Saturday, February 27, 2010

Keeping The Feast: One Couple's Story of Love, Food, And Healing In Italy by Paula Butturini

Keeping The Feast: One Couple's Story of Love, Food, and Healing In Italy by Paula Butturini
272 pages
Published: February 2010 by Penguin Group
Source: the publisher for a Winter Reading Series

Paula Butturini grew up surrounded by a family of wonderful Italian cooks for whom the kitchen really was the heart of the family. After a divorce, journalist Butturini decided to move to Italy where she fell in love with not only the land, the food, and the people, but also John Tagliabue, an American journalist nine years her senior. When John was transferred to the Warsaw office after the two had been dating two years, Paula decided to join him.

Two years later, while covering the Czechoslovakian "Velvet Revolution," Paula was severely beaten by riot police. Less than two weeks later, the two were married in Rome. Three weeks later, John was sent to Romania to cover the fall of that government. Two days before Christmas, Paula received a telex informing her that John had been shot. Within five days, Paula had traveled to Romania and gotten John safely out and to Munich where he would undergo many surgeries and begin his physical recovery.

"But even a single bullet takes at least two paths: one through a body, the other through life itself. The first path is visible, gory, dramatic. The second path is imperceptible, hidden and therefore far more fraught. The second path cuts through a once-seamless life, splitting it into two: the old life before the bullet and the new life after."

Just as John was starting to get back on his feet, he was stricken with hepatitis, the result of tainted blood he received in Munich. Paula and John found themselves adrift in the U.S., unable to settle in a home or return to work as John battled to see whether or not he would survive this blow. Even as John began to win the battle with hepatitis, he began to lose another battle, slipping ever so slowly in to a deep depression. It was a disease that Paula was all too familiar with since her mom had begun suffering from depression after Paula's birth. John decided that his recovery would be aided by a return to Italy, but even so, he would get much worse before he got better.

"A ringing phone--an emblem of the outside world, his old job and life--was the most likely event to provoke the floods of sobs and tears. Some days John's sobs and tears were howls which rang and echoed through the flat. Some days his sobs and tears were silent, accompanied by a heaving chest, clenched fists, or occasionally by the hollow, horrifying sound of him banging his head against the iron bedstead or the bedroom wall."

Because of her own mother's suicide, Paula essentially waked on eggshells around John, afraid that if she let loose with her own anger at the situation she found herself in, she might push him over the edge. But, in the end, releasing her anger turned out to be just the thing she needed and once she began to worry about herself and to demand more of John, John began to recover. Paula also devoted much of her time in Rome to the three meals a day that became the one constant of their lives.

Butturini begins each chapter of this book recounting the role that food played in her life. Some readers, I understand, have found the shift from this part of the chapter to the part that recounts Butturini's life with John to be jarring. I felt that Butturini did a wonderful job of tying those memories into the narrative of the "personal tornado" that she and Tagliabue were going through. As a journalist, Butturini knows how to tell a story; her descriptions of food and cooking are mouthwatering. Early on she talks about cooking asparagus, which is not one of my favorite foods, and she had me imagining how much more I would enjoy it if only I prepared it in one of her favorite ways. The food passages also keep the book from becoming maudlin.

Once in a while, I did feel descriptions of meals and food went on a bit long and I felt like Butturini really skimmed over her own assault and the repercussions from it. But overall, I really enjoyed Butturini's writing style, both unadorned and lush, and the extreme honesty with which she writes.

This is a memoir that I will definitely be sharing with others---but not until I make some notes about all of those wonderful food ideas I need to incorporate into my own life!

For more about the book with Paula Butturini, check out Books On The Brain, where Lisa led a discussion that included Butturini answering questions from readers.


  1. I so need to get my hands on a copy of this book! I can't wait to read all of her food descriptions, haha.

  2. I read this one and enjoyed it as well. i thought the segues between food and her life trouble were well done, but I agree that all the food stories serve as a buffer between fully seeing how everything affected her. but maybe that was telling in itself. I got the feeling that she did quite a bot of hiding in meal preparation, her way of putting one foot in front of the other and getting through it.

  3. Well I don't think I can resist a book about Italy and food...

  4. This sounds like a wonderful read. I will definitely add it to my wishlist.



  5. I've been seeing this one around; definitely more than a food memoir, it sounds like. But I have to agree with the fact that food, its rituals and celebrations, can be uplifting in troubling times.

  6. I've read a lot of favorable reviews of this one and of course I want to read it!! Loved your review!

  7. I have this but have not yet read it. But it sounds like the thing to do is to skip the non food sections!

  8. This sounds great. i honeymooned in Italy only in August so i am very up for this kind of read, thanks for sharing, Hannah

  9. Wow. That poor couple, being hit with tragedy after tragedy. Although I am not much in the way of a food person, I do think the other aspects of the story might appeal to me quite a bit. Thank you for your great review, Lisa. I'll definitely keep my eye out for this one.