I am a big fan of genealogy, because I love peoples’ stories. I was recently watching an episode of “Finding Your Roots” on PBS. Lidia Bastianich, Emmy award winning TV show host, author of numerous cookbooks and accomplished restaurateur ,was one of the people featured on the show. This episode “The Long Way Home” was focused on how families kept their traditions despite challenges and adversities.
Lidia’s story stood out to me because of her early life experiences. Lidia lived in a region of Italy called “Istria,” in the town of Pula .It is a peninsula on the Adriatic Sea, and is now shared by three countries: Italy, Slovenia, and Croatia. During WWII, the Istrian Peninsula was taken from Italy by Communist Yugoslavia. Lidia’s family went from being Italian, to being forbidden to speak Italian. They were not permitted to go to church and were forced to change their name from Matticchio to Motika. So in terms of identity, I was especially intrigued with which culture she would identify with, and how did food and ritual shape her through such a tumultuous time.
So I sent her an email. Her very helpful PR team set up a phone interview for the two of us.
We first talked about her identity, about how she defines herself. She said that there was such a murkiness with the country’s borders. There were so many influences. Her grandparents were considered Austrian/Hungarian, her parents Italian, and Lidia considered Yugoslavian. But she defines her identity as to how she speaks with her family, which is in Italian. She says that you define yourself by “what you feel in your heart.”
During the Yugoslavian occupation (Lidia was 4 or 5 years old) she spent much of her time at her grandmother’s home. Food was very hard to come by at that time, and her grandmother was very self-sufficient. They had extensive vegetable gardens, pressed their own olive oil, had fig trees and raised their own meat and eggs. Lidia recalled digging potatoes with her grandmother. Her grandmother would pull up the large potatoes, and Lidia would dig through the earth and find the smaller potatoes.
What she distinctly remembers is that all of the food was warm. The potatoes were warm from the sun warmed earth, fresh eggs were warm from just being laid by the hens, the olive oil was warm and you dipped fresh warm bread into it. At an early age, Lidia experienced the crucial connection of the earth to our food. These memories were pivotal in her experience of food and connections.
As the war progressed, Lidia’s family made the decision to leave their town of Pula. Her mother, brother and she made their way to the town of Trieste, in Italy. Ten days later, her father managed to escape and joined the family. But the family then had to migrate to a political refugee camp, the Risera di San Sabba. They were in that camp for two years before being permitted to leave. During those two years, food was scarce, and there certainly was nothing available to them that was anything like the food they had at her grandmother’s home. How difficult it must have been, to go from a place of love and family and warm, sun-kissed food, to scraps in a refugee camp.
In 1958 Lidia’s family immigrated to the United States. They settled in Queens, NY and Lidia began working in a pizzeria. She met her husband at her sweet sixteen party. The couple’s food empire began in 1971,when they opened their first restaurant in Forest Hills, Queens. Lidia felt that coming to the United States had given her a huge opportunity. She states “And I am the perfect example that if you give somebody a chance, especially here in the United States, one can find the way.”
For Lidia, her roots are through food. She says that cooking with her grandmother was a connection to her. She calls it “food nostalgia.” She believes that “food becomes a messenger, it connects you to the dirt, and this is something we all need to cherish and protect.”
I asked her why she thought people are so interested in shows like “Finding Your Roots,” and did she think that people are more isolated today and have lost much of their own food rituals?
She believes that people understand that their OWN foods are an imprint of themselves; the aromas, textures, the flavors. She feels that people are longing for this connection. “We need to connect to and have our own roots. Food gives you strength, and is a magnet. We are social animals, and food is what brings us together.”
Lidia values the importance of sharing meals at the table.”Because we all need to eat to survive, we give ourselves up to food-food takes precedence, and at the table, we become vulnerable. True connections are made face to face. Look at the business lunch, the family dinner, the anniversary celebration, the date with your sweetheart. All of the connections are based around food. This is the way we nourish both our bodies and our spirits.”
I asked her what her favorite ritual with her family is. That was easy for her. She makes the foods that her relatives who have passed away loved to eat. She says by having those dishes at her Christmas Dinner, it honors her family members who are no longer there. When she makes her father’s favorite bacala dish, it is like he is right there with her. She can feel her grandmother’s presence when she makes Capon Soup. She shared a hilarious memory of seeing her grandmother running all over chasing the cockerel around the courtyard, trying to catch him for the soup pot.
My question that I ask everyone is: at the end of a busy day, what ritual do you have that brings your day to a close? Lidia loves a good prosciutto (her Dad used to make it, and would hold it like a violin and used a small sickle-like knife to cut it), a good crusty bread and some Grana Padano cheese, some figs and a good glass of wine. She likes all of her food at room temperature, a hearkening back to those beautiful warm foods at her grandmother’s table.
What I took from my time with Lidia is how very precious our connections are. Through adversity, maybe all we have left are our connections. In these times, it is so, so important to remember that we are not just individuals, but part of a network of connections, reaching to our past, and guiding us to our future. Lidia lost the home she loved at a young age, but she never lost her foundation. She kept it alive, and shares all she knows and loves today through her business. Her kindness of spirit and her generosity is a testimony of how we all need to live. We all need and want, I believe, to be kind, welcoming and to break bread with each other.
I worry, in this current environment of divisiveness and bigotry, that we are losing our connections to each other as human beings. We have forgotten our roots. So, work hard at keeping your connections. Have dinner with your family. Throw a party for your friends, for no other reason than to celebrate each other. Honor your deceased loved ones with a dish that they loved at your next holiday. Give to a food bank.
It’s not enough to find your roots. You have to feed your roots as well.