After 25 years of cooking on public television, writing 13 cookbooks, and running restaurants for half a century, celebrity chef Lidia Bastianich, 76, sees herself as the world’s grandmother.
“Food connects. Food is love,” she said. “I’m kind of a crusty grandma. And I love it. I love my position. I think that the world, the people, and the basic family need that. If I can communicate that, then I am at my happiest.”
On Thursday, Bastianich received WHYY’s 21st annual Lifelong Learning Award, given in recognition of a person’s passion for learning, and for inspiring others to do the same.
WHYY helped launch Bastianich’s television career in 1998 as the presenting station of her first two shows, marketing and distributing “Lidia’s Italian Table” and “Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen.” She has since gone on to host four more television series.
The ceremony will be at the station in Philadelphia, and Bastianich will be interviewed live on stage by WHYY’s Terry Gross, host of “Fresh Air.”
Gross’ interview with Bastianich will subsequently air as an episode of Fresh Air at a future date, and will be broadcast on WHYY-TV on May 30 as a way to introduce Bastianich’s new documentary, “Flavors That Define Us,” the latest installment of her ongoing series of hour-long specials “Lidia Celebrates America.”
In “Flavors That Define Us,” Bastianich travels the country talking with other immigrants who brought their food traditions with them. Those people include a truck driver in California who quit trucking to serve Punjabi take-out food, a Vietnamese woman who cooks the meals her mother used to make, and a Ukrainian mother making borscht in South Carolina as a way to reconnect her son to his heritage.
Bastianich herself is an immigrant. By the time she was 12 years old, she had left two countries.
She was born on the Istria peninsula of what used to be Northern Italy in 1947, eleven days after the signing of the Treaty of Paris. That agreement annexed the peninsula to what was then Soviet Yugoslavia. The land is now part of Croatia.
Bastianich said the communist government of Yugoslavia attempted to squash her Italian heritage.
“We remained under communism being Italians, but we couldn’t speak the language. We couldn’t practice our religion,” she said. “Life was really difficult because they really wanted to indoctrinate us into communism.”
Most of her family was eventually allowed to go to a refugee camp in Italy, but her father fled, crossing the border under persecution. The family stayed for two years in Risiera di San Sabba, a former Nazi concentration camp in Trieste, waiting to be allowed to travel to the United States.
Once they arrived in New Jersey, Bastianich said her family was helped by the religious charity agency Catholic Services. As soon as she was legally allowed at age 18, Bastianich became a naturalized U.S. citizen.
“I’ve been given this great opportunity so many years ago. I made it because I was welcomed, because I was given the opportunity by America, by the American people,” she said. “And now that seems to be difficult, adjusting to what is happening.”
Unlike some cooking shows that, more or less, exist outside of time (for example, preparing coq au vin has not changed much since Julia Child taught us 50 years ago), “Lidia Celebrates America” tends to be topical. She has done specials about veterans returning from the Gulf wars to become farmers, how displaced victims of Hurricane Harvey in Texas cooked in transient conditions, and cooking for family during the COVID pandemic shutdown.
The new special, “Flavors That Define Us,” was inspired by the tumultuous immigration debates over the last several years.
“It’s the times, and the dissatisfaction of Americans. And, of course, the suffering of the immigrants,” Bastianich said.
“All these people are coming into America. Are we going to be safe? I can understand how Americans feel about having this — strangers come into their country by the hordes,” she said. “I go through the interviews, talking about how important it is to be vetted. We went through a long period of vetting before we came and were accepted in the United States.”
In the show, Bastianich tells the story of individuals coming to America, sometimes under adverse conditions. A mother from Ukraine fled the war still raging with Russia, and wonders if or when she will be able to go back. A civil engineer who fled communist Cuba had to give up his profession in order to find a job. He wound up in the restaurant industry in Louisville, Kentucky, and now owns three restaurants.
Bastianich connects with people from all over the world in her first language: food.
“Food is always the common denominator,” she said. “What are you eating? What are you cooking? What is your culture? Then I sit down, and I eat with them.”
Bastianich’s adventures with other immigrants are not just about regional flavors and traditional cooking, but different ways of eating. She visits Ohio to eat with the family of Bhuwan Pyakurel, the only Bhutanese refugee elected to a city council in the United States. Instead of eating at a dining table, the family eats while sitting on floor mats.
She also sits down at an outdoor table at a truck stop in California in front of a spread of dishes from northern India — paneer parathas, aloo paratha, and malai kofta — which are traditionally eaten without utensils. Bastianich has to ask her host, Balvinder Singh Saini, how to scoop the food with roti, a kind of unleavened bread.
“That is culture. Food takes you to all these places without resistance,” she said. “Food is offering peace. You enter into somebody’s life if you sit down with them in their situation, whether it’s on the floor or where they’re eating with their hands. I loved it all. I love it because I really feel part of that culture.”
“Lidia Celebrates America: Flavors That Define Us” will premiere on WHYY-TV at 9 p.m. on May 30. It will be preceded by Bastianich’s taped interview with Terry Gross at 7:30 p.m.