Lidia Bastianich’s passion for cooking has resulted in the award-winning chef starring in the PBS series “Lidia’s Kitchen,” the establishment of several restaurants and the writing of numerous books. Her culinary drive is not confined to the kitchen as seen in her latest special “Lidia Celebrates America: Flavors that define Us” scheduled to debut at 9 p.m. May 30 on Valley PBS.
Her search for different cuisines takes her from homes to food trucks in Hartsville, SC, Houston, Louisville, Reynoldsburg, OH and Bakersfield to visit with those who have come from Ukraine, India, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Cuba and Vietnam. It is her chance to talk with first, second, and third-generation Americans who are forging their own way and shaping the definition of what it means to be an American.
Each city is a chance for Bastianich to share a meal and hear the inspirational stories of the opportunity America has provided them, how they are giving back to their new country and how they share a small piece of their native country through their own foods.
Bastianich selected the stories of immigrants for this year’s special because of the hatred currently being shown in this country toward them. She wants her special to be a reminder that the vast majority of people who live in the United States come from immigrant roots.
During her visit to Bakersfield, Bastianich met with a community of immigrants from the Indian state of Punjab who are farmers and truck drivers. Frustrated by the unhealthy food options available to truckers, Balvinder Singh Sainis opened a small roadside restaurant to offer healthier food choices for hungry truckers. She also met with Punjab families who grow and process almonds.
“Bakersfield was very interesting to us because there is a huge community of Punjabi who live there and they have been there for quite a while,” Bastianich says. “I talked to different families and they told me about how they help each other.
“They are still immigrating there and this community sets up places for them to stay. When people come there, everyone makes them feel at home.”
Once immigrants arrive in a community like Bakersfield, they must find a way to produce their native dishes. It is all a matter of ingenuity to get past any food hurdles they might face especially in finding the exact ingredients.
Bastianich experienced that same problem when she opened her first restaurant 50 years ago. She wanted to make traditional Italian dishes but a lot of the ingredients she needed were not available. Her solution was to bring back the ingredients she needed in her suitcases when she would go home for a visit.
Creating exact dishes often means there is a need for special spices. What Bastianich discovered was that either those spices are grown here or are imported.
Her special examines more than just the culinary impact immigrants have on a community. She points out that Bakersfield and the surrounding communities are a primary example of how important the immigrants are in terms of the need for farm workers. That was why her stop here went from table to farm.
Executive producer Laurie Donnelly adds that immigrants have had to ask themselves how much of their culture to bring and what to leave behind.
“This new ‘Lidia Celebrates America’ special shines a light on what it means to be an American today, and how immigrants continue to shape America’s patchwork quilt of religion, music and food,” Donnelly says.
Bastianich understands what it means to be an immigrant. When she was a child, her homeland was ceded to communist Yugoslavia and her family had to endure living behind the Iron Curtain. When she was 10, her family escaped to Italy and eventually moved to the United States.
She grew up to become a celebrated New York City restaurateur by introducing many of her native Italian dishes – including risotto – to her new country. She began starring in “Lidia’s Kitchen” in 2013. Her yearly specials allow her to get out of her own kitchen and into the cooking spaces of others.
“It is my way of sharing what I believe is beautiful about the United States,” Bastianich says. “This one – in particular – is about immigrants. I’m an immigrant. I am an example of being an immigrant and the opportunity that one could have coming to America.
“Whether coming for safety, opportunity, or a better quality of life, immigrants like me have added to America’s rich and diverse tapestry of culture, religion, and food. I feel lucky that my family was welcomed in the United States, and I am excited to share these stories of more recent immigrants.”
“Lidia Celebrates America: Flavors that Define Us” airs on PBS stations and streams on PBS.org and the PBS app available on iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Chromecast and VIZIO. In addition to the broadcast special, Bastianich filmed a digital companion series that is now available across PBS platforms.