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Keeping the Feast: One Couple's Story of Love, Food, and Healing in Italy - Hardcover

 
9781594488979: Keeping the Feast: One Couple's Story of Love, Food, and Healing in Italy
A story of food and love, injury and healing, Keeping the Feast is the triumphant memoir of one couple's nourishment and restoration in Italy after a period of tragedy, and the extraordinary sustaining powers of food, family, and friendship.

Paula and John met in Italy, fell in love, and four years later, married in Rome. But less than a month after the wedding, tragedy struck. They had transferred from their Italian paradise to Warsaw and while reporting on an uprising in Romania, John was shot and nearly killed by sniper fire. Although he recovered from his physical wounds in less than a year, the process of healing had just begun. Unable to regain his equilibrium, he sank into a deep sadness that reverberated throughout their relationship. It was the abrupt end of what they'd known together, and the beginning of a new phase of life neither had planned for. All of a sudden, Paula was forced to reexamine her marriage, her husband, and herself.

Paula began to reconsider all of her previous assumptions about healing. She discovered that sometimes patience can be a vice, anger a virtue. That sometimes it is vital to make demands of the sick, that they show signs of getting better. And she rediscovered the importance of the most fundamental of human rituals: the daily sharing of food around the family table.

A universal story of hope and healing, Keeping the Feast is an account of one couple's triumph over tragedy and illness, and a celebration of the simple rituals of life, even during the worst life crises. Beautifully written and tremendously moving, Paula's story is a testament to the extraordinary sustaining powers of food and love, and to the stubborn belief that there is always an afterward, there is always hope.

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About the Author:
Paula Butturini has worked in overseas bureaus in London, Madrid, Rome, and Warsaw for United Press International and The Chicago Tribune. She is now a writer based in Paris.
Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1 Hungers

Some mornings, beginning in March, I wake up hungering for green asparagus. It is a grown-up hunger, for I don't remember asparagus cravings before I was twelve or thirteen, when my father learned to braise them in butter under three or four leaves of dripping wet lettuce. The lettuce, lightly salted, would wilt, then give up a mild, sweet juice in which the asparagus would steam. When they were done and my father lifted the lid, a cloud of vegetable essence would fill the entire kitchen. My mother would sigh in delight at the smell of it, and even my brother, five or six at the time and still finicky in his appetites, would devour them. On those days, our hunger for asparagus was boundless.

Decades later, sudden unshakable hungers still seize me throughout the year. In winter, it might be a craving for baby artichokes, braised in olive oil and mint, eaten barely warm. In spring I often crave strawberries—the smaller, the better—sliced over a mound of fresh ricotta. In summer I long for figs, or tomatoes, their juices still warm from the sun. In fall, I want and need a fat persimmon, quartered, opened up like a flower, sprinkled with lemon juice and eaten slowly, with ceremony and a spoon.

My maternal grandmother's Neapolitan soul knew and respected these sudden cravings. She called them voglie, an Italian word that can mean anything from wishes, wants, and desires to longings, fancies, or whims. But when Jennie Comparato used the word in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in the 1950s she meant only one thing— those deep, impulsive hungers for some special seasonal feast. The word is properly pronounced VOHL-yay, with the accent on the first syllable. But all of us in the family, none of whom had ever been to Italy, heard it rather differently. "Wool-EEE" is what we used to say, Americanizing it beyond recognition. We changed the v to a w, we changed the sound of the o, we accented the last syllable instead of the first.

"I've got the wool-eee for a cream cheese sandwich on date-nut bread," my mother might sigh on a particularly bleak Saturday morning in late January when she was convinced spring would never come again. If her wool-ee was serious, she would slap on lipstick and a hat and order me out of my flannel-lined dungarees and into a hated hand-me-down skirt. She would pop me into the backseat of the Olds and drive us downtown. There, in a wood-paneled bakery and sandwich shop called Harkabus, she would satiate her desire, sighing in quiet joy at her first bite, as if that mixture of brown bread and white cheese could coax the bare magnolia in the front yard into early bloom. I never shared her enthusiasm for that particular sandwich, and she never thought to press it. Wool-eees were personal, and though best when shared, could not be coerced. She satisfied her soul her way and I took care of mine, with bacon, lettuce, and tomato on toast, the mayonnaise carefully scraped off .

Jennie and the entire Comparato clan— she had seven brothers and sisters, four half brothers and half sisters— took wool-eees seriously, never mocking or ignoring these often inexplicable desires. When a wool-eee erupted, they knew the stomach was speaking. And the stomach, in our family, was to be listened to attentively, not just blindly fed. In our family the stomach was only slightly less important than the brain, and according to my mother, clearly more trustworthy and often more intelligent. I was not quite sure what she meant by those words nor by the fierceness of the tone she used when uttering similar pronouncements, all of which ended with a look into my eyes and the same tag line: "That's life— better get used to it."

I thought at the time, and for many, many years, that she was talking to me when she made those pronouncements that sounded so wise and so certain. Later I understood that she was talking mainly to herself. At any rate, by age six or seven, I knew wool-eees bespoke nourishment and need, both of body and of soul. I knew they transcended mundane treats. Neither body nor soul could ever pretend to require a Hostess Snowball, a lemon Popsicle, or an Almond Joy.

When I first moved to Rome, in my early thirties, it was the abundance of Roman voglie that made me feel welcome, almost as if I'd moved home. Romans have voglie for all manner of edible things. They are sometimes tied to the days of the week, like the need for potato gnocchi on Thursdays, or for thick pasta and chickpea soup, with rosemary and dried red pepper, on Fridays. They are sometimes tied to hours of the day, such as a craving for spaghetti aglio, olio, e peperoncino late at night or for a piece of warm pizza bianca on the way home from school. They are often tied to seasons of the year, when the body instinctively knows what it needs to eat, such as a mountain of midwinter spinach, barely warm and drizzled with olive oil and lemon; for ricotta in spring, when the cows and ewes produce their sweetest milk; for deep platters of mussels in white wine and garlic, all you can stand on a broiling summer night; for a brown paper cone of roasted chestnuts in November, just off one of the battered braziers that appear on street corners when cooler weather finally sets in.

Each year my own wool-eees grow stronger, as if by being satisfied they are heightened instead of diminished. It makes a certain sense, for if we are charmed once, and charmed again by repeating the performance, our memories hold the weight of both. So it is that toward the end of each succeeding winter, I need asparagus even more than I needed it the year before.

These days I find myself willing local asparagus into the market even before it is ready for harvest. By the time they actually arrive, I can almost taste them. But it is not just the taste I crave. I hunger as much, perhaps even more, for what their seasonal appearance signals: that the dark and cold and death of winter is about to yield to the sun and heat and promise of spring. I hunger then for their springy green color, for the sharp crack they make when I snap off the bottom of a muddy, fibrous, white-tipped stalk. I hunger, too, for the sight of them in an orderly, buttered mound, their sweet, blunt tips all pointing in the same direction, lying on a thick white pottery platter and covered with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. I even hunger for the proof I have eaten them, for asparagus is the only vegetable I know that produces a vegetal, acrid smell in pee. I hunger, too, for that cloud of asparagus-lettuce perfume that used to fill our kitchen when I was twelve or thirteen, and the four of us ate them, happily.

In Rome, when I needed and wanted and simply had to have asparagus, I walked to Campo dei Fiori early to choose the pick of the lot. They would be standing upright on Signora Maria's crowded vegetable stall, wrapped in green-and-white paper, as if they were flowers, secured with a thick green rubber band so that only the fat tips showed. Back home, I would snap off the woody bottoms where they themselves knew to break. I would wash off the grit, then wish I didn't have to wait till dinner. Sometimes, if that wish was very strong, I didn't. I boiled a few right then and cooked them gently with a beaten egg to produce a filched asparagus frittata, which tastes better than anything, probably because its main ingredient has been stolen, for hunger's sake.

The first few times each season, I want them whole, with a bit of butter melting over them and lots of freshly grated Parmigiano. If John is traveling, I may balance my plate on my knees while sitting on my favorite stool, and this private kitchen picnic will be as satisfying as any proper meal at a well-set table. If John is in town, we'll sit at table, the platter between us, and stalk by stalk contentedly share my winter-to-spring wool-eee. Later in the season, for variety, I may dribble a bit of good green-gold olive oil over them while they are still warm. Just as I am about to eat, I squeeze a wedge of lemon over them, and the lemon oil gets into the skin of my fingers and into the air, and the lemon juice rides in droplets atop the olive oil, and the sweetness of the asparagus mingles with the oil and juice. It is a private, heady potion, my own call to Persephone to summon spring.

When I no longer need to eat them whole, I chop them into bits and pieces to turn them into spring's best risotto, using the asparagus water in which the stalks are first cooked as a mild, sweet broth that both colors and flavors the rice. It is a vegetable tonic, helping the body and mind make that longed-for but always difficult change of seasonal gears from darkness to light. In our house, risotto is always served from a large, deep oval platter, just as it appeared on the mahogany dining table in Jersey City when John was a boy. Risotto served from a bowl or from a flat, round plate doesn't taste right to him. When I appear with a platter of asparagus risotto, the color of the soft green cloud that hovers over a tree just before it bursts into leaf, neither of us is craving just the simple ingredients that went into the pot. For me, every forkful is like each bite my mother took from her cream cheese sandwich: a reassurance that winter will, in fact, finally end. For John, I think, each taste satisfies his longing for all the Tagliabues who ate supper together in the two-family house on Columbia Avenue, for Mother and Daddy; for the older boys, Charles, Robert, and Paul; for Aunt Julia, who never married; for Upstairs Grandma, who used to sing softly and absently for hours as she sat in her kitchen just abo...

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  • PublisherRiverhead Hardcover
  • Publication date2010
  • ISBN 10 1594488975
  • ISBN 13 9781594488979
  • BindingHardcover
  • Edition number1
  • Number of pages272
  • Rating

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