On May 18th, celebrity chef Lidia Bastianich received public radio station WHYY’s 21st annual Lifelong Learning Award, given in recognition of a person’s passion for learning while inspiring others to do the same. THe 76-year-old Italian American chef has spent 25 years cooking on public television, using her experience as an immigrant to explore the foods of others who immigrated to the United States.
Bastianich is also the author of 13 cookbooks, and has been running restaurants for almost 50 years. “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.”
Bastianich’s television career was launched by WHYY in 1998. The radio station marketed and distributed her first two shows, “Lidia’s Italian Table,” and “Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen.” She has since hosted four additional television series.
She was born in 1947 in the Istria peninsula, which once belonged to northern Italy, 11 days after the signing of the Treaty of Paris, an agreement that annexed the area to what was once Soviet Yugoslavia. Today, this land is part of Croatia. The community government of Yugoslavia tried to erase her Italian heritage, said Bastianich. “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.”
While most of her family were eventually able to go to a refugee camp in Italy, her father fled under persecution. Bastianich’s family spent two years in Risiera di San Sabba, a former concentration camp turned refugee haven in the northern Italian city of Trieste. By the time Bastianich was 12 and after a long period of vetting, her family was allowed entry into the United States, and she became a naturalized citizen at 18.
Her experiences as an immigrant have informed her cooking specials and propelled her to seek commonalities with the foods brought to the United States by other immigrants. Her cooking shows have always grappled with topical issues while maintaining that food is a unifying factor.
“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.”
Asia London Palomba
Asia London Palomba is a trilingual freelance journalist from Rome, Italy. In the past, her work on culture, travel, and history has been published in The Boston Globe, Atlas Obscura, The Christian Science Monitor, and Grub Street, New York Magazine's food section. In her free time, Asia enjoys traveling home to Italy to spend time with family and friends, drinking Hugo Spritzes, and making her nonna's homemade cavatelli.