Who knew, that one of the most influential men in the food world – one feared by restaurant owners and chefs around the globe – began as a young, insecure, overweight boy plagued with eating disorders? From Atkins to binge eating to quack diet pills to bulimia – this highly acclaimed and revered New York Times chief restaurant critic was at the mercy of his own size and derogatory self-esteem. His self-loathe prevented successful romantic relationships, while his self-indulgence only exacerbated the situation. Frank Bruni spent almost his entire life obsessively chasing the mirage of a thinner man and ruminating on his weight and pant size, while forgetting to appreciate his remarkable achievements and blessed life.
To a certain extent, I can relate to Bruni’s self-esteem story. There is something about being in New York City, about being surrounded by beautiful people garbed in elegant clothing, that makes the very foundation of my self-esteem tremble. Obviously, no one tells you that you’ve paired the wrong heels with your (slightly last season) top, or that your love handles are protruding more than they should, or that your eyebrows are untamed, or that your ‘big boned’ frame can’t pull off that outfit – it’s the unsaid things that kill you. Walking down the street, you notice the tall, thin brunette with soft, lush, cascading curls and a disarming smile, and you can’t help but wonder if God really did spend more time on her. Or maybe across the train platform, you see a cute redhead with chic dark jeggings tucked into leather thigh-high boots that make her legs look miles long. You look down and shuffle your feet, knowing all too well that the giant, inverted bowling pins supporting you are a disgrace. Up until now, these feelings have been pretty foreign to me; and every so often, if one did sprout its ugly head, I was quick to squash it with heavy spritzes of self-confidence and indifference. But somehow, that tactic doesn’t work anymore, and I’ve developed a wild overgrowth of self-doubt and insecurity. It’s an ugly mess, and I apologize for sounding a bit self-indulgent and too much like Bridgett Jones (who I hate btw). But I can’t help it, and so I will sit here and revel in something I don’t feel inadequate about – food. See how this is a viciously ironic cycle?
Cheese Stuffed Pasta Shells and Meat Sauce
Adapted from Pioneer Woman
This recipe is real easy to put together, and is further simplified if you use store-bought pasta sauce. Just brown the meat, add a 32oz jar of your favorite pasta sauce (omit wine, canned tomatoes, etc from original recipe), and season with salt and sugar, to taste. It’s really that easy.
8 oz jumbo pasta shells (about 3/4 of typical 12 oz Barilla box)
30 oz whole milk ricotta cheese
2 c, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 large egg
1 bunch fresh basil, chiffonade (to taste)
2 tbs parsley, minced (to taste)
1 medium onion, diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb ground beef
32 oz store-bought pasta sauce
sugar, salt, pepper, to taste
1/2 lb fresh mozzarella, shredded
Cook pasta shells in large pot of salted boiling water according to directions on package, typically 7-12 minutes, until just al dente. Drain and rinse in cold water, set aside.
While the pasta cools, in a separate bowl, combine all cheeses EXCEPT mozzarella, egg, basil, minced parsley, and pinch of salt.
In a large skillet, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add garlic and onions, saute until fragrant but not browned. Add ground meat and continuously break up into small pieces as cooks, and the red/pink color disappears. Brown the meat until most of the liquid in the pan is gone. Incorporate pasta sauce and allow to simmer. Season with salt and sugar, as needed. Remove from heat. Spoon half of meat sauce into a baking dish, making sure to evenly coat the bottom. Allow to cool.
Preheat oven to 375*F. Meanwhile, fill shells with cheese mixture, making sure that shells can still close. This is approximately 1-2 tablespoons of filling per shell, but this is really up to your preference. Place filled shells faced up in the baking dish. Pour remaining meat sauce over shells. Top with shredded mozzarella. Bake in oven until cheese is bubbly and just starts to turn color, about 15 minutes.
Remove from oven, and garnish with additional shredded basil or chopped parsley. Enjoy as is, or with garlic bread on the side.
Now friends, not to worry. Frank Bruni eventually overcame his eating problems, and learned to reduce and maintain a healthy weight, with the help of really good friends, leading to the recovery of his self-image and self-respect. On most days, I do a pretty good job of staying busy and keeping my demons at bay. With regards to self-image, it’s challenging to remind myself to appreciate what I have. It’s this never ending mantra of inner beauty, learning to be content, and just accepting that I will never smile like Kate Beckinsale or have Jessica Biel’s body (not to say that I won’t try of course). Instead, I will take comfort in the fact that regardless of my own shortcomings, I still have friends and family who love me, peers who respect me, employers who appreciate me, and a me that is (for the most part) comfortable being ME.
In my own skin,