How 'Peasant Food' Helped Chef Lidia Bastianich Achieve Her 'American Dream'

Mar 15, 2019
Originally published on March 18, 2019 11:32 am

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

Lidia Bastianich has a devoted following from public TV cooking shows, her cookbooks and her restaurants. In her memoir, "My American Dream," which just came out in paperback, she describes how she came to love preparing food and how being a refugee and immigrant shaped her life. Those two parts of the story are interconnected. The year she was born, 1947, the peninsula on which her family lived switched hands from Italy to Yugoslavia, which was under communist rule. Many of her earliest memories are of spending time in her grandparents' village where their food came from animals they raised and the vegetables and fruits they grew. It was farm-to-table cuisine poverty-style. She learned a lot about food from her grandmother. When Bastianich was 8, she, her parents and brother fled communist repression, became refugees in Italy and then, in 1958, immigrated to the U.S. When they arrived in New York, they had nothing and couldn't speak English. Bastianich married at the age of 18 and eventually opened a small Italian-American restaurant in Queens. Its success led to other restaurants, including for Felidia in Manhattan. Along with her daughter and son, she now owns restaurants in New York as well as in several other cities. Terry interviewed Lidia Bastianich last year when her memoir was first published.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Lidia Bastianich, welcome to FRESH AIR. So let's talk about your life. You spent the first few years of your life on the peninsula of Istria on the Adriatic Sea. It had been part of Italy but. After World War II, it became a part of Yugoslavia. It's now a part of Croatia.

Your parents lived in the city of Pula, your grandmother and - your grandparents in a farming village, Busalar. Your grandparents had pigs and chickens and goats and a big garden. And a description that sticks in my mind that I want you to talk about is one in which one of the family pigs is being butchered, and then you describe how every part of the pig is used and turned into food or something useful. So can you just describe some of your memories from the live pig to the table, (laughter) like that process?

LIDIA BASTIANICH: Yes, I can go way back. Every sort of February, we would go to - grandpa and grandma would go with a horse - actually donkey-drawn cart, and we would go to an animal fair. And there, my grandfather would go around, and there were pens set up in a park situation where little piglets were for sale.

And he would choose and really be careful about choosing. He would usually choose two little piglets and, you know, kind of pick them up, stretch their legs, see that they would grow into big pigs because that's what you want. You know, when you slaughter, you want a lot of meat and bacon and the fat, and all of that was needed for the family. And then he would choose two. We would put it in this little kind of basket and bring them home. And they would squeal all the way home.

And then the whole year of raising them and feeding them and seeing them grow until about November, and November was usually the slaughter because it was a cool month, and so the curing - in the - in the slaughter of the animal, you know, every - as you said - every part was cured or save or preserved for the rest of the year to cook and to feed the family. And usually as kids - you know, I was small. We were just kind of runners helping - whether it was to bring the hot water, whether it was to bring towels - whatever it was - but we would be always around. And there was always a big commotion in the courtyard.

GROSS: Did you ever, like, bond with the pigs and feel like, oh, no, now we have to kill them?

BASTIANICH: We did. As children, we did. We had the same - in the same sort of cycle - the chickens, the ducks, the rabbits, the goats. You know, I loved the bunny rabbits. The small rabbits, when they came, we played, and we cuddled them and whatever. And, you know, two weeks later, they were part of the dinner table.

And somehow you - this cycle of life, you accept it. You bond. You learn. You connect. You help to raise these little animals, and they become adult animals or - and they become food. And, you know, when food is scarce, every morsel is really appreciated. In a sense, you know, you are grateful to these animals.

You know, you kind of celebrate them in a way because they are giving us life. I continue to, you know, certainly cooked all kinds of meats and all that. But I love animals, and I respect them.

GROSS: So you grew up on the peninsula of Istria on the Adriatic Sea, as we said before. And after World War II, it switched from being part of Italy to being part of communist Yugoslavia. The language where you lived changed to Croatian from Italian, and the secret police were keeping an eye on your family because - go ahead.

BASTIANICH: Yes, absolutely. The whole thing changed. There was two parts of my existence and that was the security part in the house, whispering in Italian, sometimes talking about religion, and then the oppressive side growing under communism and having to follow the Communist dogma.

They changed our names. We couldn't speak - I couldn't speak Italian openly, certainly not go to church. My mother was an elementary school teacher, so she was really watched. And so, you know, the whole kind of anti-Democratic dogma and this adoration for president - or Josip Broz Tito and, you know, the kind of one-for-all communist doctrine if you will - you know, everything became communal.

Farms were taken away. My father had a business with two trucks, and, you know, he certainly was deemed a capitalist. The trucks were taken away. He was put in prison for about 40 days until they clarified that he didn't have other alternative motives of, you know, kind of undermining this communistic dogma that he wanted, you know, to profess capitalism and so on.

So it was a tough period, and that's why we ended up spending a lot of time in Busalar with my grandmother in the courtyard, which for me, was ideal.

GROSS: So in 1958, you and your family immigrate to America with the help of Catholic Relief Services. And Catholic Relief Services emerges as a real hero of this book and your life story. They helped you get passage to America. They found you a hotel room to stay in when you first arrived. They found a house or an apartment for you to rent afterwards. They helped your parents find jobs. They gave you money, and they didn't want to be repaid. Even though your mother insisted on repaying them, they wouldn't accept it.

But anyway, so you were how old when you came to America?

BASTIANICH: Twelve. I was 12 - 1958.

GROSS: Didn't speak any English, but you learned it...

BASTIANICH: None of us.

GROSS: ...Within a year. And then you were in school being...

BASTIANICH: Yes.

GROSS: ...Like an outsider, a newcomer, without any facility with English. And it was, I imagine, pretty hard for you. And you still had to deal with food, but with food in a foreign country with very little money and no garden or animals or, you know, fruit trees or (laughter) any of that to deal with. So how did the world of food change for you in America?

BASTIANICH: Well, it changed tremendously. You know, at 12 years old, you are - at least I recall being very - I was happy. I was so happy that finally we came to a place that where we are going to stay. We are going to build our home.

I was excited about making friends, you know, whose language I didn't know, and I was excited also by the food. You know, I must say initially things like Yodels and...

GROSS: (Laughter).

BASTIANICH: ...Bread cakes and all of that stuff amazed me, you know? And then...

GROSS: Did you like yodels? 'Cause I'm going to confess here...

BASTIANICH: I did.

GROSS: My mother used to buy Yodels all the time. I thought they were a little - I don't know - bitter or something. They looked like they'd be really sweet, and I thought that they didn't taste quite right. I was never a big fan, but you love them.

BASTIANICH: Well, I love them...

GROSS: I love that I'm talking to you about Yodels, by the way.

BASTIANICH: (Laughter) I love them because, you know, there you go. You went, you opened this package. And you get this kind of delicious texture and taste. You know, we didn't have that, you know, or any desserts or cake. When it was the festivities, we made it, and it was limited and so on.

So, you know, to just be able to throw it in your cart and bring it home, and I saw kids had it in school.

GROSS: Wrapped in tinfoil (laughter)...

BASTIANICH: Yes, yes.

GROSS: ...Like a tinfoil wrap?

BASTIANICH: Yes, yes.

GROSS: I love in the book - you basically become the cook for your family for dinner because your mother's working. It's a long commute. And she doesn't get home early enough to prepare dinner, so you're preparing dinners. And then you start making, like, a Duncan Hines cake from a cake mix box. And, like, you're totally fascinated with the idea (laughter) of this...

BASTIANICH: Well...

GROSS: ...Cake mix in a box.

BASTIANICH: Well, you know, it made me so successful. Yes, my mother worked late. And so she came home just in time - 6 o'clock - for dinner. And she would prepare for me just, like, a regular recipe, you know - the potatoes, the beans, whatever it was that I was cooking - put it in, cook it half an hour, and so on all the instructions. So I would do that.

But then I discovered the cake mixes. These wonderful kind of boxes that you added one egg to that mix or maybe some butter, put it in the oven and - voila - this fluffy, delicious cake would come out. And then, you know, even the icing - they gave you on the side how to make the icing with powdered sugar or whatever. So I was thrilled. And I - almost every night, we had a cake for dessert.

BIANCULLI: If you're just joining us, our guest is Lidia Bastianich, who is famous for her restaurants and her cooking shows on public television. Her new memoir, now out in paperback, is called "My American Dream: A Life Of Love, Family And Food." We'll be right back with more of her interview with Terry after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARL VERHEYEN'S "GOOD MORNING JUDGE")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, our guest is chef Lidia Bastianich. She has several restaurants and is the Emmy-winning host of public television's "Lidia's Kitchen." Her new memoir "My American Dream" has just come out in paperback. Let's get back to our conversation with Terry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: You became engaged at age 18 to Felice Bastianich. You and your husband decided to open a restaurant in Queens, N.Y. Was that a tough choice for you? - because it's a big investment. It's a big responsibility. And you never know what's going to happen when you start your own business.

BASTIANICH: Absolutely. But, you know, my husband, he also was an immigrant from the same area. He had come before me as a man - a young man and was working in restaurants. He had worked up to being a maitre d', was frugal, saved some money and worked very hard. So we had some money. And taking challenges - I think, maybe that was the beginning of, you know - together, especially if you take it with somebody - if you're the same mind. Then I had my mother, my father, who - always kind of with us in the same home. They had their own apartment but lived with us. They encouraged, too. You know, we'll help you, or whatever. So we weren't really afraid. Although, you know, it took for this little restaurant - nine-table restaurant in the suburbs of N.Y. - it took all of our savings. Then I ultimately ended up in the kitchen as a sous-chef learning much more.

GROSS: Was the menu in your first restaurant an Italian menu as you understood Italian food to be from - having lived in Italy? Or was it an Italian-American as Americans understood (laughter) Italian food to be?

BASTIANICH: Yes. Yes, it was Italian-American because, you know, we had worked in restaurants. Most of them were Italian-American food. So we weren't going to be different. You know, we were going to go along. We hired an Italian-American chef. And that's when I became the sous-chef and worked with him in the kitchen and learned Italian-American cuisine. And we were quite successful. But, you know, I must say that, slowly, I began adding some of the specialties that we ate at home.

GROSS: So after having your restaurant in Queens, you expanded that restaurant into the store next door. And then you opened yet another restaurant and sold those to have a restaurant in Manhattan. Why did you want one in Manhattan? What did that signify to you?

BASTIANICH: Well, Manhattan was the epicenter of, you know, this big city. And Felice, my husband, had worked most of his time in Manhattan in elegant, Italian restaurants. And sort of, you know, his clientele - oh, Lidia and Felice, you need to come to Manhattan. That's where you belong - your food. And, of course, that was the draw and also being in the big times, if you will. And that's when the press and people in the industry really began to notice this Italian, woman chef that cooks odd Italian food.

GROSS: It's funny because it sounds like some of the foods that you were cooking were foods that were cooked by, like, poor villagers, like your grandmother.

BASTIANICH: (Laughter).

GROSS: But they were being served in an expensive, elegant restaurant.

BASTIANICH: Yes, absolutely. But that's the reality. You know, you can place food. You can even manipulate it. And much of it is being done by chefs today. But I was kind of true to form because, you know, that message way back - this is who I was. And this is who I wanted to present - you know, the Lidia that came from that area and the Lydia that is now in America and wants to connect her two cultures together. So I cooked the reality of, you know, real peasant food but presented it - great service. You know, we had our souvenirs. They're all - so we brought the simple dishes to a level of service and presentation that was above what would be in a home.

GROSS: Were there many women chefs when you became a chef?

BASTIANICH: There were not that many but there were - you know, Joyce Goldstein, Barbara Tropp, Mary Sue Milliken. All of those were women that were really kind of, you know, working in our industry and that were good. But it was - you know, it's a tough industry for women. It still is.

GROSS: What makes it tough?

BASTIANICH: I think that, you know, maybe it's an industry that has been dominated by men. Even though, you know, for me, maybe, I took it a little lighter because in Italy, women are in restaurant kitchens, and their husbands are outside. So it wasn't - but beginning with France and America, the position of chef, if you will, was dominated by men. Men made it into a profession, and they took it over from women. And, you know, it was their domain. And, you know, they felt the kings of their kitchen, and they'd really practiced that. So it was tough - tough for a woman to grow into position in a restaurant.

GROSS: It's kind of hilarious in the sense that - it was always, like, in the traditional gender days, like, a woman's job is in the kitchen cooking food. That's not a man's job. But once there was, like, pay and prestige behind cooking, that's a man's job (laughter).

BASTIANICH: They just took it over from us.

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah.

BASTIANICH: You know, I always - I'm very, very much involved in women's organization and, you know, I founded also Women Chefs & Restaurateurs. I always say, you know, you just got to make yourself. Invest in yourself. Be a professional. Be as good as you can. Be - go out there and get the position. Make it happen.

GROSS: So you have worked with Mario Batali. And he is one of the people who've been accused of sexual harassment. And I'm wondering if you've seen a lot of sexual harassment in kitchens over the years.

BASTIANICH: You know, it's a sad subject. And it is real. There's - maybe because of my matriarchal, if you will, position, I was always looked on with respect. But, you know, as I said, you know, I tell women in the industry - and for that matter, everybody - you need to give respect, and you need to actually demand and get respect back. Have I seen it? I think, you know, it's unavoidable to see different things. And I corrected it along the way as much as I've seen. But it really makes no difference who that person is. It needs to be addressed immediately. It's like an apple. You must take the rotten part out. Otherwise, the whole apple goes.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is chef and TV host Lidia Bastianich. So what's it like for you to hear how immigrants are spoken of today with such, you know, distrust from our own president?

BASTIANICH: Well, you know, my story certainly is non-political, but it's a human story. And I can't help it when I watch the television to see those children in camp. And yes, they run. They're joyful. But I know, I know what they feel at night when they go to bed and how they think, what's tomorrow? Are my parents going to be with me? Are we going to have a home? Am I going to make friends? You know, am I going to see my relatives again? - my grandma and whatever.

I know that those children have the same thoughts, and so I feel really connected. And, you know, hopefully, me telling my story - it's a story - a good story. It's a story of somebody that, yes, faced adversity, like, you know, a lot of people are facing today but, you know, given a chance and working hard and being spiritual and staying strong to those basic values can take you to great places. So I hope that, you know, with this book, that message comes off for many people, maybe, that are wondering.

GROSS: Well, Lidia Bastianich, it's really been a delight to talk with you. Thank you so much.

BASTIANICH: Thank you very much. Thank you for having me on FRESH AIR.

BIANCULLI: Lidia Bastianich speaking with Terry Gross last year. Her memoir "My American Dream" is now out in paperback. Since their conversation, the Bastianich family has severed business ties with Mario Batali. Coming up, film critic Justin Chang reviews the Chinese drama, "Ash Is Purest White." This is FRESH AIR.

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