More and more Americans are considering the origins of their food and how its consumption impacts our world. For a young girl living on the other side of the Iron Curtain in the late 1940s and the early ’50s, learning the basics of food preparation not only became her connection to her family and native country, but cooking with a regional approach became second nature.
Lidia Bastianich, of restaurant, PBS and cookbook fame, was born in the city of Pula, which was located on a stretch of land in northeastern Italy. “After World War II, Italy lost that piece of land to thencommunist Yugoslavia,” Bastianich recalls. “My parents stayed, and the Iron Curtain went up. We couldn’t speak Italian or go to church. And while my parents lived in the city, I lived with my maternal grandmother about a mile away out in the country.” According to Bastianich, her grandmother raised chickens, ducks, geese, rabbits, pigs and goats. “And we made the olive oil and the wine, and our own flour,” she notes. “I grew up in setting where we did all the basics, and from that, we gained an understanding of food from the earth. My grandmother was a good cook, and we tasted the oil as it was made and used warm eggs from the chickens to make the pasta. I think my basis for food and my reference for flavors started with my grandmother.”
When Bastianich was 10 years old, she explains that her family escaped back to Italy and lived in a refugee camp for two years. “Since there were no jobs to be had in Italy, my parents decided to migrate on, but we had to wait our turn,” she remembers. “We waited for two years, and then in 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower decided to open immigration to America because he wanted to give the people fleeing communism an opportunity for a better life. We were one of the first families to arrive in the United States. Catholic Relief Services brought us to New York and put us in a hotel for about two months until my father found a job. And that’s how our life began in America.”
At age 12, Bastianich found herself in a new country with a new language to learn. “I was sad to leave my grandmother and my friends,” she recalls. “When we left, my parents didn’t tell me we were leaving, so I didn’t get to say goodbye to anyone. But when I turned 18, I became the first person in my family to become a U.S. citizen. I was excited to be here and to experience the freedom here. I don’t think I could have done everything that I’ve accomplished any place in the world but here.”
Through the years, food continued to be a great passion for Bastianich, and she even admits to fibbing about her age in order to work in a New York bakery (owned by actor Christopher Walken’s family). “I started when I was 14, but I told them I was 16.” After working in numerous restaurants and traveling back to Italy every year to research its regions, Bastianich opened Felidia in New York with her husband in 1981. “I became the chef, and the food that I cooked was real regional food that people related to,” she explains. “I realized I had a message to deliver, and I have this gift of telling it through food.”
With eight restaurants now, including one in Kansas City, Bastianich makes occasional visits to the Midwest, like a recent stop in St. Louis for a Nine Network of Public Media fundraiser. “I love going downtown by the river, visiting my friends and going to the restaurants,” she says. Bastianich also visited St. Louis—actually stopping and talking with residents of The Hill on their front porches—while researching her latest cookbook, Lidia’s Italy in America (more to come on this in LN’s 2011 Cream of the Crop Cookbooks review in our Dec. 23 issue).