Finding grace in the meal

  • May 14, 2010
Paula ButturiniTORONTO - For Paula Butturini, 15 years of continuous tragedies were countered by moments of unexpected grace and solace found in the rituals of preparing and sharing food around the dinner table.

In her book Keeping the Feast: One Couple’s Story of Love, Food and Healing in Italy, published this year by Riverhead Books, Butturini bounces the reader between a series of brutal, gut-wrenching events and peaceful, heartwarming stories that centre around food and fellowship — a gripping story of perseverance and hope.

“As the generations turn, as our family expands, the table and its simple pleasures — never just the food, but the food and the talk, the food and the laughter, the food and the tears, the jokes, the memories, the hopes — still holds us in place, well anchored in a safe harbour,”  Butturini writes in Keeping the Feast.

An Italian-American from Connecticut, Butturini was working as a news correspondent in Europe where she met her husband, New York Times reporter John Tagliabue. The streak of terrible events began with her being beaten at a riot in Czechoslovakia and dramatically began to spiral downward only 23 days after their wedding, the day Tagliabue was shot while covering uprisings in Romania.

“We’ve been through a peculiar — very special but in a negative sense — 15 years where there were so many things: my beating, his shooting, seven operations, rehab to walk, my mother commits suicide, my father gets diagnosed with cancer, my brother’s kidney disease comes back,” Butturini told The Catholic Register.

{sa 1594488975}“I realized that so many things went wrong, so many horrible things had happened that I couldn’t write it with just the negative things. I would have lost my mind but nobody would have read it either.”

And that is why she includes chapters about all her “woo-leees,” the favourite childhood dishes of family gatherings, the comfort foods her parents prepared with care, the fresh ingredients and aromas of Italy and the joys she found in teaching her own daughter to eat and appreciate food. The food stories jump between her youth on the Connecticut coast in the 1950s, to communist Poland where she and her husband lived for a short time and other places in between, then back to Rome, where she and Tagliabue first met and where they decided to spend several years recovering in the aftermath of his injury.

Among the most trying events in Butturini’s life, and one where food was most crucial, was her husband’s plunge into depression — something that felt like the husband she knew had completely disappeared. Butturini said she wrote the book to better help their now adult children understand the illness that struck their father after his injury and the other hardships that affected them — even if she began explaining it to her youngest daughter Julia when she was only nine.

“I felt very early on that the more they knew, the better chance they would have, and if it ever came down to them they would have tools to fight it,” she said.

Butturini’s mother had suffered from four bouts of post-partem psychosis, starting with Butturini’s birth.  

“I always had the feeling somehow it was my fault and I didn’t know why. It wasn’t until I was 28 that she told me,” she said. “I wanted (my children) to know anything possible because I didn’t have that and my life would have been easier as a child had I known that she was ill, that there was a reason that had nothing to do with me, even if it came at my birth.”

In hindsight, Butturini sees the book as a testimony to her mother’s heroism. Despite her illness and a lack of medical attention, she did her best to cope over a lifetime, while maintaining a lively personality.

“If somebody is shot while working, everybody wants to help. If an old woman gets depressed 30 years after she’d been depressed four times, it’s a different thing. And so she didn’t get the right kind of care. We were all just waiting for her to get better. We weren’t ever expecting her to commit suicide,” Butturini said. “She didn’t know that if you could just hang on it would pass.”

Besides the food, Butturini credits God’s graces as the glue that held them together. And it was through talking to people about the illness, not keeping it a secret like her mother had done, that the graces came, starting with her father’s weekly long distance phone call.

“He would say ‘It’s not John, it’s the illness’ and that phrase was one of the bedrocks of hope and one of those moments of grace, like Sr. Mary Ann Walsh saying it’s okay to get t’eed off at God, and then the Jesuit saying you couldn’t be authentic if you weren’t angry. Those were total moments of utter grace that I was so lucky to have and the thing is that if I didn’t talk to people about it, I wouldn’t have those moments of grace.”

Her visit with Mother Miriam, an American nun then at a monastery outside Rome, also helped despite the simplicity of her words.

“She simply encouraged me to continue down what was obviously a very difficult road, not to despair along the way, and to keep to that path until I found where I was meant to be,” she says in her book.

Since Keeping the Feast was published, Butturini has unintentionally found a new path as an advocate for people with depression. She has already had several requests for speaking engagements, including from a Yale University-affiliated mental health centre. When asked what she might talk about, Butturini said she will probably address the importance of family in helping people get through depression — which for her meant helping her husband simply get from morning until lunch until dinner.  

“For me that was the easiest way. Cooking and staying in the present helped me get through but for somebody else who doesn’t associate family meals with something positive, maybe their coping mechanism would be painting or something else.”

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