There are special delights in miniatures. My late friend Ivan Kats, a book dealer whose Connecticut farmhouse was packed floor to ceiling with old and rare books, delighted in showing me palm-sized catechisms from the 18th century.
Last year Karen Sue Smith gave me Thad Carhart’s The Piano Shop on the Left Bank (Random House), a memoir by a middle-aged American writer who rediscovers the piano in Paris. As he tells his own story, he explores the secondhand piano business, piano construction, sounding boards, piano tuning, connoisseurship, teaching styles and more. Reading The Piano Shop was like sharing skills and pleasures of a good friend. Recently I was given another small book of similar pleasure, Paula Butturini’s Keeping the Feast (Riverhead), a hymn to the humanizing powers of food.
As I was leaving brunch at Washington’s Café DeLuxe a couple of weeks ago, I stopped to say hello to the columnist E. J. Dionne. E.J. greeted me saying, “Drew, I want you to meet a good friend—and you must read her book.” And so I met Paula Butturini. She and her husband, John Tagliabue, and E.J. had been correspondents together in Rome in the 1980s. On the trip back to New York I read the book ravenously.
My quick engagement came naturally enough, since on my mother’s side of the family I come from the same Italian-American food culture as Butturini and Tagliabue. Butturini has a prodigious memory for food that is matched only by that of the late Julia Child. But unlike Child’s My Life in France (Knopf), Keeping the Feast did not leave me feeling overstuffed, because the discussions of ingredients, markets, cooking and shared meals are tied to a social context, life passages and beloved family members.
The paramount example may be Paula’s narrative of her falling in love with John over late-night meals and conversations after they both had filed their stories. There was nothing conventionally romantic to her account, but it is so true and so human—genuine friendship flowering into love—that it strikes deep. What is more remarkable, however, is the burden of the book, the healing power of food during John’s deep and prolonged depression.
In the fall of 1989, the Tagliabues were re-assigned to Warsaw just as Eastern Europe was breaking free of Communist oppression. On assignment in Prague, Paula was badly beaten by government thugs; a few weeks later, John was shot by a sniper in Romania. Physical recovery was followed by psychological depression. As both John and Paula were losing the person John once was, the comforts and rituals of food became a way to keep a grasp on life.
Later, after the birth of their daughter, Julia, in relating Italian baby-feeding habits, Butturini tells how her own mother force-fed her as a child to prevent her from growing unhealthily thin. The scenes summoned up memories of my own grandmother saving special morsels of meat for me or frying meatballs on Sunday mornings, offering them to me for the same reason, to strengthen a small, thin boy, with the half-order, half-plea, Mangia, figlio mio, mangia.
George W. Hunt, S.J. America’s 11th editor in chief (1984–98), died on Feb. 25 after a short battle with cancer. Before serving as chief, he was literary editor. As James Martin, S.J., has written, Father Hunt’s writing style was “graceful, elegant, measured.” He was best known for his Of Many Things columns, where readers learned of his love of books and baseball. He produced a column every week in longhand and to exact length.