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Lidia Bastianich talks food and cultural identity while visiting the Dayton-area

Author Lidia Bastianich at the 2014 Texas Book Festival.
Larry D. Moore
Wikimedia Commons
At the age of 14 she briefly worked part-time at the Astoria bakery, Walken's Bakery, owned by Christopher Walken's parents.

(Editors note: Transcript edited lightly for length and clarity.)

Celebrity chef Lidia Bastianich was in Southwest Ohio this week promoting her new book and giving cooking demonstrations in Dayton and Cincinnati. Maybe you’ve seen chef Lidia on the cooking shows she does for PBS. Once she even made risotto on air for Julia Child. Lidia spoke with Mike Frazier about what to expect if you go to one of her demonstrations. And about what made her into the chef she is today.

Lidia Bastianich: "You know, I grew up in a really old farm setting where grandma had all the food that she fed the family. We had chicken and we had ducks and we had pigs and we had goats. I milked the goats, we made ricotta. I went to get the eggs warm in the morning for the frittata, for the zabaglione. And then Sunday came and the meal of course, the chicken, the plucking, the plumage. Even taking the chicken once you pluck the plumage, you know, grandma will put it over the fire. So those little kind of hairs would burn out so they wouldn't stay on the chicken. So I guess I'll take them in you know? A lot of time, these little details which they love to hear about, you know, Lidia, the real Lidia. You know, I don't have an outline exactly. Usually takes me in different direction. Depends a lot on the crowd, depends on questions because I hope they open it up to questions as well."

Mike Frazier: You were born in a peninsula. If I did, my research correctly, which was at the time, a part of Italy. But after World War II it was handed over to communist Yugoslavia.

Bastianich: "Correct."

Frazier: What was it like as a child living under communist Yugoslavia for you?

Bastianich: "It had a big impact on me and not only negative. I would say initially, you know, we were ethnic Italians, but we couldn't speak Italian. We couldn't go to church, they changed their names. So things really changed. But whenever you are on a border situation and it's so relevant to what's happening today, I can't tell you how much I connect with these people, with these immigrants trying to to get some freedom, a place of their own. You know, a home. So being being there, we kind of lived a hidden life. And then, of course, the lifestyle was expected. I mean, my my mother was a teacher, an elementary school teacher. My father, a mechanic, had two trucks. They took the trucks. They incarcerated him. So life in the beginning wasn't pleasant."

"The one thing that maybe in my life because my mother put me and my brother with my grandmother in the country, in a little town. And there, grandma would have all the animals, as I said, grew all the vegetables, the fruits and everything. And we would help her. I would help her around, you know, feed the animals, go forage for the for the peas, go get the rosemary, you know, dried the figs in the summer. Line them up on the on the on the cement wall. Grandma needed potatoes. I went with my little basket with her and helped her. She would hoe the potatoes out of ground, but I would collect the little ones and warm potatoes in my hand. I could still feel them."

"It's a sensibility for food. Maybe really a ground sensibility, literally for for food that I got in that situation because it was what it was. So I think that it was tough. And of course, my parents decided ultimately to escape back into Italy and move on, which we did. But the connection with food and my mother and the lack of food and the respect of food was really born in that setting there."

Frazier: I was just about to ask you, what what does food mean to you personally?

Bastianich: "With food, for me is the basis of life of all of us survival. We all, no matter what culture, food is what keeps us alive. And so, you know, I think that maybe in today's world, sometimes we lose sight of that and we lose respect when we think that food is automatically to us and maybe even by somebody else. But it's not. It's, you know, it's that ground, that dirt that gives us food. And I, you know, I just can't help not relating to that and this the strong sense of respect for the dirt, for that ground, for the world and for for that for tradition."

A chance meeting with a volunteer in a college computer lab in 1987 brought Mike to WYSO. He started filling in for various music shows, and performed various production, news, and on-air activities during the late 1980s and 90s, spinning vinyl and cutting tape before the digital evolution.