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April 4, 2010

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Solace in cooking

WHEN trying to cope with pain, the kitchen can become our therapist, food our source of comfort. The joy of cooking was certainly the salve that soothed the emotional wounds that the journalist Paula Butturini endured as she and her husband suffered bullets, police beatings and a battle with depression that almost tore their marriage apart.

Butturini tells her story through food - its restorative powers and its capacity to trigger the brain to remember and hope in times of tragedy and challenge: "And like a potter centering clay on a spinning potter's wheel, the mere act of cooking centered me," she writes in a blunt, brave memoir.

It "kept me close, available, ready to help, kept us fed, kept me sufficiently focused on present tasks so that I wouldn't panic about the future, kept me going through the slow passing of a string of bad days, weeks and months."

Butturini and her husband, John Tagliabue, a former correspondent for and current contributor to The New York Times, met while working as journalists in Rome in the 1980s. Their early love was nourished by meals shared in the kitchens of small apartments.

When Tagliabue was assigned to take over the Warsaw bureau for The Times in 1987, they set off together from sunny Italy to Poland. Shortly before their wedding day in 1989, Butturini was severely beaten by riot police while covering a political activity in Prague. Then, a few weeks later, Tagliabue was shot during the uprising against local government and nearly died. His wounds took months to heal; the trauma and depression persisted for years.

The couple ultimately returned to Italy, "ghostlike," in search of "the one wild card we possessed: our love for Rome and the rituals we clung to there, all involving nourishment of one sort or another."

Food frames the course of her marriage as Butturini discovers the deal breaker depression can be. How the differences in two people's psychological makeup can threaten, as she puts it, to "utterly hijack our life."

In her Italian family in Connecticut, food was sacrament. It was no wonder that she went to Rome when faced with her husband's intractable depression. There, she would buy what was fresh at an outdoor market; daily meals became a way to mark time.

Tagliabue, meanwhile, sobbed in a darkened room between psychiatric visits. The only normal activity he could manage was eating, so Butturini kept cooking.

In the face of these bleak odds many would abandon the marriage or succumb to depression themselves. Butturini perseveres, and you can't help admiring her courage and stamina. In the end, it is she, not her husband, who is healed by food. "All of us cook, I think, in part to feed our daily hunger, but just as important, and perhaps more so, we cook and eat to feed our spirits, to keep us all in the same orbit of life."

"Keeping the Feast" shares with Julie Powell's "Julie & Julia" and Elizabeth Gilbert's "Eat, Pray, Love" the insight that food can jump-start a journey toward solace. Can it cure clinical depression? Of course not. But the act of cooking and eating together bolsters Butturini, and she in turn keeps Tagliabue alive.

The real glue in this marriage scarred by tragedy is not Butturini's cooking but Butturini herself.


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