January 15, 2017

Keeping the Feast

Keeping the Feast: One Couple's Story of Love, Food and Healing in Italy by Paula Butturini
Nonfiction - Memoir
2010 Riverhead Books
Finished on July 28, 2016
Rating: 2/5 (Fair)

Publisher's Blurb:

Paula Butturini and John Tagliabue met as foreign correspondents in Italy, fell in love, and four years later, married in Rome. But not even a month after the wedding, tragedy struck. They had transferred away from their Italian paradise when John was shot and nearly killed on the job. The period of physical and mental suffering that followed marked the abrupt end of what they'd known together and the beginning of a phase of life neither had planned for.

They followed their instincts and returned to the place they loved, Italy, and there they found a lifeline of sorts. As John struggled to regain his health and Paula reexamined her assumptions about illness and recovery, it was food and its rituals--the daily shopping, preparing, sharing, and memory of food--that kept them moving forward. Food became a symbol of the family's innate desire to survive, to accept, and to celebrate what fell its way.

Keeping the Feast is an inspiring story of what happens when tragedy strikes a previously happy marriage and a couple must fight to find its bearings. It is a testament to the extraordinary sustaining powers of food and love, to the healing that can come from the simple rituals of life, even during life's biggest challenges, and to the stubborn belief that there is always an afterward, always hope.

My dear friend Meredith sent me this book waaaay back in 2010. I was so excited to read it, but as we all know, reading is driven by moods and for whatever reason, this book didn't call out to me as quickly as I thought it would. It languished in the bookcase until I finally decided the time was right. It was summertime and I was eager for some armchair travel, so I dove in and was quickly transported to Italy.
We moved into a small apartment near the Tiber on one of those golden October days so perfect that you could never imagine willingly leaving the city again. Every morning I would walk down our narrow street toward the hubbub of Campo dei Fiori, where the flower sellers, the fruit vendors, the vegetable sellers, the fishmongers, the mushroom lady, the bread shop, the lamb and chicken lady, the pork butcher, the notions man, the meat vans, the olive and herbs vendors, the newspaper kiosk, the housewares stand, and the roving garlic salesmen from Bangladesh were always open for business no matter how early I awakened.

Morning after morning for an entire year, I walked to the Campo before most people were up. Noisy, honking, shouting Rome is almost quiet at that hour, and what began as a simple routine soon took on the trappings of ritual. I woke up early, dressed, walked out the door and over to the Campo. I would buy a shiny, plump purple-black eggplant. Or a handful of slender green beans, or fresh and young you could eat them raw. I brought three golden pear, or a heavy bunch of fat, green grapes. I bought a few slices of Milanese salami, a bit of veal. I bought a thin slab of creamy gorgonzola, to spread on crusty, still-warm bread. I bought milk, yogurt, butter, and eggs, and finally the newspapers. Then I would head home, stopping in the tiny church of Santa Brigida, which lay halfway between the Campo and our apartment. The first few months, I would rest my bundles on the cold marble floor, kneel for a moment at the back of the church under the gaze of a painted Madonna, and try not to cry. Months later, I would still kneel for a moment in the same spot, but when I felt the tears coming, I'd make a fist and pound once or twice on the pew in front of me. It made a fitting, hollow sound in the almost empty church. Then I would collect my bundles and continue my short walk home.

I needed both parts of the ritual, the buying of the food and the stopping in the church. We all must eat, and there is nothing more normal than buying the food that keeps us alive. When I performed the ritual of buying our daily bread, the world seemed more normal. Pounding a pew a few minutes later brought home how far from normal I still felt.

Buttarini's memoir isn't just about food and living in Italy. It's about a terrible act of violence. I found myself nodding in agreement.

Years later, I still have difficulty even connecting them to a shooting. Shootings, I still like to think, happen to drug dealers or innocent passerby in New York, to foreign tourists visiting Miami. They happen to people who clean guns or keep them under their beds. They happen to soldiers, to policemen, to mafiosi, to people who have enemies. They don't happen to my husband, my family, to me. I suspect my response of utter disbelief is standard for anyone who hasn't been blindsided by some sort of shock: the sudden diagnosis of a rampaging cancer, the overnight loss of a family's life savings. Shocks like these hammer the notion that a history of good luck is no amulet for the future.

But she does write some mouth-watering passages about food that had me reaching for my Post-It notes and longing to move to Italy!

John and I quickly fell into a routine of meeting Joseph on the terrace that overlooked the lake to eat our meals together. We started around eight, with thick slices of crusty country bread, with butter and jams from the garden's fruit trees, perhaps a bit of cheese or yogurt with honey from the hives that stood below the house, and mugs of strong, milky tea. After working in the garden or doing other small chores, we met again for "elevenses," milky coffee and a couple of simple, store-bought cookies, so we could keep our hunger at bay till the main midday meal about one p.m. I happily took on the cooking: a simple pasta or risotto to start; then a bit of sauteed veal or chicken and a vegetable from the garden; a green salad tossed with olive oil, lemon, and sugar--as Joseph liked it--then fruit, followed by the inevitable siesta.

Final Thoughts:

I love a good foodie memoir, but about halfway into this book, I began to lose interest. Hating to give up on a book that so many of my friends raved about, I pushed on, hoping to finish with at least a 3-star rating. I enjoyed the descriptions of the food and meals shared with family and friends, but Keeping the Feast is such a bleak story. The author was beaten, her husband shot, her mother suffered from depression and then her husband dealt with the same, and on and on it goes. I decided to take a break for about a month, but after that I didn't have any desire to finish the book. So much for a 3-star rating.


  1. I get what you mean about the bleakness of the book but I liked it more than you did. I didn't love it, though.

    1. Kathy, yes I remember yours was one of the more positive reviews I read back when this first came out.

  2. It was hugely disappointing book for me. I did finish it, but I didn't rate it very highly.

    1. Deb, I'm glad I'm not the only one who was disappointed! Sometimes, I think I'm too critical... :)

  3. I read this when it came out and enjoyed it much more than you did, but I think I went into it understanding that it was going to be dark and as much about the recovery process as about the food.

    1. Lisa, I'm sure I read your review (along with Bellezza's and Andi's) and was so sorry it didn't wow me as it did everyone else. It did make me long for a trip to Italy, though!

  4. I do enjoy stories about expats but this one seems more bleak than most. Most actually seem to be full of kooky characters and situations. I think I would give this one a go but would definitely hold my expectations in check!

    1. Iliana, it was definitely a bleak story. Some of the passages were lovely, making me wish I could pack my bags and spend a month in Italy, but others made me almost cringe with despair for this poor couple.

  5. Replies
    1. Yeah, it's not your cuppa! :)


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