Lidia Celebrates America: Flavors That Define Us premieres on WTTW Tuesday, May 30 at 8:00 pm and will be available to stream.
Get more recipes, food news, and stories by signing up for our Deep Dish newsletter.
In Lidia Celebrates America: Flavors That Define Us, the celebrity chef and PBS host Lidia Bastianich visits, cooks, and eats with immigrants across America: a Ukrainian mother and son in Hartsville, South Carolina, Punjabi farmers and truck drivers near Bakersfield, California, the United States’ first Nepali-Bhutanese elected official in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. Bastianich is herself an immigrant, who fled a part of Italy controlled by Communist Yugoslavia for a displaced persons camp in Italy before coming to America. She wants to share her own story, as well as those of other immigrants, as a way of expressing gratitude to the country that took her in—and she finds food is the best medium to connect with people.
She spoke to us about the new special, immigrants in America, and sharing these stories.
Why do you enjoy doing these Lidia Celebrates America specials?
It’s my way of thanking America. They are always about something that I care deeply about, that I appreciate in America. I did two on veterans, I did one on first responders. I did one with young people like this young man who worked for me, had an accident, and ended up being a quadriplegic. He opened a restaurant in a wheelchair. People that beat the odds and make it happen, and America certainly gives that opportunity.
Why did you want to focus on immigrants this time?
I’m an immigrant, and there's such a plus, minus, negative, positive [discussion] about immigrants these days. America is made out of immigrants. I was given the great opportunity by Americans, also by the Catholic Relief Services and Catholic Charities. I remember, we had nobody who could even speak the language. In school, the teacher would assign young Americans, young kids like me, to teach me how to speak English. When we first moved and the Catholic Charities found a little home for us, [I remember] how the neighborhood rallied and brought us food and chairs and plates and and towels and everything.
That still exists out there, so I went looking for it. I wanted to connect with these different immigrants. The one thing that gets people talking to you and connecting is food. I always use food: we eat together, or they show me how to cook. The table and food are the great equalizer. We're all the same there.
What purpose did food serve for you when you were an immigrant in a new home?
[My family] escaped Communist Yugoslavia and came back to Italy, and ended up in a refugee camp there. I was in line for food, a little ten year old with my little plate. Whether it was soup or polenta or pasta with a little bit of something, food always made one feel comfortable and good and that there is hope in life. We eat, we’re going to grow, and we move on.
Then, when I came to the United States, I slowly realized that I loved food: I loved the nurturing part, I loved the sharing part, I guess because I experienced the lack of food and being afraid of having enough food. I had this passion for cooking, because I did it with grandma, even in the camp, when I was at school they got me in the kitchen. So I was destined for the kitchen.
And then I realized I have this great culture, because food is one of the great gifts of the Italian culture. I said, I should share with my American friends. I saw that people appreciated it and loved Italian food. I realized that they really want to get to know my food. It was my great communication. It’s my way of thanking and sharing with America, which is my home. But you never forget the culture in which you were born.
You also use food to connect with newer immigrants in this latest special.
Their food is so important to them. It’s wonderful to see how immigrants plus the Americans get involved and how one of the first things that they do when they bring a family into a home is they bring their food, to say, yes, you’re in America, but America appreciates who you are and you can always practice your culture.
You meet a Nepali-Bhutanese immigrant who was inspired to run for office and is now on the city council of Reynoldsburg, Ohio. Why do you like that story?
Can you imagine that? He was so appreciative—tears came to his eyes. This is reality. This is America. Let us continue to be inclusive as Americans, but let also the immigrants understand that they have their responsibility in this family. It is your duty as an immigrant—as well as an American—to return something to this country, to give back in any way that you can. It really works—that’s what America is based on.
Why did you look to places in this country that people perhaps don’t often think of as having lots of immigrants?
That is really America. The East Coast and West Coast have big mouths, but there’s all of Middle America, where these people settle. Also the diversity of the immigrants is important; you don’t focus just on the southern border. American is made of all kinds of immigrants. People come for different reasons—there are wars and famine in this world, and that creates a lot of refugees.
Why is it important for you to share immigrant stories?
I am living proof. I am an American, I love America, I appreciate very much the opportunity that was given to me and my family. And I want to share this, with the American public and the immigrants. Food is trustworthy. It’s positive. I am an example of what I’m talking about. I am a success story as an immigrant—it could be them, too!
Try Lidia's recipe for Escarole and White Bean Soup, which she serves in Lidia Celebrates America: Flavors That Define Us.