Salving psychological wounds with talk and food

Author Paula Butturini will be signing copies of her book "Keeping the Feast" in Baltimore.

In 1992, Paula Butturini and her husband, John Tagliabue, moved back to Rome, where they'd met, gotten engaged and were married in the '80s.

Each morning she would walk from their apartment near the Tiber River to Campo dei Fiori, where everyone from the fishmongers to "the roving garlic salesmen from Bangladesh" beat her to their stands, no matter how early she got there.

In 1995, she pitched a high-powered New York publisher a cookbook centered on the riches of Campo dei Fiori. The publisher told Butturini, "No, write a memoir, and write it in a hurry. We don't know how long this whole memoir thing will last. Don't write a cookbook. This is a much bigger story."

Bigger, and more troubling, too. Butturini was the former Eastern European correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, Tagliabue the former Warsaw bureau chief for The New York Times. They had both been wounded — in Tagliabue's case, almost fatally — during the chaotic collapse of the Soviet Union.

In November 1989, Czechoslovakian counterterrorist police seized Butturini from a mass of student demonstrators and bashed her until her head split. (It would take 15 stitches to close it up.) In December, during the overthrow of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, a sniper's bullet tore through Tagliabue's body, leaving a deep, trench-shaped wound. His subsequent drift into clinical depression nearly destroyed their marriage. (He had survived depression before; Butturini's mother had suffered from it, too, and would later commit suicide.)

When Butturini took the publisher's advice to "write a memoir," her goal shifted with her storytelling.

"I wanted to get people to talk about mental illness in a frank and open way," said Butturini, who will be in Baltimore this weekend for a book signing. "Very often, in the past, depression was a family secret. My husband and I both feel that's absolutely the wrong tack."

Butturini decided to confront her biggest challenge head-on and "go to the hardest part first." It had been a half-dozen years since that bullet scarred her husband. She thought she was strong enough to revisit the catastrophe. Instead, she found it difficult and draining.

"I would leave the computer feeling all wrung out," she said.

To restore her writer's soul — and to give her readers respite from bad news and near-despair — she decided that she would "write about food, something that was fun" between her bouts of heavy psychic labor. (Even so, she put off the book for a decade after she became pregnant with her daughter, Julia.)

After she charted the near-deadly path of that "single rotten bullet," she plunged into the book's first chapter, "Hungers," all about voglie (which she pronounces Wool-EEE) — "deep, impulsive hungers for some special, seasonal feast."

She discovered as she kept writing that "almost all of my happy childhood memories revolved around eating, either with my mother and father and brother or my extended family. And John grew up in the same kind of Italian-American family." She had even fallen in love with John "over a Roman table, when we were out with friends, enjoying ourselves after a day working hard at our jobs. We just wanted to have a simple meal and talk, and talk."

As she and Tagliabue struggled with his demons back in Rome, she would go to Campo dei Fiori and buy "a shiny, plump, purple-black eggplant. Or a handful of slender green beans, so fresh and young you could eat them raw." From the meat vans or the pork butcher, she'd select "a few slices of Milanese salami" or "a bit of veal."

She recognized that when she was shopping and cooking during her husband's psychological mending, "I wasn't just hungering for asparagus. I was hungering for a cure, hungering for normality."

"Keeping the Feast" has often been discussed as a food book. Butturini hopes that it functions as a brother or sister book to "Darkness Visible," William Styron's great saga of depression. "I wanted to write a family companion to Styron's memoir. He did a brilliant job of describing depression from the point of view of the man suffering from it. I wanted this book to explain how depression affects the whole family, not just the person who's sick.

"I grew up in a house where my mother had four bouts of post-partum psychosis by the time I was 8 — and never told me about it until I was 28. I didn't want our kids to grow up that way. The best way of fighting this — the best way to keep it from getting passed down, one generation to the next — is to be able to talk about it."

If you go

Paula Butturini will sign books from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at the Ivy Bookshop, 6080 Falls Road. She will speak at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 19th at the National Alliance on Mental Illness gala at the American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Highway.