Review: Keeping the Feast by Paula Butturini

Keeping the Feast: One Couple’s Story of Love, Food, and Healing in Italy by Paula Butturini is just the sort of book I love…and just the sort of book I normally avoid. I love books about travel and Italy is high on my list of places that I absolutely must go. There’s a lot of food in this book and a great love for cooking and shared meals. However, I don’t have any personal experience with depression and memoirs about depression are not usually high on my list. Still, I was enchanted by this book. I devoured it (very appropriate) in one sitting on a short flight with a long delay. I have highlighted several recipes that I plan to try in my own kitchen. And I was very moved by John’s struggle with depression, by his wife’s unceasing love for him, and the support of their family and friends.

Paula and her husband, John, met in Rome. They were both foreign correspondents (she had recently moved to Rome and he was based in Bonn, Germany), and they fell in love with each other and the city:

“Can you love a city for its pink mornings and golden twilights? For the screech of its seagulls, the flitting of its swifts? Can you love a city because it is a riot of ochres and earth tomes, all of them drenched by a fierce, rich light? Can you feel sheltered by the earth-hugging chaos of a city’s skyline, exhilarated by its church domes floating like balloons across a deep blue sky?”

Apparently, the answer is yes.

Their marriage got off to a rocky start. Just two weeks before the wedding, Paula was severely beaten during a protest in Czechoslovakia. Less than a month after the wedding, her husband was shot while on assignment in Romania and nearly killed.  Months later, as they are starting to settle in, the injury triggers a serious bout of depression that takes years to conquer. Paula has to deal with family tragedy, worry for her husband’s health, for their financial survival, her career and her hopes for a family. They get by on the support of their families, their loving friends, and their deep and abiding love for each other.

There are some wonderful anecdotes about the food they ate growing up, both from Italian families, but families with different approaches to food. One of my favorites was the story John tells about grating cheese:

“You absolutely have to whistle while grating the cheese,” he announced, raking the cheese across an old-fashioned hand grater and explaining that in a household with four large, hungry boys and a very large, hungry father, Parmigiano always had a way of mysteriously disappearing during the grating process in their Jersey City kitchen. His mother, he said, could only keep to her budget if she required her helpers to whistle while they grated, for as long as they were whistling, they could not be eating it while her back was turned.

There is also mention of one of my very favorite foods mentioned – we called it speck, they call it sutni szalona. Basically, a chunk of bacon fat, scored and grilled over an open fire. Take slices of rye bread and layer them with thinly sliced onions and tomatoes, salt and pepper. When the bacon fat it blackened and dripping, drizzle it over the bread and vegetables. I admit that it did not sound appetizing the first time I tried it, but we went through at least 3 loaves of rye bread that evening. Rustic and fantastic.

Much of the book is about the power of food. Cooking together, sharing meals, preparing the foods that comfort us and make us feel loved — Paula has a tremendous understanding of the way that foods from our childhood and even the simple act of preparing a meal and sharing it together can bring us peace in our worst moments.

“The tomatoes and broccoli; the baby artichokes and spinach; the mozzarella and scaloppini they sold me; everything that I carried home, cooked, served, then ate three times a day at the tiny oak table in our dining room became my lifeline to normality. For even though John could not talk, he could eat, and the two of us — somehow — managed to eat most of our meals in a silence that was at least companionable. For the entire year we were there, those quiet meals at our narrow oak table were a thrice-daily truce. Not once did John experience a panic attack at the table.”

Paula and John have led a really amazing life together. The travel, the adventure, even the danger and heartache — I would much rather have a life full of those things than something stable and predictable. Their love for each other shines through on each page. Keeping the Feast was truly a pleasure to read.

My copy of Keeping the Feast: One Couple’s Story of Love, Food, and Healing in Italy was an Advance Reader Copy, provided free of charge.

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