courtesy of Frank Bruni/The Penguin Press
I have neither a therapist's diagnosis nor any scientific literature to support the following claim, and I can't back it up with more than a cursory level of detail. So you're just going to have to go with me on this: I was a baby bulimic.
Maybe not baby — toddler bulimic is more like it, though I didn't so much toddle as wobble, given the roundness of my expanding form. I was a plump infant and was on my way to becoming an even plumper child, a ravenous machine determined to devour anything in its sights. My parents would later tell me, my friends and anyone else willing to listen that they'd never seen a kid eat the way I ate or react the way I reacted whenever I was denied more food. What I did in those circumstances was throw up.
I have no independent memory of this. But according to my mother, it began when I was about 18 months old. It went on for no more than a year. And I'd congratulate myself here for stopping such an evidently compulsive behavior without the benefit of an intervention or the ability to read a self-help book except that I wasn't so much stopping as pausing. But I'm getting ahead of the story.
A hamburger dinner sounded the first alarm. My mother had cooked and served me one big burger, which would be enough for most carnivores still in diapers. I polished it off and pleaded for a second. So she cooked and served me another big burger, confident that I'd never get through it. It was the last time she underestimated my appetite.
The way Mom told the tale, I plowed through that second burger as quickly as I had the first. Then I looked up from my highchair with lips covered in hamburger juice, a chin flecked with hamburger bun and hamburger ecstasy in my wide brown eyes. I started banging my balled little fists on the highchair's tray.
I wanted a third.
Mom thought about giving it to me. She was tempted. For her it was a point of pride to cook and serve more food than anybody could eat, and the normal course of things was to shove food at people, not to withhold it.
But she looked at me then, with my balloon cheeks and ham-hock legs, and thought: Enough. No way. He can't fit in another six ounces of ground chuck. He shouldn't fit in another six ounces of ground chuck. A third burger isn't good mothering. A third burger is child abuse.
I cried. I cried so hard that my face turned the color of a vine-ripened tomato and my breathing grew labored and a pitiful strangled noise escaped my lips, along with something else. Up came the remnants of Burger No. 2, and up came the remnants of Burger No. 1. Mom figured she had witnessed an unusually histrionic tantrum with an unusually messy aftermath. But I've always wondered, in retrospect and not entirely in jest, if what she had witnessed was the beginning of a cunning strategy, an intuitive design for gluttonous living. Maybe I was making room for more burger. Look, Ma, empty stomach!
It became a pattern. No fourth cookie? I threw up. No midafternoon meal between lunch and dinner? Same deal. I had a bizarre facility for it, and Mom had a sponge or paper towels at hand whenever she was about to disappoint me.
As I grew older and developed more dexterity and stealth and more say, I could and did work around Mom, opening a cupboard or pantry door when neither she nor anyone else was looking, or furtively shuttling some of the contents of a sibling's trick-or-treat bag into my own, which always emptied out more quickly.
I wasn't merely fond of candy bars. I was fascinated by them and determined to catalog them in my head, where I kept an ever-shifting, continually updated list of the best of them, ranked in order of preference. Snickers always beat out 3 Musketeers, which didn't have the benefit of nuts. Baby Ruth beat out Snickers, because it had even more nuts. But nuts weren't crucial: one of my greatest joys was the KitKat bar, and I couldn't imagine any geometry more perfect than the parallel lines of its chocolate-covered sections. I couldn't imagine any color more beautiful than the iridescent orange of the wrapping for a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup.
And the sweetest sound in the world? The most gorgeous music?
The bells of a Good Humor truck.
Every summer evening, just before sundown, one of these trucks would come tinkling down Oak Avenue, a narrow road near the shoreline in Madison, Conn., northeast of New Haven, where my father's parents owned an extremely modest summer house. I knew the options by heart. There was the Strawberry Shortcake bar, coated with sweet nibs and striped with pink and white. There was the cone with vanilla ice cream and a semihard hood of nut-sprinkled chocolate over that. An argument in its favor was the way the eating of it had discrete chapters: hood first, ice cream second, lower half of the cone after that.
And then there was the Candy Center Crunch bar, which was vanilla ice cream in a crackling chocolate shell, with an additional, concealed element, a bit of buried treasure. When you got to the middle of the bar, you bumped up against a hard slab of nearly frozen dark chocolate, clumped around the wooden stick. You had to chisel away at it in focused bites, so that chunks didn't tumble to the ground — lost, wasted.
The eating of the Candy Center Crunch bar lasted longest of all. Almost without fail, that's the bar I got.
I remember almost everything about my childhood in terms of food — in terms of favorite foods, to be more accurate, or even favorite parts of favorite foods.
Age 6: homemade chocolate sauce over Breyers vanilla ice cream. Mom used squares of semisweet chocolate, along with butter and milk, and as the chocolate melted in a saucepan in the galley kitchen, it perfumed the entire first floor of our Cape Cod in northern White Plains, a 45-minute train ride from Manhattan, where Dad worked. Mom made chocolate sauce every Sunday night as a special weekend treat, and my older brother, Mark, my younger brother, Harry, and I got to eat our bowls of ice cream (three scoops each) and chocolate sauce in front of the TV set while watching Mutual of Omaha's "Wild Kingdom." I always volunteered to carry the empty bowls back into the kitchen, because Mark's and Harry's were never entirely empty. There was always some neglected sauce hardening — like fudge! — at the bottom. I would sweep it up with a finger en route to the dishwasher.
Age 7: I discovered quiche. Quiche Lorraine. Mom baked it in the upper of the double ovens on the south wall of the eat-in kitchen in our Tudor on Soundview Avenue in a section of White Plains that made believe it was part of ritzier Scarsdale, which it bordered. The quiche needed to cool for about 45 minutes before it could be eaten. I knew because I'd often kept count.
Age 8: lamb chops. Mom served them to us for dinner at the table in the Soundview kitchen about once every three weeks. I ate not just the meat but also the curls and strips of fat at the edges of the meat. Mark and Harry winced when I did that and merely picked at their own chops, wishing aloud that it were steak night or hamburger night or pork-chop night. We were a meaty family, the chops, strips, patties and roasts filling a separate freezer in the garage. Wherever we lived, we had a separate freezer in the garage, a testament to Dad's belief, instilled in him by his Italian-immigrant parents, that an abundance of food — or, even better, a superabundance of food — was the best measure of a family's security in the world. Mom absorbed that thinking from him and made sure that wherever we lived, we had a separate freezer in the garage. She was mystified by, and censorious of, families who didn't. How could they be sure to have enough kinds and cuts of meat on hand, enough varieties of ice cream to choose from? Was that really any way to live?
All of us could eat, but Dad and I could eat the most. I took after him that way.
Reprinted by arrangement of Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) 2009 by Frank Bruni.