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BUCKLE UP

When I was a chubby teenager, mashed potatoes were my comfort food of choice. They had to be homemade by Mom, whipped into a marvelous mushiness with canned evaporated milk and real butter. Oh, yes, lots of butter. As I grew up, I began to appreciate my mother’s more sophisticated offerings such as arroz con pollo and turkey tetrazzini (as well as her hankering for anything on white bread with mayo, alas!). But to be honest, I never really got the concept of comfort food for adults until Paula Butturini taught me how to cook Italian in Rome. Paula is an expert in comfort food; it literally saved her life.

Paula was the one who first introduced me to Campo dei Fiori, Rome’s famed market with its fishmongers, butchers, vegetable sellers, and the cheese man who sold Parmigiano-Reggiano in really big chunks. It was Paula who took me for my first pizza bianca. Simply put, that’s pizza bread brushed with olive oil, coarse salt, and rosemary, and then folded to be eaten warm while walking to the office. It was Paula’s friend Rudi who took me to Ristorante Pierluigi, where I learned the wonders of pressed octopus, crispy little pesciolini (tiny, deep-fried fish that you eat, bones and all), and spaghetti alle vongole.

But even Paula didn’t recognize the role of food in her life until the troubles began — right after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1989. She was the Chicago Tribune’s Eastern European correspondent, responsible for covering the so-called Velvet Revolution in Prague. During a protest march that fall, Czech antiterrorist police beat Paula unconscious in the street and then dragged her off into a vestibule and beat her until her head busted open. Afterward, her main worry seemed to be that the 15 stitches would mar her hairdo for her upcoming nuptials to fellow reporter John Tagliabue of the New York Times. (We chose a purple wedding dress to distract the guests from the Frankenstein aspect of her scalp.) But five weeks later, as we were sitting down to a pre-Christmas dinner in Poland (just the girls), Paula learned that John, who was in Romania covering the overthrow of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, had been shot in the back and no one knew where he was.

Stitches in your head are one thing; a bullet in the back is entirely another. As it turned out, that lone bullet shredded more than John’s herringbone-tweed jacket; it shredded Paula’s rosy visions of their new life together, and it threatened their sanity as well. “A bullet that pierces a car door, a parka, a sport coat, a sweater, a shirt, trousers and underwear, a bullet that splits a belt in two, then chews its way across a body I knew and loved, causes an entirely different level of injury. The body is only the first victim; the soul, the psyche, the spirit are each ripped apart as well.” That’s Paula writing in Keeping the Feast: One Couple’s Story of Love, Food, and Healing in Italy, her memoir about food as the soul’s way out of depression and despair.

Amazingly, memoirs still sell, despite recent scandals. But they are increasingly penned by people who go off seeking the answer to life and instead have a rollicking good time on their book advance. And some still lie. “I don’t get people who write false memoirs,” says Paula. She let her nightmare fester for years before she had the nerve to write about it, principally to help her husband’s two children and the couple’s own daughter understand what happened. “I wanted them to understand what led to their father’s depression and how hard it was for him to struggle back to normal life, and how depression didn’t mean their father was weak or anything,” she says. “People who suffer depression are basically heroes just to be alive.” Naturally, she did it for herself, too, hoping to figure out how to keep it from happening again.

While writing, she discovered that her food cravings or voglie — “wool-EES,” as her Americanized Italian family called them — had saved her, body and soul. On every page of her story, from her beating to John’s shooting, her mother’s suicide to their battle against textbook depression, there is a food rescuing her. Asparagus braised under lettuce at the start of spring, sutni szalonna (Hungarian bacon) cooked over an open fire and slapped on bread (grease and all), Auntie Ree’s chocolate cake, or her family favorite — gnocchi verdi under a light tomato-and-cream sauce. For anybody who has ever popped the lid off a tub of ice cream late at night, Keeping the Feast is a celebration of food as therapy. As Paula’s mom used to write at the end of her letters, “Eat more, and pray.” Amen.

Paula lives in Paris now, where she finds comfort in a fresh slice of sand-colored pain de Clichy at her local bakery. Keeping the Feast will be published in February. When the dark clouds gather, she heads back to Italy for salvation in a bowl of spaghetti alle vongole. You can write to Cathy Booth Thomas at BuckleUp@aapubs.com.