We know Lidia Bastianich as the doyenne of Italian cooking on PBS. She's won Emmys. She's run successful restaurants and written bestselling cookbooks. But Lidia Bastianich is also an immigrant.
She came to the United States as a refugee, her family fleeing their Italian town that was made part of Yugoslavia as part of the post-World War II Paris Peace Treaties. It is her struggles as a young girl caught behind the Iron Curtain and her sensibilities as a naturalized American citizen, plus her love of food cultures, that she brings to her PBS special Lidia Celebrates America: Freedom & Independence, which airs for the first time Friday on WEDU.
In the show, she eats barbecue in Galveston, Texas, as part of a Juneteenth celebration and joins fellow chef Jacques Pepin for his annual Bastille Day picnic at his Connecticut home. She also breaks bread with members of a Filipino family as they mark their homeland's independence day from their new home in New Jersey, and follows several people as they head toward a swearing-in ceremony to become American citizens.
We caught up with Bastianich earlier this month by phone from her New York home to talk about the making of the program, which includes a segment at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello home in Virginia.
What were your most memorable experiences from the show?
I think cooking in Jefferson's kitchen. Here I am an immigrant who almost didn't have the liberty to do anything and given this great opportunity to come to America and grow here, and here I am cooking in his kitchen. He was such a proponent for food diplomacy. For me that was a magic moment.
This is a different show for you because there isn't much cooking instruction. Why use food as the centerpiece?
Food is such a conduit. Once you sit at the table with someone and you appreciate what they cook and what they eat, you can appreciate them. ... The table is where people relax, their defenses are down and they are open.
How do you think the notion of freedom is different for a naturalized citizen compared to someone born in the states?
I think that people that came and looked for freedom and needed freedom will appreciate it much more than people who were born with it. I was for two years in a refugee camp. When you are in a situation like that and you're in line for food as a 12 year old, you remember it vividly. For me, thank God, it all turned positive.
You've done a wedding special and holiday program that show different ethnic celebrations and now this. What's next?
I am working on a show on cultural milestones from different ethnicities that will air in the fall. We've seen a Greek Orthodox baptism and gone to Navajo country for the blessing of the new home. It's very, very moving, but it's still always about cooking. For the blessing, they do a big mutton, roasted with a juniper.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.