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'Keeping The Feast': Comfort Food For The Wounded

Mar 23, 2010 (Morning Edition)

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When Paula Butturini met John Tagliabue, both were journalists — foreign correspondents stationed in Italy. They fell in love abroad and were married, but while covering the uprising against Romanian President Nicolai Ceausescu in 1989, Tagliabue was shot in the back by a sniper. He nearly died. But his physical injuries triggered a psychological battle that was, in many ways, even more damaging.

Butturini and Tagliabue returned to Rome, where they had met and married. Tagliabue fell into a deep depression, an ailment with a history in both his and Butturini's families. It transformed her husband, Butturini says.

"It was completely unreal. A man who had always been warm and talkative became utterly silent," Butturini tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer. "He would spend much of his day wrapped up in the bedclothes. I could find him banging his head against the iron bedstead or against the wall if a doorbell rang. He was unable to take telephone calls. Anything that reminded him of life outside the four walls of this little apartment where we were staying became a terrifying event. It made life very, very complicated for the two of us.

Now, more than 20 years later, that complicated life is the subject of a book, Keeping the Feast: One Couple's Story of Love, Food, and Healing in Italy.

Open Air Market

For Butturini, focusing on each individual day became the only way she could keep her life together in the wake of Tagliabue's descent into depression. As part of her daily routine, she visited the Campo dei Fiori, an open air market in central Rome.

"I don't think, when I started going over there, I had any notion that anything would help," Butturini says. "I could just go over there and do the daily shopping and pretend that life was a bit normal. And I would take these fruit and vegetables home, or some meat or whatever, and I would focus during the day on three meals. And it was simply the act of not thinking about the future that helped calm me down."

Focusing deeply on food, at least for part of the day, also brought out obsessions. Asparagus, for one. Butturini says she began to see hope in the tiny green stalks.

"It wasn't just eating asparagus," Butturini says, but more of the process of celebrating the vegetable as it came into season. "Everything that goes with the idea of the winter season leaving, and you're leaving behind all that dark and cold and death of winter, and you're coming into the period of light. And so asparagus became a metaphor for getting better, for hope that his condition would improve.

A Turning Point

Metaphors can only carry you so far, though, and one day, while Butturini and Tagliabue were walking in a piazza, she hit a wall and her patience ran out. In her book, Butturini describes her feeling toward her husband as "pure murderous anger."

"I think my anger sort of awakened him, on some level," Butturini says. "He knew on no uncertain terms that it was time to show me that he was getting better."

Though Butturini admits that the shooting changed both of their lives forever — "I would never say any of us were the same as we were before," she says — her husband has improved.

And, appropriately enough, food played a role in helping him to turn a corner.

"He had always cooked before he was sick," Butturini says. But he stopped under the spell of depression. Then one day, visiting with friends, the desire to prepare food returned.

"Their daughter was having a birthday party, and John decided he would make montebianco, because it was September, and the chestnuts in their yard were ripe," Butturini says. "We were picking chestnuts off the ground, and he made this dessert; it's a very homey, old-fashioned Italian dessert. And he made one for her birthday. But for me, that was the clearest sign that he was able to come out of himself and think about somebody else. It was a wonderful day."

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