'Keeping The Feast': Comfort Food For The Wounded
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
Foreign correspondents Paula Butturini and John Tagliabue fell in love over late night dinners in Rome. They all shared traditions of family feasts. Their work took them to Eastern Europe, where a nightmare began when John was shot by a sniper while reporting in Romania.
Tagliabue's wounds healed but the shooting sent him into a lengthy and severe depression.
Paula Butturini's new memoir, "Keeping the Feast," is about the couple's struggle to recover, how a return to Italy and preparing and eating food helped.
Paula Butturini joined me from Paris, where she lives now.
Welcome to the program.
Ms. PAULA BUTTURINI (Author, "Keeping the Feast"): Thank you.
WERTHEIMER: Now, as soon as you could, you decided to go back to Rome, where you all had met and married. Give us an idea of what daily life with your husband was like when you finally got past his convalescence and you were in Rome dealing mainly with depression.
Ms. BUTTURINI: It was completely unreal. A man who had always been warm and talkative became utterly silent. He would spend much of his day wrapped up in bedclothes. I could find him banging his head against the iron bedstead or against a 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. And the only way I could get through a day was to try and focus just on that day.
In the mornings I would get up very early and we lived right near to the Campo di Fiori, a wonderful open air market in central Rome.
WERTHEIMER: Now, almost as much of the book is about that, is about food. And that account of the Campo di Fiori - that was your first notion that that would make everything better, that it would help?
Ms. BUTTURINI: No, I dont think when I started going over there I had any notion that anything would help.
Ms. BUTTURINI: It was simply a matter - that was with a few minutes of every day, that early morning, I would get up and go over there. He was still asleep, so I didnt have to worry what would happen to him. 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.
WERTHEIMER: One of the things that you write about at the Campo di Fiori is asparagus. And at one point you write about going on a kind of asparagus bender.
Ms. BUTTURINI: Well, I think that when asparagus would come into the season -in Rome it's nice and early - and it would come into the season and suddenly you'd see it everywhere.
Every day I'd go to the market and ask a different vendor, well, how are you going to make it tonight? How will you or your wife make it tonight? And I'd just go home and try different recipes. Certainly wasnt that I was thinking that eating asparagus was going to somehow make us better.
But 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.
WERTHEIMER: He'd been sick for quite a long time when all of a sudden you just sort of hit a wall. You stopped being patient. You got angry. And in the book there's an account of that that starts on Page 184?
Ms. BUTTURINI: Yeah.
I watched him just ahead of me, walking like a stick figure - rigid, tense, knees locked, rocking from side-to-side as he made his way slowly across the piazza in front of me. And for the first time since he had fallen ill, I felt not a whit of pity or sorrow but only pure murderous anger.
Anger not just toward his illness or our circumstances, but fully and directly toward him for letting his illness utterly hijack our life.
Before I knew it, I had become the madman and found myself howling at him at the top of my lungs in the middle of the piazza, screaming and crying that if he didnt stop walking like Frankenstein that very instant, everything would be over between us very soon.
WERTHEIMER: That happened to you. What happened to him?
Ms. BUTTURINI: It seemed to me that within a very short time after that point, I began to see more signs of improvement than I'd seen in nearly a year's time. I think my anger sort of awakened him on some level. He saw that my patience was not going to be eternal. It may have been simply coincidental that the illness was beginning to pass somewhat. But certainly he knew on no uncertain terms that it was time to show me that he was getting better.
WERTHEIMER: When your husband began to get better, he started cooking. So what did that mean to you?
Ms. BUTTURINI: Well, he had always cooked before he was sick. For me, the fact that he was starting to cook again was one of the clearest signs that he was getting better.
I can remember when, oh, about a year or so after he was really sick, we went to visit friends and their daughter, who was having a birthday party. And John decided he would make montebianco, because it was September and the chestnuts in their yard were ripe and 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.
WERTHEIMER: How is he now?
Ms. BUTTURINI: Now he is probably the best he's been since the shooting 20 years ago. I would never say any of us were the same as we were before. But we're certainly not wallowing in self-pity or feeling depressed or anything like that. We're both in good shape.
WERTHEIMER: Paula Butturini, thank you very much for this.
Ms. BUTTURINI: Thank you.
WERTHEIMER: Paula Butturini's book is called "Keeping the Feast."
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