges of good food writing distill the challenges of all writing.”

New Jersey Monthly: How did you begin the class?

Frank Bruni: I gave some students an apple, some a Clif bar and some a croissant. I asked them to take an hour and write me something about what I’d given them. They could eat it or not eat it, and I told them to not ask me any other questions. I was trying to push them to think more broadly about food as mirror, food as metaphor, and to always ask themselves when writing about food, What’s something larger I can write about this piece of food?

For instance, the Clif bar. It’s such an interesting reflection of certain food vanities and food lies. There’s a mountain climber on the packaging. It’s packaged in what’s obviously meant to evoke recycled paper. You’re supposed to buy the Clif bar because you’re expressing a set of values about yourself, and you’re embracing an image of yourself. All the writing on the package is geared to that, and it kind of says a lot about who we want to be and how we want to identify ourselves.

Almost no one wrote about it that way. They wrote about how it’s chewy, it’s hard. For the apple, they wrote about their feelings about apples, or how it tastes or how there are no good apples around Princeton. No one wrote about the apple as this kind of amazingly durable and gigantic food symbol, from the Garden of Eden to Steve Jobs.

NJM: What do you hope they’ll learn?

FB: I want to make them better, stronger writers, and particularly what I want to do, I’m going to talk about beginnings, about the shapes of things—all that sort of stuff. I mean, we’ll talk about mechanical stuff, like transitions, as need be. I want to get them to think more creatively, more intelligently about what they’re writing.

We spent a lot of time talking about what I think may be one of the finest pieces of food writing I’ve ever read, a piece by Nora Ephron called “The Lost Strudel.” It’s really not about strudel, it’s about loss and nostalgia and yearning. I really want them—because it’s an intellectual and conceptual tool that’s applicable beyond food writing—to think about the context of things in a larger way. To always ask themselves, how can I make what I’m putatively thinking about in the foreground, how can I color in the background to make it that much more resonant, and deeper? And I want that because I don’t really see this as a food writing course. I see [this] as a writing course that happens to cover the universe of food. I said in class today that I think all the best food writers don’t write about food.

NJM: How do you feel the semester’s first class went? Any surprises?
I have no idea how coherent any of this was to them. I felt a little bit like a doofus because although I think there was merit to what I did, I didn’t really kind of factor in that for the first hour I would be sitting there twiddling my thumbs. I think it was a worthwhile exercise, but that felt awkward.

NJM: Impressions of Princeton?
It’s a charming, charming college town. In some ways, it feels very familiar. Most college towns have the same mix of businesses, because they have a similar demographic. Princeton doesn’t feel dissimilar to—it’s a smaller version of Chapel Hill [NC], where I went to school. The heart of the campus itself, I really think it is one of the most beautiful campuses in the country. The kids who go here are very lucky, not only because it’s an extraordinary school and because the resources available to them are amazing, but also because this beautiful campus is not in the middle of a lot of chaos and commotion, yet you are…is it the Dinky?…you are a dinky train ride from the city. It’s the best of all worlds, isn’t it?

NJM: What, if anything, do you miss about reviewing restaurants?
The things I don’t miss are equal in number to the things I do miss, so on balance it’s a wash. I miss the expense account! I miss the fact that I could walk into restaurants without any thought of money in my head. I miss, a little bit, that because you need to have other people at the table to help you order different things, you are in better touch with your friends than you are later—because keeping that schedule becomes an excuse to get together. I saw certain friends more regularly than I do now.

And when you experience a restaurant and a chef and a kitchen team that are doing great work, it’s really nice to trumpet that to the world, to reward merit. Whether you’re a movie critic or a restaurant critic, you get to take something you love and say to the world, please take note of this.

You ask what I don’t miss. Eating out every night is a privilege, but it also can become a responsibility and obligation. Not drudgery, but when you have to eat out every night, and in that mindful way where you’re keeping track of things, it’s a form of work. It’s certainly a pleasant form of work, but work.

NJM: How have your own dining habits changed?
I loved being a regular before I was a restaurant critic, and I love being a regular now, almost to a comical degree. Although I want to remain fluent about what’s out there, I do circle around to the same spots, because for so many years I couldn’t. I love knowing the person at the front; I love knowing the menu; I love knowing what I’m going to get and that I’m going to love it exactly as much as last time.

NJM: How did you manage to eat sometimes two dinners a night?
Luckily, that wasn’t the norm, except when I was on the road. I remember doing a dine-around of new places in Atlantic City. I had three dinners two nights in a row! Do you know that weird place, Chef Vola’s? It’s very much the Rao’s of Atlantic City. We could never get them to answer the phone. I forget how we finally got a reservation, but the one time we got them to answer the phone the woman said hold on a second, she put down the phone, and 15 minutes later she still hadn’t come back. It was almost like deliberate disarray. That was their shtick.

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