Of course Lidia Bastianich shared the secret of authentic risotto while answering a question from the audience. What did you expect? “It’s all about technique,” she explained, making it clear that stirring the simmering grains, like throwing a knuckleball, is not about arm strength.
But the evening also stirred some much-deeper issues. Help for veterans. And compassion for immigrants.
Public Broadcasting Service’s Madonna of Italian cooking shows was in Rochester over the weekend, primarily for a talk Sunday night at Hochstein Performance Hall. And the night before, a benefit for WXXI. There was dinner, naturally, although she wasn’t asked to step behind the stove for this one. Instead, she talked about a series of shows she’s done for PBS, Homegrown Heroes, that connects veterans with the food industry. In a short clip from the show, one of the vets defined the central idea as, “There really isn’t anything more powerful than growing food.” Think about that for a moment. Here are men and women who have come from places where American-made bombs are falling on busloads of school children. That happened in Yemen in August. If you witnessed something like that, wouldn’t it break your soul? For these soldiers, returning from wars that no one can explain, the healing might come from digging into the earth, producing instead of destroying.
Bastianich was also here to talk about her new book, My American Dream: A Life of Love, Family and Food. “I came to the United States as a refugee, 12 years old,” she said. She was born in Italy, but following World War II the region where she lived was transferred to Yugoslavia with the formation of that nation, and her family found itself living under a communist regime. “My father was jailed by communists as a capitalist because he owned a couple of trucks,” she said. When Bastianich, her mother and brother were allowed to temporarily re-cross the border into Italy, her father was forced to stay behind, as a hostage ensuring they would return. But Bastianich’s father escaped Yugoslavia and they settled into a refugee camp. Until 1958, when they came here after President Eisenhower opened immigration to people fleeing communism.
Bastianich married at 19, and she and her husband opened a tiny Italian restaurant in Queens. Within a few years, and changes of restaurants, her reputation grew. And, Bastianich recalled, two legendary chefs, Julia Child and James Beard, came to her, wanting to know the Italian secrets of risotto. She in turn was struck by the potential of public broadcasting, particularly as demonstrated by Child. “The intelligent venue of teaching and sharing,” she says.
Now Bastianich is a food empire. Restaurants and namesake food products, including wine. PBS shows. And, she said, 11 books, although she was wrong: My American Dream is actually her 16th.
Unlike her cook books, this one is a memoir, and it’s her story as an immigrant that she spoke of Saturday. She was an eager immigrant. “I wanted to be an American teenager right away, watching American Bandstand,” she said.
Yet, despite the reward of seeing Dick Clark every week, immigration is a painful process. She compared her early life behind the war-shifting borders in Europe – is she now Austrian, German, Slavic, Italian? – to today’s uncertain homelands. Parents fleeing a hostile government, a child yanked from her childhood. “I didn’t say goodbye to my goats, I didn’t say goodbye to my rabbits,” she said of leaving Italy.
It is no less painful today. “The borders are moving and people are fleeing,” Bastianich said. On our southern border we see refugees from the unstable and dangerous countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Elsewhere on the vast refugee trail, people are trying to leave counties such as Syria and South Sudan. By accident of birth, their opportunity in life is limited. All they want is a shot at what you and I have. But we’re closing the doors.
What are we closing the doors to? A richer life for us all. Bastianich’s family fled communism, yet kept its culture alive. Today’s immigrants, many of whom will never find a safe place, are in danger of seeing their culture disappear. “Food,” Bastianich said, “is a way to transmit who we are.”
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