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Keeping the Feast: One Couple’s Story of Love, Food, and Healing in Italy

Paula Butturini

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Mar 09, 2010
Category: Memoir

Rome. 1985. Paula Butturini is a correspondent for United Press International. John Tagliabue is a New York Times reporter spending a year in Rome. They have the life you may dream of: work long hours, go out to late-night dinners with other journalists to eat, talk, unwind.

The American news community in any foreign city is small. Of course Paula and John meet. And click. He’s divorced. So is she. He’s Italian-American. So is she. And they both came from families that bonded over the dinner table.
A few years later, they’re living together — in Eastern Europe. The Communist empire is collapsing; there are great stories to cover. But they come at a price. Two weeks before her wedding, as Paula reports on a demonstration in Czechoslovakia, she’s beaten unconscious by the police, “then dragged off…into a building entryway, where they could continue to beat us, with impunity and without witnesses.” It takes 15 stitches to close two long gashes in her head, weeks for the swelling in her face to subside.
Trouble’s just starting.
Three weeks after they marry, John is riding in a car in Romania when a sniper begins firing, “shattering the car windows, tearing through doors, dashboard, seats, trunk, engine and roof — the car was demolished.” Four people were in the car; only John was hit: a bullet that pierced “a car door, a parka, a sport coat, a sweater, a shirt, trousers and underwear” before entering his gut. John almost dies. Recovery will be a long process for him.
But Keeping the Feast is not a memoir of food and flesh. “The body is only the first victim,” Paula writes. “The soul, the psyche, the spirit are each ripped apart.” Of course she did not know this when she took John home from the hospital. And she could not really understand it when knowledgeable people told her what lay ahead.
What lay ahead: depression. First, for John, whose vitality is sapped. And then for 46-year-old Paula, who miraculously produces a child and immediately goes into a funk. And, looming over them both, Paula’s mother, who has known such despair she gladly signed up for electroshock — four different times.
“Bad luck falls to everyone sooner or later,” Paula writes. “Ours simply hit unusually hard, and lasted unusually long.” How did Paula and John triumph? Food. “Our love for Rome and the rituals we clung to there, all involving nourishment of one sort or other.”
Yes, there are description of meals in these pages, and many ideas for toothsome, easy-to-prepare dishes. But without getting mushy about it, Paula gets to what those meals really mean:
Cooking, for me, was never about fancy ingredients or rich, complicated recipes; it was never a race or contest, never about making impressions or scoring points. Food was always elemental, about hunger and nourishment, love and support. Sharing food remains one of the most fundamental and primordial rituals of the human community, and though our family never talked about it as such, those shared meals, full of talk and laughter, bound us together as a family, gave us strength. We always ate together, around a family table.
There was no miracle meal. Many times John would go out for a walk, and Paula would wonder if she’d ever see him again. His depression returns, and this time it’s so severe he has his own round of electroshock. And then something else happens — well, let’s just say the bummers pile up.
There are shelves filled with books that tell you how you can change your life in a few weeks; the better ones talk about a year of change. But life doesn’t punch a clock; suffering lingers. It says something about the wisdom of Paula Butturini that she waited until she was closing in on 60 to write this book. In her wisdom, she’s omitted recipes. Except for the biggest and most important: Gather your loved ones and cook for them. And watch, ever so slowly, as the healing begins.
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For Paula Butturini’s web site, click here.