Monday, February 22, 2010
Keeping the Feast: One Couple's Story of Love, Food and Healing in Italy by Paula Butturini - 272 pgs
Shortly after their wedding, both Paula Butturini and her husband John Tagliabue are struck by separate tragedies and their new life together is drastically altered. As they begin to heal, Paula discovers her passion and fondness for delicious and uncomplicated food. Food becomes Paula and John's lifeline, and as they become whole again, they learn to cook and eat not only for the nourishment of their bodies, but also for their souls. Just when things seem to be getting back to normal, John spirals into a dangerous depression which seems to only get worse over time. Paula, barely hanging on to her own sanity, reaches back to food to help guide her through the difficult times and to provide John with the sustenance that he needs to overcome his depression. As Paula describes her husband's downward spiral, she also describes the meals that she cooked for both him and herself, hoping against hope that the food will be able to overcome the pain and disillusionment once again. Candid and deep, Keeping the Feast describes one couple's journey out of the depths of despair and into the sunlight of new hope.
I am a big lover of foodie literature and any book that purports to have anything to do with cooking and/or food immediately draws my attention and curiosity. I was not really sure how this book, a memoir that dealt with pain and frustration, could have anything whatsoever to do with food, but after reading it I think that Butturini did a great job with the melding of these two distinct parts of her story with grace and ease.
In the book, Butturini does her best to explain the tragic circumstances that surrounded the early years of her marriage. Both Paula and her husband were journalists during that time, and both of them were dealt a pretty severe blow in their professional endeavors. Paula was severely beaten by the police while covering a riot in Prague and her husband John was shot by a sniper in Romania. When the couple retreat to Italy to begin a long convalescence, they discover that although their foundations have crumbled, they can find pleasure amongst the simple things in life, mainly food. Paula describes her sun-soaked mornings in Italy, roaming the covered markets for fresh ingredients that she later transforms into the feasts that so excite and heal herself and her husband. She catalogs her wonderful finds with an enthusiasm and wonder that bounces off the page, taking the time to impart the specifics of dozens of different items that she finds on her daily journey and walks her readers through the steps the food takes in becoming part of her gustatory offering to her husband.
As they both begin to heal, food remains a stanch pleasure that never recedes into the background of their lives, and they find themselves trying new and different things. Using the treasured recipes of family and friends, Paula delights in her creativity and produces meals that wash succulently over the reader. With excitement she relays the wonder of her surroundings and her meals, never suspecting that things are headed for a nose dive once again. Then, it happens. One day John shrinks into silence and depression so deep that medications and doctors can't touch it. Paula relates with despair that she does not know how to help her husband and turns once again towards food to be her magical elixir. One of the most shocking things about this section of the book was the fact that John goes to almost primitive lengths to address his condition. Finding no help from pharmaceuticals, he decides to take his chances with electro-shock therapy, which has helped him in the past. Still he suffers, and the only thing Paula can do is keep him grounded by providing the wonderful food he loves and try to keep him rooted as strongly as she can into the present.
I really admired Paula's perseverance. I think that most people dealing with the circumstances that she had would have probably turned tail and run. She never did that. Instead, she plotted a course and stuck to it feverishly, not knowing if it would ever work. She translated a lot of her grief into her cooking and turned something hideous and awful into something healing and rejuvenating. I think I most admired the way she stuck by her husband through all of these awful times. She mentions that she could have left him, that the thought had crossed her mind many times, but she believed that she was John's only salvation and she stuck it out amidst the pain and frustration that she must have felt every minute of every day.
In the end, this story is about survival and wholeness, and though it takes the determination of one woman scratching out success from tortured outlets, the couple learns to revel in the time and healing they have carved out for themselves. It is by no means an easy or uncomplicated read. Emotion and frailty pour from the pages in wave after wave of defeat. But somehow, they manage to become whole again and learn that life can be fruitful and rewarding, despite the difficult path they have traveled. In my reading of this book, I think only one thing could have made it better, and that would have been the inclusion of some of the recipes that made the book so colorful and mouthwatering. Other than that, I would have to say that I found it a particularly engaging and emotion filled read.
This is not a book for foodies alone. I think it would greatly appeal to those readers who have battled with mental and physical ailments and for those who like to read triumphant stories of redemption. I think that Butturini does a great job with juggling all of the practical concerns that overtake a heart in turmoil without turning herself into a pitiful and woeful character. What she manages to capture in this book is essentially what she manages to capture in her life: hope and healing. A very engrossing look into the lives of an everyday couple pitted against destruction. Recommended.
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.