For as long as I can remember, my mother has loved Lidia Bastianich, and I’ve never been able to determine why. Growing up, I’d begrudgingly sit through Bastianich’s flagship cooking show, Lidia’s Italy, on WLIW 21, our area's secondary PBS outlet that aired the show in off-hours on weekends. My mother took a near-instantaneous liking to Bastianich. The show, along with Lidia’s Kitchen, has now morphed into one of my mother’s usual—and, honestly, perplexing—infatuations. When she is bored or sad, my mother defaults to channel 471, PBS’ CreateTV channel, in the hopes that Lidia will be on air.
When I first saw Bastianich’s show, I must have been about nine or ten. My reaction was one of intense, fidgety boredom; my only existing frame of reference for food shows was Rachael Ray’s $40 a Day. I found that—with its peppy, peripatetic host—more stimulating than a half hour of watching Bastianich. Bastianich’s persona was considerably more subdued than Ray's, her activities were largely, though not always, confined to the kitchen. In those years, I was hard on Bastianich, seeing her kind, demure personality as a sort of anti-charisma. Where my mother found Bastianich’s voice soothing, I found it an antidote to insomnia. I also wasn't much of a cook in those preteen years, so I found the show's step-by-step decocting of recipes too blandly instructional to really register. In short, watching the show was a real slog. Whenever my mother tried to corral and cajole me into excitement about Lidia being on television, I would roll my eyes.
My mother is a short, sweet-looking woman whose life has been filled with more miseries than anyone should have to endure in a lifetime. She is one of my best friends. I share many traits with her, both genetic and learned, making our polar reactions to Bastianich all the more confounding to me. We both balk at unabashed sentimentality. She raised me to abide by certain rules as a matter of survival: Cry in private. Do not express any emotion—positive or negative—too effusively. Try your best not to be corny, especially with those you love. (That constitutes, in my mother's own words, “sentimental blackmail.”)
These days, my mother, about to turn 62, talks about how much her skin has sagged. I think it's her roundabout way of telling me that she wishes she were as beautiful as she was in her youth. There was something in my mother's sadness that Bastianich spoke to. In the face of life’s inevitable and compounding stresses, my mother retreats into the quotidian fantasies of Lidia’s kitchen. Television is a means of escape for my mom. If Bastianich seemed philosophically opposed to my mother’s teachings, Bastianich would work against my mother’s better judgment. “She must have been so beautiful when she was younger,” my mom would say as she looked at Lidia on television, almost as if she were talking about herself.
Each year, Bastianich hosts a PBS holiday special. It's usually an hour-long event that takes her outside the kitchen and celebrates, in some way, the diverse makeup of the United States. At first glance, this year's special, Lidia Celebrates America: Holiday for Heroes seems to follow this standard rubric with a gloss of treacly uplift. In the special, Bastianich pays homage to military veterans, driving across the country to meet five of them and cook with their families. The special climaxes with a celebratory holiday dinner at Norfolk’s Naval Station, the world’s largest naval base, where Bastianich—along with ABC News anchor Bob Woodruff, himself injured while covering the Iraq War—cooks for 250 active duty Navy troops. “As I travel the country meeting veterans from all the military branches, I hear mind blowing stories, experience some tears,” Bastianich says in the documentary. “But also feel real hope and promise.”
The patriotic overtones of the special are informed—gently—by Bastianich’s own backstory. Bastianich, who is now 69, was born in what is today Croatia, but was Italy back then. It would be swallowed by Tito’s Yugoslavia, temporarily displacing her siblings and her parents. She and her family fled to the States when she was 12 years old.
Throughout the special, Bastianich takes near-journalistic interest in her subjects: She speaks to each military veteran at length about the process of re-acclimating to life outside a combat zone, ingratiating herself with their family and friends. In the shadow of war, food acts as a salve for these veterans. Consider the story of Yonas Hagos of Yorkville, Illinois. He is an ethnically Ethiopian refugee of Sudan who came to the States when he was ten years old. Though his mother begged for him not to enter the Iraq War, he did so anyway; after an incident involving a rocket-propelled grenade that almost killed him, he returned home and was festooned with a Purple Heart. He, now married with a kid and one more on the way, lives near his mother, who missed him terribly.
Bastianich's point of entry into this story is her own life as a mother, and her admission that she couldn’t fathom the terror Hogas' mother has faced. "Being a mother and a grandmother, I couldn't help but thinking about all of the mothers that are out there whose sons and daughters are out in the front line," Bastianich says. "And, you know, they wait for that call every moment. They dread—they hope—it doesn't come. But sometimes it does." As Hogas’ mother prepares some traditional injera atop the stove, one of Hogas' favorite dishes, Bastianich observes that food is a healer, that food can convey a message of love depending on the messenger. To her, the best dish, especially if it's a home-cooked meal from a mother, can possess recuperative power.
Watching these moments, which come early on in the hour-long special, my grave misunderstanding of my mother’s affinity towards Bastianich began shifting into focus. “My emotional connection to food is through my roots,” Bastianich states a few scenes later. “Food nourishes you physically and emotionally.” Coming from anyone else, these may sound like pat, soulless neologisms; I am sure they would make my mother’s eyes roll out of her head. But there is a reason my mother, an immigrant to the United States like Bastianich, found a home in Lidia’s show. Perhaps it’s because Bastianich embodied an assimilationist fantasy of America—like my mother, Bastianich was an immigrant woman who did her best to fit in without sacrificing an essence of herself. Observing my mother, I've come to learn that being an immigrant woman in this country requires one to adopt a certain armor. To tone down an accent; to cook fewer foods that may strike white Americans as stinky or gross. Bastianich did none of this. She did not fake it until she made it. Her heritage sewed itself into each of her recipes, informing her very reason for being in the kitchen, and she has worn that as her public face.
By the end of the episode, I realized how gravely I'd misconstrued Bastianich—and my mother's affection for her—all along. Time and distance have given me clarity that now allow me to view Bastianich's work through the prism of my mother's experiences. I’m edging closer to the day when I’ll hopefully have kids of my own, and I’ll be able to understand even better what draws my mother to a woman who cooks for others because she can’t imagine her life any other way. But there is an unspoken thread that links Lidia to my mother—the shared experience of coming to a country that can feel as hostile as it can welcoming, the experience of becoming a mother within these conditions. And this is something I, as a son, will never know.
Lidia Celebrates America: Holiday for Heroes premieres tonight, December 16, at 10:00 P.M. ET on PBS. Check your local listings to find out when it’s screening in your area.