In today’s society, food is viewed as a nuisance at best, and a necessary evil at worst. We’re taught that dessert is dangerous, that dieting is the only way to eat (and live) and that food and morality somehow go hand in hand. In a world where food gets such a bad rap, it’s refreshing and exciting to read a book that celebrates eating, the art of preparing food and food’s connection to family, healing and life.
In her moving memoir, Keeping the Feast: One Couple’s Story of Love, Food, and Healing in Italy, journalist Paula Butturini recounts how food helped her and her family cope with various devastating events in their lives. She details the nearly fatal shooting of her husband, journalist John Tagliabue, in Romania and his subsequent severe depression. She also focuses on her mother’s agonizing bouts with the disorder.
Throughout Butturini’s life, food has always had special meaning. More precisely, food has served as a metaphor: Food is family, sustenance, medicine, memories, healing and life. Butturini’s family always gathered at the table to eat together, surrounded by nourishing and wholesome foods. Even when she’d come home late at night, her family would sit by her side as she ate. Every day was a feast. In each chapter of Keeping the Feast, she weaves memories from her childhood with the present. In the Prologue, she writes:
“Food is the thread that connects them [“old recollections and new”], for food has always been my lens and prism, my eye on the world. I may write about the smell of asparagus, the color of polenta, or the taste of figs still warm from the sun, but all of it is a personal shorthand for weighing hunger and love, health and nourishment, secrets and revelations, illness and survival, comfort and celebration, and perhaps above all, the joy and gift of being alive.”
Food even plays an important role in Butturini and Tagliabue’s burgeoning relationship. They fall in love over a series of meals and meaningful conversations in Rome. They fall in love over their shared love of food.
It is to Rome that they return in hopes of helping to lift Tagliabue’s ruthless depression. While Tagliabue stays at home, paralyzed by the disorder, Butturini walks the streets of Rome in search of foods to create home-cooked meals three times a day. And it is in focusing on food, on preparing and eating simple, nourishing meals, that helps bring some much-needed normalcy, comfort and calm into their lives. Of course, food isn’t a magical cure—Tagliabue takes various medications and sees a therapist several times a week—but it is an important part of his recovery.
Butturini’s writing is breathtaking. Readers will no doubt be especially drawn to her positive, playful and stunning descriptions of food. Again, it’s refreshing to find food so lovingly and longingly celebrated in a book other than a cookbook. (Warning, though, while reading this book, you may spend much of the time either hungry or salivating.) Here’s a taste of Butturini’s beautiful writing:
“Eating one of Sicily’s signature dishes, caponata, is a lesson in abbondanza [“which means ‘abundance, plenty, copiousness’”], for the purple-black eggplants, the pale green celery, the white onions, the red bell peppers, the dark gray-green capers, the black olives, all cooked in oil, doused with a trace of sugar and a splash of red-wine vinegar, produce a dish of extraordinary beauty as well as taste, the individual colors of the vegetables taking on the beauty of bold stained glass.”
Of her grandmother’s soup, she writes:
“At its best, my grandmother’s chicken soup would come out of the fridge in a Jell-O-like state. I loved to watch it, thick and clear, all aquiver, as my mother or father ladled it out of the kettle into a smaller pot for heating. When the ladle dipped into our battered soup kettle, the soup sometimes made a sucking noise, which I loved to listen for when I was little…I knew even then that it was the one thing in the world I liked best to eat.”
Importantly, Butturini accurately describes Tagliabue’s debilitating depression and the devastation it causes to everyone. She captures poignantly the grave loss of interest and withdrawal that strike individuals with depression. She writes about an impostor, who seems nothing like her former talkative, funny, intelligent, curious and engaging husband. She writes:
“His eyes—not his own eyes, but a stranger’s eyes that had mysteriously taken up residence in his head—sometimes glittered as they darted nervously from side to side. At other times, these stranger’s eyes—at once terrified and terrifying—appeared dull, lifeless, and unseeing, as if they were turned so far inward that no light from the outer world could possibly find its way in.”
She repeatedly mentions her father’s words to her: “You’ve got to remember, it’s not John doing this, it’s the sickness.” This is a powerful lesson because it’s tempting to blame the person with depression for the destruction it can cause to loved ones. Still, Butturini remains a supportive spouse, and her strength, compassion and determination to help her family (and herself) will be an inspiration to readers.
Keeping the Feast is a beautiful, thoughtful, honest and uplifting memoir. It not only focuses on the curative powers of food but also on the strength of the human spirit. It’s an important read that reminds people of the magnitude and beauty of food, family and love. That no matter the tragedies in life, taking it one step at a time, from breakfast to lunch to dinner, and savoring daily rituals can be amazingly healing.