‘Lidia Celebrates America’ – A small-town salute
Lidia Bastianich sees food as a universal language and a way of bringing people of disparate backgrounds and viewpoints together.
Which is why she chose Middle America as the subject and setting for her latest “Lidia Celebrates America” installment, titled “A Heartland Holiday Feast.”
“I wanted to get to know more and more of America and I do that with food,” she explains. “What I found out was America truly is a patchwork of different cultures which found the comfort, which were given the opportunity to come to live, whether it’s their parents or grandparents, find the freedom – whatever it is, religious, political – and become part of America but still keep their tradition alive.”
In the hourlong program, which airs Tuesday, Dec. 18, on PBS (check local listings), the renowned chef and author visits rural towns across the country to explore their diverse culinary traditions and how the food itself helps to shape and preserve the identities of the people and places. Returning to her own home, she then prepares a holiday feast for family and friends that’s inspired by these travels.
Among the locales she visits is Natchitoches, La., to learn about Creole cooking; Wausau, Wis., home to a thriving Hmong community of Laotian and Vietnamese refugees; Sunbury, Pa., to retrace her rural roots in Pennsylvania Dutch country; and Walker, Minn., a largely Swedish and Norwegian community where she got to experience ice fishing and catch and cook a local fish known as eelpout.
“I’d never done that before and I loved it,” she says. “This lake was completely frozen and it became like a small town – all these little tents and little houses that they have on the lake. It’s amazing. And then they make this hole right in the floor of the house and they stood there and they fished for eelpout. … This eelpout resembled very much cod and we made fritters with it and it was delicious.”
“It was like a big party,” she continues. “We had dog-sleigh rides and all kinds of good local food and getting together.”
In Sunbury, Bastianich revisited the Central Pennsylvania burg where she spent a year in high school in the late 1950s. Here, she connected with a local chef known for her shoo-fly pie, a molasses crumb cake baked in a pie crust.
“We made shoo-fly pie together,” she says. “What’s interesting about this is that I get into their family, into their culture and then they teach me, you know, food is the way to connect with people.”
“Food is the basic of life,” she continues. “You wish somebody well. You wish somebody to be full, to be nourished and so when you talk food people really open up. So I went to visit her house and we made shoo-fly pie together and it brought me right back to when I was there as a teenager spending my sophomore year at Sunbury High School.”