Butturini to return to Fairfield to share thoughts on healing through food, family

It's been quite an adventure for this Fairfield native who left the area at 18, went to Wellesley, returned for a brief stint as a reporter for the Bristol Press and eventually became a foreign correspondent in Europe, where she has lived ever since leaving the U.S.

Butturini, now 59, and the mother of a daughter, 12, will return home to speak at the Fairfield Public Library Sunday at 2 p.m. Here, this journalist who has chronicled the lives of other people throughout her career, now tells her own story in a memoir titled, Keeping The Feast: One Couple's Story of Love, Food, and Healing, just published by Riverhead Books a division of the Penguin Group.

Keeping The Feast is described as "a tale of extraordinary strength born of extraordinary tragedy ... the true story of the staggering events that plunged the author's brand-new marriage into crisis, and the unexpected fortitude they derived from the simple daily rituals of food and fellowship."

Butturini met John Tagliabue, another foreign correspondent, working for The New York Times in Rome in 1985. They fell in love. Four years later in 1989, while reporting on the Velvet Revolution in Prague, Butturini was beaten and left unconscious by Czechoslovak police. Just two weeks later, the couple got married. Then a month later, Tagliabue was shot and nearly killed by a sniper in Timisoara, Romania, during the fight to overthrow the country's Communist regime.

In a recent telephone interview from her home in Paris, a day before she was to fly to the U.S. to begin her book tour, Butturini described the "filthy" conditions in the hospital in Romania like a "war zone." There were no antibiotics and her husband nearly died before he was airlifted to Munich. Then, he became infected with Hepatitis B, caused by a bad blood transfusion. His poor physical condition triggered depression, which he had experienced in his early adulthood after leaving a monastery.

Her husband's depression brought back memories of Butturini's mother's own depression. Her mother's illness had been kept from Butturini when she was a child. When the author was 28, her mother told her daughter she had suffered from severe bouts of post-partum psychosis.

"I grew up with a mother who had [depression] and I didn't know this. By the time I was 8, my mother had had four of these [episodes]," said Butturini during the interview.

Her husband battled with his depression, which he finally overcame after a number of years, only to have it resurface in 2004. Butturini instinctively started to take notes about their lives, especially the daily routine. In order to keep functioning and to remain strong so that her husband could gain his strength back, Butturini focused on the daily ritual of getting up in the early morning, going to the market to buy food, cooking the meals and sitting down and eating the meals -- a routine in which any family would engage.

Nearly three years ago, Butturini decided she wanted to write the book so that, in some small way, she could help others dealing with a family member with depression. She decided to chronicle the couple's struggles dealing with the depression against the backdrop of the daily ritual of food.

"I couldn't just write all about the bad stuff," she said. "There I was trying to tell a story about the God-awful things that happened." Getting up, going to the market, cooking and eating the meals were "the only things that were normal. The food gave us comfort. It was a way of spending time together. John somehow would never break down during a meal. He would sit at the meal."

Butturini noted how the day-to-day life dealing with a depressed family member is very frustrating and worrisome. She lived in fear that her husband would kill himself, as her mother had done in 1991 at the age of 73, when the author was 41.

In her book, Butturini wrote: "My utterly prudish mother had left the house in nothing but her nightgown. My mother, always cold and shivery, had gone out on a frigid, rainy night without a coat and boots and scarf and hat. My mother, who hated cold water to the point of giving up swimming even in August, had willingly walked or jumped or dived into Ash Creek in the middle of November. My mother, who prayed on her knees nightly before getting into bed, who feared her God perhaps as much as she loved him, had broken the great taboo on taking her own life."

In writing her book, Butturini said she wants people to know: "When someone in a family does get this, it's not just the person with the depression who should get help, but everyone should see a trained psychologist. ... People need the basics on how to help the person who is sick get better. It's such a powerful illness."

As was the case in her own immediate family, the author noted that people in a family don't like to talk about depression. It's kept as a family secret. She doesn't think this is a characteristic of an Italian-American household. Yes, she said, Italians do like to keep secrets, but she doesn't know of any culture that wouldn't keep a family members struggle with depression secret.

Throughout her book, she demonstrated an extreme amount of patience with her husband's illness. "Part of my patience was I didn't know any better. I was patient because I was afraid if I did something wrong, he would kill himself. There was a point when the doctor in Rome said, `You have to put more demands on him to get better.'"

Butturini learned that "patience can be a vice, and anger a virtue, that sometimes it is vital to make demands of the sick, to oblige them to heal."

In addition to her own patience, Butturini offers praise for the New York Times editors who were very patient in giving her husband the time he needed to deal with fighting the depression. Today, Tabliablue, now in his late 60s, continues to file stories for the Times, reporting on feature subjects throughout Europe

While Keeping the Feast presents the story of depression against the backdrop of food, Butturini does not offer specific recipes. However, she does offer great detail about the recipes and the ingredients of the variety of meals. In some cases, a reader could easily gather the ingredients and create the process. One early chapter begins with a description of her father braising asparagus 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."

Today, life is good for Butturini, as she and her husband raise their daughter and she enjoys the extended family that includes her husband's son and daughter from a previous marriage. Last summer his daughter gave birth to a little boy, now 7 months old.

When asked during the interview, to sum up her life's experiences in one word, Butturini thought for a moment and said, "Thankful. ... We are really thankful that we got through it. I had already lost one person in my family to this disease. Clinical depression is not a lifetime disease. It comes and goes."

On her Web site, Butturini wrote: "Cooking, for me, was never about fancy ingredients or rich, complicated recipes; it was never a race or contest, never about making impressions or scoring points. Food was always elemental, about hunger and nourishment, love and support. Sharing food remains one of the most fundamental and primordial rituals of the human community, and though our family never talked about it as such, those shared meals, full of talk and laughter, bound us together as a family, gave us strength. We always ate together, around a family table. We still do."

The author hopes that her own experience, along with that of her family, might help other families realize that "after, or even despite depression, not only can there be life, but joy and laughter and love."