Baltimore Sun, Benedictine order, Boston Globe, Campo dei Fiori market Rome, Charlotte Sheedy, Chicago Tribune, Cold War, Czechoslovakia Velvet Revolution, East European correspondent, Farmer Boy Laura Ingals Wilder, France, French cooking, Heidi, Houston Chronicle, How the French Invented Love by Marilyn Yalom, Images and Shadows by Iris Origo, Italian cooking, Italian-American, Jesuit, John Tagliabue The New York Times, Keeping the Feast by Paula Butturini, Krista Tippett On Being radio, Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Maraini, mental illness, Miami Herald, Nicolae Ceausescu, Paris, Paula Butturini, Piazza Farnese Rome, prayer, R.J. Julia bookstore, San Francisco Examiner, Santa Brigida church Rome, Sargent's Daughters by Erica E Hirshler, Sister of Mercy, Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill, The Joy of Cooking, The New York Times, The New York Times Book Review, The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence, The Swiss Family Robinson, Three Junes by Julia Glass, Time Magazine, United Press International, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Wellesley College, Williams College
Paula Butturini was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, grew up along Long Island Sound, and received her B.A. from Wellesley College, MA in 1973 with a double major in Spanish and English. She has spent most of her adult life in Europe, working and freelancing for numerous major U.S. newspapers and the old United Press International in the major capitals of Europe, both East and West. Paula’s first book, Keeping the Feast, was published by Riverhead/Penguin in 2010.
For the first eighteen years of her life, Paula did not stray far from the Connecticut coast, never crossing the Hudson River until she was nearly twenty. She spent her college years in Massachusetts, at Wellesley College, just west of Boston, and Williams College, in the Berkshires. Leaving New England in the middle of a brutal winter in 1977, she spent the next five years as a reporter and editor in Dallas—and still remembers how liberating it felt to learn she could make real winter disappear forever with something as simple as a new address. Since then she has lived and worked in London, Madrid, Rome, Warsaw, Berlin, and Paris, and saw much of South America, Asia, Europe, and Oceania while spending four years covering the voyages of Pope John Paul II.
In 1987 Paula was hired by the Chicago Tribune to be their East European correspondent based in Warsaw, and was responsible for seven countries of the old East Bloc: Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. She was there as the Berlin Wall began to topple and finally fell.
A single bullet, fired by a sniper two days before Christmas 1989 in the mayhem of Romania’s overthrow of its Communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, nearly killed her husband, John Tagliabue of The New York Times. Following her husband’s shooting, recovery and rehabilitation in 1990, she began freelance writing from Berlin, where he had been transferred upon his return to work. Over the next decade she wrote regularly for, among others, The New York Times, Boston Globe, San Francisco Examiner, Houston Chronicle, Miami Herald, Washington Post and Baltimore Sun; she eventually left journalism to resume writing her book, Keeping the Feast: One Couple’s Story of Love, Food, and Healing.
Paula grew up in the Fifties, in an Italian-American family, whose lives didn’t revolve solely around food, but preparing vegetables from her grandparents’ gardens, making wine from her grandfather’s Concord grapes, talking about food, making homemade pasta, reading and thinking about food, preparing meals, and eating together as a family day after day, meal after meal, burning a lot of her family’s energy decades before anybody had invented the word “foodie.” Food was always elemental, about hunger and nourishment, love and support. Those shared meals, full of talk and laughter, bound her relatives together as a family, gave strength. They always ate together, around a family table. They still do. (Paula Butturini: Website / Facebook / Twitter / Purchase )
Keeping the Feast: One Couple’s Story of Love, Food, and Healing
“Keeping the Feast is a remarkable story, gorgeously told. We reflect, relish, grieve, and heal our way with Paula Butturini, who is wise about so many things—family and place; depression, religion, and love; the disastrous long-term fallout of a single bullet fired at a loved one; and the immediate restorative pleasures of a single Italian meal. This book evokes life at its most serious and dire, and at its most mysterious and delectable. Read it, and be deepened and refreshed.” – Krista Tippett, host of the public radio program On Being.
“When we find ourselves coping 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…A blunt and brave memoir.” – The New York Times Book Review
Keeping the Feast: One Couple’s Story of Love, Food, and Healing
AWP: You are the author of Keeping the Feast: One Couple’s Story of Love, Food, and Healing. What inspired you to write this book?
PB: I started with the idea of producing nothing more than a detailed chronological description of what had happened to John so that his two older children, Peter and Anna, would understand what he had gone through, so that there’d be a full chapter on the shooting in the Tagliabue family history. I wanted them to understand not just the physical injuries that John had suffered but the psychological injuries that came later, the post-traumatic shock and clinical depressions. I wanted Peter and Anna—as well as our youngest daughter, Julia, who was born seven years after John’s shooting—to understand that this event had changed not just their father and his life, but each of us and each of our lives, separately and together. And changed us forever. We all became different people once that bullet entered their father’s back.
Very soon after beginning the project—while writing the prologue and first chapter—I realized that this was a story worth telling to a larger audience, not just to our family. Why? Because most families, sooner or later, go through hard times, and the important thing is to help get the family through and out of that situation. John and I wanted each of our children to have a basic road map through and out of depression, should the illness ever hit them, to help them navigate their own lives and those of their children. John agreed that it was worth putting himself out there as a sort of poster boy for clinical depression in the hope that our experience of getting through a time of seemingly endless troubles might help other families going through similar trials.
AWP: Tell us about the research for this book. What were the challenges, and how did you unfold the story you wanted to share?
PB: The initial research involved digging into old notebooks, journals, and calendars for detailed, chronological and factual information, and asking family members and friends who spent time with us during John’s long convalescence to talk about their individual memories. That, of course, was the easy part.
The hard part was trying to figure out how to tell a story that was largely a perfect storm of disasters that hit us, one after another, starting in late 1989: my being beaten unconscious by riot police in Prague at the start of Czechoslovakia’s so-called “Velvet Revolution” (which meant bits of my head were shaved and stitched for our wedding in Rome 13 days later); John’s shooting in Romania 23 days after the wedding; the septicemia that quickly set in because Romanian hospitals had no antibiotics; John’s seven back operations, and eventual hepatitis B from tainted blood; our transfer from a place we loved to a place we didn’t; the loss of my job; subsequent money problems; the unexpected suicide of my mother; the diagnosis of cancer in my father; the return of my brother’s childhood kidney disease, and then John’s descent into a drug-resistant, clinical depression that left him virtually speechless for months.
When I made my first stab at writing the book, it didn’t take more than a few fruitless sessions to realize that I couldn’t possibly write—and no one could possibly read—a simple chronicle of all the horrors we went through during that 15-year period. I knew that unless I managed to write about the good things that had always kept us going as children, and that were again keeping us going as battered adults, I would never be able to make our troubles look like anything more than a long, whining complaint. It was then that I realized that the only way I’d be able to write the book, and keep readers with me, was to alternate the horrors with happy, nurturing memories of the tables of our childhoods.
I love to eat, love to cook, love to spend time laughing and talking during a long, good meal. John and I both grew up that way, and it was the memories and the re-living of those childhood meals that kept us both going when things were at their worst. So, when I finished writing about the bullet that nearly killed John, I rewarded myself by writing about something positive, soothing and hopeful—my annual craving for the first asparagus of the season. This is a craving based only partly on taste; it’s more a hunger for what the seasonal appearance of asparagus means to me: that the dark and cold and death of winter is about to yield to the sun and heat and promise of spring. I guess it makes sense that it was the food musings that struck a chord with most readers.
AWP: John eventually recovered from his physical wounds; the process of healing had just begun. He felt inexplicably safe in Italy during his illness, so you moved back in search of a cure and it was there, in Italy, that you both rediscovered the importance of one of the fundamental human rituals: the daily sharing of food around the family table. Is the extraordinary sustaining powers of food, family, and friendship something that you are trying to explore in your work now?
PB: I’ve spent much of the last three years since Keeping the Feast came out doing precisely that. But my work during this period took a completely different form, writing plain-spoken talks instead of books about keeping a family together in the face of mental illness, and then delivering those talks to mental health associations, universities and colleges, women’s groups, book clubs, church groups, writers’ workshops, and even to an association of psychologists. I’ve spoken widely in the United States, but also in Canada, Italy, France and Poland.
AWP: You write about the serious physical and psychological injuries related to war and violence: psychological horrors of major depression and the grounds for hope despite the disease’s intractability and its potential for genuine tragedy. Do you feel there are things that haven’t been said that you are, too, trying to explore in your work?
PB: Frank talk about mental illness remains a rarity. People would rather talk about nearly anything other than mental illness, especially as it concerns themselves or their families. The stigma that surrounds this sort of illness remains overarching and terrifying to most people, as was cancer in the 1950s.
AWP: Keeping the Feast has had a huge impact on communities of faith. What do you think it is about your book that makes readers connect in such a powerful way?
PB: I think that readers connect to the book because, like religion, it speaks about elemental things: love, death, family, tragedy, hunger, nourishment, suffering. I think that readers connect to the book because in many ways, our family’s decision to talk about mental illness in a matter-of-fact voice—how our family tried to live with it, fight it, work through it and out of it, and then speak about it openly—was a form of prayer as we continue to heal. And readers react, often viscerally, to what we’re praying for: that our family’s intimate knowledge of depression in past generations has not so devastated our children that they and their children will be more susceptible to mental illness later in their lives. I think communities of faith connect to the book as well because of the spiritual themes that underpin the book, on signs and moments of grace, animate and inanimate, that kept us going during a very long ordeal. Most reviewers ignored these spiritual themes, I think, because there was so much else going on in the book: madness, marriage, sickness, Cold War politics, revolutions, and my pet peeve, family secrets. I still marvel that virtually every review of my book focuses on my decision to tell our story through food, rather than focusing on the real story—our attempt to hold the family together through years of mental illness, and then to get on with the new lives the illness brought us, not in sadness and loss, but with joy and hope.
We ourselves did not understand these signs and moments of grace until decades later, but they spoke to us loudly at the time. Some were concrete signs of grace, like the reassuring, seasonal appearance of asparagus each spring, or the chocolate cake that appeared on all the birthday party tables of my childhood. Others were moments of grace, the rare few easily identifiable as spiritual or religious: a few wise words from a friend who happened to be a Sister of Mercy, a Jesuit professor, a cloistered Benedictine nun.
I find it ironic that the single bullet that upended our lives proved, over time, that one can find grace as well as blood and bone and mangled flesh in the path that bullet took. I find it ironic and full of grace that though the bullet shattered John’s pelvis and sent bits of bone flying through him, though it knocked off the horn of a vertebra, though it tunneled just under his spine, that bullet somehow managed to tear through him without inflicting a single wound to any of his vital organs. I find it ironic and full of grace that the car in which he was riding when he was hit was utterly demolished in the fusillade, but that it came to rest at the gates of a hospital, where anti-communist fighters pulled John out of the car and raced him directly to the operating room. I find it ironic and full of grace too, that though the hospital had no modern antibiotics to fight the infection that was soon raging inside him, that the Romanian doctors and nurses were so committed to saving him that they donated their own blood when he needed it, because they knew their own blood stocks were tainted by AIDS.
And finally, I think readers respond to the feelings of anger in the book, anger at all that had happened to us, and come to see, as I did, that recognizing my anger was another moment of irony and grace—the idea that anger too could be a prayer, that anger is not always a vice but at times a virtue.
AWP: Your career has taken you from as a journalist working for the old United Press International and the Chicago Tribune as an East European correspondent based in Warsaw to the world of autobiographic memoir. What inspired you toward a life and career so dependent on words and the ability to communicate? What influenced this vision?
PB: I think my father was responsible for making me see the importance of words and the ability to communicate. He himself could and did communicate verbally without any problem. But writing was always difficult for him, and he ascribed that to a lack of training. I was in the fourth grade when he told me to start reading Time Magazine, and the offbeat feature story that used to appear on the front pages of the Wall Street Journal, whether I understood it or not. He was the one who told me to do all the writing I could, since it would help me in whatever work I ended up doing later in life. So I joined my high school newspaper because of him, and ironically it was those same high school clippings, more than anything, that got me my first reporting job.
I’d add one other idea here—moving away from the place I grew up in, when long distance phone calls were impossibly expensive, meant I had to write letters to keep up with friends and family. The longer I was away, the more I saw that it was those letters that kept me aware of what I was feeling and experiencing. As years passed, I began to realize that when I sat down to write a letter to a friend or relative, I was actually writing to myself, letting me know what I was really thinking. As as more years passed, I began to use letter writing to discover what was going on inside me. Using letter writing as a sort of personal research eventually made writing a memoir a lot easier.
AWP: You started writing the book about six years after the shooting. And then, at age 45, you became pregnant for the first time and put the project on hold, thinking you’d get back to it in a year or two. But it wasn’t until a decade later that you began writing again. When you took this long break, how did you know it was time to get back to writing?
PB: I knew I was ready to get back to writing the book, because the story had been stewing in my head for such a long time that I came to realize that the story was no longer in the back of my mind, but upfront and fighting to get out. This coincided with our youngest child no longer being a baby, which translated into a lot more free time for me. And then, through a chance dinner date with mutual friends in Paris, I met the woman who would become my agent, Charlotte Sheedy, and her quick and positive reaction to my book proposal simply hurled me into action. One last thing helped too: my father was in his 80s at that point, and I wanted him to know how crucial he had been to me. There’s nothing like death around the corner to organize one’s thoughts. And so each time I’d finish a chapter and send it to Charlotte, I’d send a copy to my father as well. Their reactions helped keep me chained to my computer, and the rest of the story just seemed to spill out.
My father lived to see the book published, to read and rejoice in all the reviews, to sit in the front row when I spoke about Keeping the Feast at my hometown library in Fairfield, CT. He died just a few days shy of his 92nd birthday, about four months after the book came out, and even then, at the end, he was adamant that I do the next leg of my book tour, which was scheduled to start a few days after his funeral. “No matter what happens,” he said, “you just go do it.” And I did.
AWP: Did journalistic reporting stand in your way when you were starting to write memoir?
PB: Not at all. The journalism background was extraordinarily helpful in organizing the material, especially the chronological, straightforward part of the story. All those years of reporting helped me look at things more closely, remember better, and jot down as I went along the details of the horrors we went through, not because I was consciously thinking that someday I might write a book about it all, but because looking, seeing and noting down what was happening was simply second nature for me. Journalism also helped chain me to my desk chair, and a lot of writing is simply that—disciplining yourself to sit down, empty your head of extraneous stuff, and just start typing or scribbling notes to yourself, wherever you may be.
AWP: Could you talk about your process as a writer?
PB: I stew and stew and stew about things, and then I stew some more. I sit down and try and write to myself. Often a thought comes to me while I’m mincing garlic or washing spinach, and I grab a pen and scribble it down so I won’t forget it. But morning writing is the most important for me, before the chaos and muddle of everyday life intrudes. I’ve always been an early riser, and when I’m writing, it gets earlier and earlier, and I am usually up—no alarm clock needed—at 5 a.m. I think it’s because my brain works on the writing while I’m asleep. That’s not to say that I dream about what I’m working on. But I think my brain goes into some kind of writing overdrive while I sleep, because my best writing comes when I wake up already in the book and just go straight to my computer and start typing, half asleep, typing as fast as I can, anything and everything that pours out of my just-waking brain. I don’t try to write things nicely, neatly, in complete sentences or with any logical thought at these moments. Just the opposite, in fact. I simply try to capture the visceral thoughts and connections that my brain was working on during the night.
For me this is the purest joy of writing, your half-awake brain just dictating to your fingers. This doesn’t last long for me—five minutes, maybe an hour at the absolute maximum. At that point, I just hit that save button and register a moment of utter joy and thanks. And then I look at the clock and realize it’s nearly seven, and the usual early morning panic ensues: getting a school lunch made, and our daughter up and out of the house on time. Only later in the morning do I head back to the computer and see, once again, that what seemed so lovely and important and gripping at five a.m. seems like just another mess to clean at nine. But there’s almost always something there, a word, a thought, a phrase, that is in fact the key to the next good sentence, paragraph, or chapter.
AWP: Do you keep a journal? Is there the temptation to keep a journal just to preserve what you’ve experienced?
PB: I’ve only kept two journals in my life. The first was when John got shot, the second, when our daughter was born. I kept John’s shooting journal not because I was thinking about history, but because very early on in the chaos and utter panic of those days, I realized my brain was not remembering things. One of John’s brothers called after we’d been airlifted out of Romania to Munich, and when he asked me what had happened that day, I was horrified to find that I couldn’t answer. An entire day of medical setbacks and panic had evaporated from my memory. So next morning, I pulled out a reporter’s notebook, and every time I spoke to a doctor, I wrote down what was said. That meant that every night when the family called, I could tell them what had happened; even better, I didn’t have to stress about whether I’d forgotten something.
AWP: Keeping the Feast, has won great recognition worldwide. How has this experience changed your world?
PB: When I was writing the book, I thought I was just doing another writing assignment, different and longer than my usual ones, but nothing life-changing. And when I began my first book tour, I thought I was just trying to sell books. But as I began speaking to an enormous crowd at R.J. Julia, Connecticut’s most celebrated bookstore, I was surprised that I had the feeling I could pick out in the crowd people who looked like they themselves knew a lot about depression, whether they were sufferers or caretakers or simply astute onlookers.
At the end of my talk, after the questions and answers, people lined up to have me sign their books. It was then that I knew I had indeed hit a nerve at that very first talk because so many people came up to me later, saying in one nervous way or other that they knew first hand about depression. My strongest memory of that night is an elderly woman trying her best to remain composed, but who seized my forearm and burst into sobs when it was her turn. “Thank you,” she said, again and again before finally blurting out, “I had my first depression when I was ten years old and no one in my family ever said a word about it. In all these years I’ve never heard anybody speaking about it matter-of-factly, in a normal voice. If only somebody had talked to me like that when I was a child, when I couldn’t understand what was happening to me…”
That woman’s experience stayed with me, and it was then that I realized I wasn’t just going to try to sell the book, but to sell some plain talk about mental illness, to try to make people understand that it is an illness, like cancer or heart disease, but even more frightening, perhaps, because it works upon the mind, the source of what makes each of us our own selves. I am not, by nature, a proselytizer, but I still feel the call to advocate for anybody caught up in the frightening chaos of mental illness. Uninformed people often think of mental illness as a weakness, a lack of character or gumption, and make totally inappropriate judgments—that the sufferer just needs to snap out of it and get on with life. They don’t understand the medical realities; they wouldn’t dream of saying that to a cancer victim, they wouldn’t dream of telling a skier with a broken leg to just ignore the pain and finish skiing down the rest of the mountain.
I personally see my husband and anybody who suffers from depression and lives to tell the tale as utterly heroic. I see my husband as heroic, not only because he survived two bouts of horrific depression, but because he was strong enough when he got through them to allow his story to be told in hopes of easing the stigma of mental illness. I also see my mother as heroic because she hung on through bout after bout of the illness, and though she virtually never found the words to describe what she suffered, and though depression ultimately killed her, she still managed to teach her children to grit their teeth and carry on.
AWP: Some women and men are predisposed, each in their own way, toward the passion for travel—through fantasy, family or a cultural context. Some may have already held a piece of their narrative. How was this the same for you?
PB: Growing up in an Italian-American household, the grandchild of people who had left their world utterly behind and sailed the Atlantic hoping for a better chance at life, I was always fascinated by the idea of Italy. None of my grandparents ever went back after they married, and yet, they never stopped talking about it either. From the first time I visited, the summer after my junior year in college, I knew I wanted to go back one day to try to get an idea of what they had left and what my life might have been like had they not emigrated.
AWP: You were the kind of kid who read whatever you could get your hands on: old newspaper articles destined for table scraps; reading and re-reading Heidi, The Swiss Family Robinson, Laura Ingals Wilder’s Farmer Boy to the oldest edition of The Joy of Cooking in your mother’s kitchen—searching for an “apples ‘n’ onions” dish like the one in Farmer Boy. Did reading and writing have a positive influence on your life growing up?
PB: I simply wouldn’t have made it through life without reading and writing.
AWP: How did you become a reader and writer? Did your parents think that you should be doing something else instead? What were their ambitions for you?
PB: I was a very lucky girl because I had a father who thought I could do anything at all that I wanted to do. He never cared that his first-born was a girl rather than a boy. He brought me up more like an oldest son, than an oldest daughter. Maybe it was because he only had a brother, and he didn’t have the experience of seeing how his parents might have treated a daughter differently than a son. In any event, he taught me how to throw a ball like a boy, to swim, to ice skate, to ride a bike, to spend my life, as he did, with my nose in books. Neither of my parents ever consciously tried to steer me into any particular field. But it was my father who gave me what I think is a key to a potentially happy life—to choose a job that was fun, that you loved. He himself hated his job––he was a cost accountant at a metal goods factory—but didn’t realize he could have done other things until it was too late. He always impressed upon me the importance of having fun and thus making work into play.
AWP: What writing advice would you like to share?
PB: Just sit down and do it, day after day. Once you get into a rhythm of sitting down each day and writing something—anything—you are likely to get hooked.
ART OF LIVING
AWP: Name the single book or movie, work of art or music, fashion or cuisine that has inspired you.
PB: There’s a painting of a Madonna and child in the tiny church of Santa Brigida in Piazza Farnese in Rome. I haven’t the faintest idea who painted it, or whether it even merits a name. But as a work of inspiration, it was a crucial, life-saving force. When John was at his sickest, I used to stop in the church each morning on my way home from the Campo dei Fiori market, and over time the gaze of that Madonna seeped its way into my core. The Madonna, serene and smiling—guilelessly, happily—at the babe in her arms, always seemed to calm my nerves. I still don’t know exactly why. It may have been because I would unconsciously become the child when I walked into the chapel and basked in the gaze of the mother who could smile serenely and guilelessly and happily at me. Or it may have been because I was looking for instruction on how to smile myself, serenely and guilelessly and happily, at the child I had never managed to have. Whatever the reason, I always left Santa Brigida with enough strength to go back home for another day. I carry that Madonna’s smile with me still.
AWP: What is the latest book you read? Would you recommend it?
PB: I’ve just finished reading Marilyn Yalom’s extraordinary book, How the French Invented Love. It’s both erudite and playful, written from the head and heart, and is an exploration, both sweeping and microscopic, at how love is treated in French literature over the last nine hundred years. Reading it brought back memories of the best professors of my intellectual life, but told in the wise and witty tones of a close, intelligent friend. Read this book with a word of warning, though; you may find yourself desperate to read each of the books Yalom mentions during her literary tour of French-style love.
AWP: Describe your own “Paris.”
PB: My own Paris is a little corner of the ninth arrondissement, just below the sharp climb up to Montmartre. I have felt at home in this decidedly non-trendy section of Paris since shortly after we moved here from Rome. Paris and Rome couldn’t be more different; Paris, big, cosmopolitan, modern at heart, a city that looks best in black and white, at its most romantic in a soft rain. Rome, on the other hand is small, provincial, and ancient, a city that is alive with color, fed by the endless sunshine of a southern clime. I love both cities, each for totally different reasons, and for me Paris only suffers in comparison to Rome because it is a northern city, with a damp, gray climate so similar to London’s.
My own Paris is our narrow living room balcony, which lets us see the top of the Eiffel Tower on the other side of the Seine. It’s the terracotta flowerpots on that same balcony, each filled with a different herb—rosemary, thyme, mint, chives, parsley and coriander—that flavors our daily meals. My Paris means never having to get in a car; I loathe driving, and being able to walk or ride the bus or metro is a true gift. My Paris is a Saturday morning walk to our weekly outdoor market; it’s a daily visit to our neighborhood bakery for bread that manages to be utterly crusty outside, but moist within. It’s my occasional visits to Sebastiano, who stands behind the counter of his minuscule Italian market, slicing mortadella and prosciutto crudo so thin it’s translucent. Paris is my Monday through Saturday ritual of walking with my daughter as she heads off to school; it’s the occasional splurge at a quiet tea room with an American friend I’ve known so long that she’s family now.
Perhaps more than anything, Paris is eating lunch with my group of French girlfriends, who always make time for themselves and each other, and who despite the average of four children each, manage to look relaxed, fresh, slim-hipped and 40 when they are all at least 10 years older (and I another 10 to 15 years older than them).
AWP: Tell me about your cooking and eating habits and traditions.
PB: I grew up in a family that liked to cook nearly as much as they liked to eat, a family in which food was never the enemy—the thing that makes one overweight—but the thing that made us grow. No soft drink bottles ever stood on the kitchen table of my childhood, and no sugar bowl either. My mother spent much of my childhood making sure I knew that refined white sugar was little better than poison, and only slightly less dangerous than sperm to an unmarried girl like me.
Today, our family still gathers around our dining table as often as possible, at least for the evening meal. I don’t know how a family can become or be or stay a family without this daily time together, trading stories of the day just passed. We eat many of the same dishes that our parents cooked for us, most of them flavored with herbs and flavorings of Italy, those flavors of olive oil, garlic, basil, rosemary, lemon—perhaps the most lasting memories our family members carried with them to the New World. We eat soups made with chick peas and rosemary, chicken broths filled with Swiss chard or spinach and lots of mild, sweet garlic. We eat artichokes boiled with mint and handfuls of parsley. We eat asparagus, usually dribbled with olive oil and lemon juice, occasionally passed under a broiler with handfuls of freshly grated Parmigiano and a bit of butter. We eat endless frittate, the Italian version of an omelette, but one that has far more vegetables than eggs, and which is finished off under a grill rather than flipped.
Though we’ve lived in France for nearly 14 years, we tend to eat as we did in Rome, except for the glories of French cheeses, which we’ve adopted without reserve. We eat endless quantities of fresh vegetables, cooked simply and dressed with a dribble of good olive oil and perhaps a squeeze of lemon. We eat small amounts of meat, cooked quickly, often between the first course and the second. We often start our suppers with a cup of vegetable soup or broth, and we usually finish them with fruit. We’ve cut back on starches in recent years so our ballet dancer in training doesn’t pack on the pounds, and the little bread we eat tends to be whole grain and thinly sliced, used to mop up the juices left on a plate. Rich desserts are a rarity, saved for holidays, and except for John—whose mother made a dessert for every evening meal—none of us feels like we’re missing anything.
AWP: Was being stylish important to you growing up?
PB: I wore ghastly school uniforms from first through twelfth grade, and hand-me-downs from friends and family until I learned to sew my own in Grade 6. Loathing what I was forced to wear made me think hard about what I wanted to wear, which became problematic because my mother liked ruffles and I liked jeans. We only survived the situation because she was wise enough to let that battle drop. She stopped buying my clothes for me when I was about eleven, and let me choose my own. I did the same with my daughter; she just started choosing earlier, when she was eight or nine.
AWP: How do you express your own style or fashion?
PB: Less is always more for me. I’ve always liked a few simple clothes, of good fabric and somewhat timeless style that I can mix and match. Half-price sales are my version of nirvana. In the winter, I stick to pants and boots because I’m always freezing. In the summer, simple dresses and sandals that I can just throw on. I don’t have time or want to make time to fuss and bother about what I’m wearing or how my hair looks. I want a simple look, without fiddling, day after day, year after year. These days my 16-year-old daughter, who has grown up surrounded by Paris’s fashion savvy, is a big help, and we often choose things together that we can share.
AWP: Your passion for life is extraordinary. What’s next?
PB: In the grand scheme of things, who knows what’s next? In the more manageable day-to-day future, what’s next, I hope, is another book. This one is for and about children. It’s still stewing.
BOOKS THAT PAULA BUTTURINI RECOMMENDS:
The Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood
Three Junes, by Julia Glass
Somewhere Towards the End, by Diana Athill
Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset
The Silent Duchess, by Dacia Maraini
Images and Shadows, by Iris Origo
The Stone Angel, by Margaret Laurence
Sargent’s Daughters, by Erica E. Hirshler
You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post, Fiction: The Last Passage, by award-winning Moroccan writer Hachim Sbaa whose fictional writing looks at the life of an elderly woman as she is lives life by herself and tries to figure out what truly matters and how she can fill her time and what is left of her life.
French Impressions: Bilguissa Diallo’s literary process as a second-generation immigrant living in Paris. Interview by Jen Westmoreland Bouchard. Author Bilguissa Diallo, born in France in 1975 to parents of Guinean descent. Her novel, Diasporama, provides an engaging account of the daily lives and familial expectations of the children of African immigrants living in France.
French Impressions: Brooke Desnoës on dance, the finest expression of freedom. Brooke Desnoës discovered dance as a student of Sonia Arova, a former partner of Anton Dolin of the Royal Ballet and in 1987, after graduation from high school, joined the Scottish Ballet under the direction of Alexander Bennet. In 1990, she obtained a diploma as a professor of classical dance, while dancing in the Georgetown Ballet in Washington D.C. In 1997, Brooke returned to France and founded the Académie Américaine de Danse de Paris.
French Impressions: Catherine Watson on literary travel writing and memoir. Award-winning author, travel writer and photographer, Catherine Watson has developed a career that has taken her around the world three times, to all seven continents and into 115 countries. Catherine shares her life, on and off assignment, as a solo traveler.
French Impressions: Alice Kaplan – the Paris years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis, on the process of transformation. Author and professor of French at Yale University, Ms. Kaplan discusses her new book, Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis, and the process of transformation. By entering into the lives of three important American women who studied in France, we learn how their year in France changed them and how they changed the world because of it. (French)
A Woman’s Paris — Elegance, Culture and Joie de Vivre
We are captivated by women and men, like you, who use their discipline, wit and resourcefulness to make their own way and who excel at what the French call joie de vivre or “the art of living.” We stand in awe of what you fill into your lives. Free spirits who inspire both admiration and confidence.
Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening. — Coco Chanel (1883 – 1971)
Text copyright ©2013 Paula Butturini. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.