As part of a special event sponsored by WordUp: Long Island LitFest, celebrity chef Lidia Bastianich visited the Cinema Arts Centre to discuss her new memoir “My American Dream: A Life of Love, Family and Food” with Newsday food writer Erica Marcus.
Best known for her numerous television programs and cookbooks, Bastianich wrote the new book to share more about her personal life, especially that of her experiences as a child growing up in a Communist regime. Bastianich was born in an Italian city called Pula in the Istrian Peninsula (now Croatia). Soon after her birth it was assigned to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia where her family lived for nine years under Communist dictator Marshal Tito.
“I was just a child when Communism set in. We couldn’t speak Italian or go to church. We couldn’t do many things,” said Bastianich. Despite living under Communism, Marcus noted from reading the book, that it seemed like she had an idyllic childhood. “You were so close to the land and to nature and you went on many playdates and took care of the animals. It was like this timeless childhood that could’ve been anywhere. I’ve always longed for that kind of existence.”
To shield her, Bastianich’s mother sent Lidia and her brother to live with their grandmother on her farm in a small town where Communism was not as prominent, which is where she discovered her love of cooking. “I was her little helper, feeding and milking the goats. We had an olive tree in the garden where we made olive oil. I was brought up very close to the earth and the production of food. My flavor reference was built on those delicious, fresh ingredients. When we returned to Italy and I realized that we would not be going back to grandma, food along with all their aromas and tastes became my connection to that place and to grandma. Food, then for the rest of my life became my connector. I love food, I love cooking and I love feeding and nurturing people,” Bastianich said.
Marcus then raised the question of whether it is ethical for farmers to eat the animals they raise, to which Bastianich responded that she has no problem with it because of the respect it teaches you. “It teaches you to respect animals more, you don’t abuse animals because they ultimately nurture us.” She then said that we, as consumers, must also respect the animal in return. “You have to eat every part of the animal to really respect it. If the animal is slaughtered to feed us, then the least you could do is eat every part.”
In reading a passage from her book, Bastianich shared the reason why Italian food found in America is so different than the traditional Italian food in Italy. “Much of Italian cuisine in America began with the cuisine of Italian immigrants who started coming here in the late 19th century. They came with all the memories, culture, and passion of the food but when they arrived, the traditional ingredients such as olive oil, bruschetta, and dry pasta were missing so they had to substitute for ingredients they found here. A major difference stemmed from crucial differences between Italy and America. Here fresh cuts of meat were readily available. In Italy, meat was much more expensive and good cuts were hard to find. And so, the Italian American cuisine was born: a delicious cuisine but not a regional cuisine of Italy.”
To come full circle, Bastianich closed the evening by tying in her history with the history of food. “Food is history. Food tells us a story. Look at Italy and look at the different regions and the food of each region and you’ll see it really reflects the history of that region. When I write, I can’t help but share with you what I learned about the food and then questions came out more about me personally, so my story had to come out.”