The immigrant experience is a subject close to Lidia Bastianich’s heart. As an 11-year-old in 1958, she and her family left her native Italy when it became part of Communist Yugoslavia, and went first to a refugee camp and then to America. That’s why her latest PBS special, “Lidia Celebrates America: Freedom and Independence,” delves into various cultures’ celebrations of the freedom they experience here. “I think this [program] is in a sense my thank you to the United States and showing that not only in situations like mine, but different ethnicities are allowed to come to find a new life and to thrive here, to have the freedom to be who they are and celebrate who they are,” says the chef and restaurateur.
Q. How did your experience as an immigrant inspire this special?
A. I really got curious into the Italian-American [heritage] and had my book “Lidia’s Italy in America” and show [of the same name]. In doing that, I traveled around America and I wanted to see the Italian influence, the immigrants, where they settled, the businesses they were involved in. Traveling around America and always having food as an entree, I encountered so many different ethnicities that had their own kind of enclaves. They celebrate their own culture within this greater America. What I realized is this is the country that gives that opportunity because I am one of those immigrants. I said, I need to find out more about the other cultures and how they [came here], because I know how I became an immigrant.
Q. What kinds of celebrations of independence did you capture in this special?
A. I went to my dear friend Jacques Pepin for Bastille Day. He celebrates it as a grand party at his Connecticut home. We also did the celebration of Filipinos, a parade [in New York]. It was amazing for me to find this kind of enclave. Then we went down to Juneteenth in Galveston, Texas. That’s a celebration by the slaves because down there they only found out [about their freedom] two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was announced. It’s a different kind of independence.
Q. Why did you select Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia home Monticello as the site to open the program?
A. First of all, it’s celebrating America and that’s a big birthday. It’s the Fourth of July and we celebrate and thank America. We found out that they do a yearly citizenship ceremony on the Fourth of July and I said, How appropriate. Let’s share this philosophy that Jefferson had, diplomacy and true understanding of other cultures. We went through his garden, I cooked in his kitchen — that was a real thrill for me — then we selected four unique immigrants and we asked each one of them to make a traditional dish. We had a celebratory dinner for them becoming citizens. Each one brought their own food and we ate together and it was just wonderful.
Q. What role does food play in these celebrations?
A. With food you nurture people in many ways, you understand who they are. When you’re going to eat somebody else’s food and you sit down at the table, a lot of differences are put aside. Food is kind, so if somebody offers you food, that’s positive. I feel I have easy access into these cultures because I have the common denominator of food. We talk, we sit at the table, but with that, a whole culture reflects. Geography, religion, it reflects all those things.
Q. What do you hope people will take away from this show?
A. Because we’re all immigrants of some sort, the blessing that is to live in America and to be free and to be able to have all the freedoms and all the opportunities that America offers and yet you can be your own self, your own culture. You can keep the tradition of your ancestors, you are encouraged. Try and find another country that allows this great display of ethnicity. I don’t think there’s any other country that allows that. I want the viewers to understand that this comes from my heart because I was given this opportunity. It’s a way of sharing that with everybody else. Sometimes America is maligned and it hurts me. I share [my patriotism] through food, which is a peaceful medium, so I’m not preaching. I’m just saying, let’s sit at the table and love what we have and celebrate understanding each other’s ethnicity within this greater whole which is America.