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Lidia Matticchio Bastianich will be visiting New Haven to talk about her new memoir. (Photo by Diane DeLucia courtesy of Lidia Bastianich/Penguin Random House )
Lidia Bastianich and her brother Franco, awaiting guests to celebrate her 16th birthday in their apartment in Astoria, Queens. (Photo courtesy of Lidia Bastianich/Penguin Random House )
Lidia Bastianich and her father on her wedding day, May 29, 1966. (Photo courtesy of Lidia Bastianich/Penguin Random House )
Lidia Bastianich as a little girl in Pola, c. 1955. Up until her hometown was annexed by Yugoslavia during Tito’s communist regime, her childhood was full of playing tag and skipping rope, small luxuries made possible by her parents’ jobs, and plenty of food grown in her mother’s garden and on her grandparents’ farm. (Photo courtesy of Lidia Bastianich/Penguin Random House )
Lidia Bastianich’s mother Erminia, her brother Franco, Bastianich, and her father Vittorio in her Zia Nina’s apartment in Trieste, on a Sunday visit from the San Sabba refugee camp where they lived with more than 2,000 other refugees from Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Istria. Bastianich writes that living in the refugee camp was a sharp break from her previously idyllic childhood. (Photo courtesy of Lidia Bastianich/Penguin Random House )
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Lidia Matticchio Bastianich wasn’t ready to write a memoir.
“Not yet. I had always been kind of putting things away, little stories, vignettes. I would just store them in the computer,” she says, thinking it might someday be of interest to her children, her grandchildren, maybe.
Then as she listened to the news, she wondered if her story might resonate with a larger audience.
“Given the reality of the times and of immigrants around the world, I thought maybe it was time,” she says.
Bastianich says she can’t speak for all immigrants, but says those who have asked her about her story and how she overcame the obstacles in her life will find some of the answers in her newly published memoir, My American Dream: A Life of Love, Family, and Food. She’ll be talking about her new book at Gateway Community College on Wednesday, April 11 at a book signing and reception from 4 to 8 p.m.
“I am looking forward to it,” she says. “I’m looking forward to meeting people and talking with them like I am talking with you now.”
In her memoir, she explains how she and her family were a persecuted minority in Yugoslavia under the rule of Marshal Josip Broz Tito, being watched by the secret police and having to hide their religious observances. They fled and spent several extremely difficult years in the San Sabba refugee camp, where Bastianich’s idyllic childhood came to a crashing end, before coming to America.
The family had nothing. People working with charitable aid organizations helped with food, clothing, and finding a home. Her parents persevered, but sometimes desperately missed friends and family left behind. Bastianich remembers seeing her mother in tears, missing the good times in her old home, and became determined to prove her parents right, to show that they made the right decision by leaving everything and coming to America, the land of opportunity.
And Bastianich did just that.
Drawing upon her earliest memories of her mother’s and grandmother’s garden, and her great aunt’s cooking, Bastianich went on to author 13 cookbooks and to become the international host of public television’s Emmy award-winning Lidia’s Kitchen. She regularly appears on television, including Italy’s highly rated daily program, La Prova del Cuoco. She is a YouTube star, and has taught generations of cooks the finer points of Italian cooking. She owns Felidia, Becco, several other restaurants, and is a partner in the acclaimed Eataly.
From the frightened 10 year-old daughter of penniless immigrants in a refugee camp, she’s become a happy, successful woman living on Long Island with a family of which she is extremely proud, including her grandchildren Olivia, Lorenzo, Miles, Ethan, and Julia.
“It’s just my story. It’s the reality of what happened to me and what happened to me then. And it’s happening to them, and it’s happening now. If my story can help anybody, well, then, that’s good.”
‘Never Feel Like You Are Lost’
Of all her accomplishments, Bastianich says she is happiest when she hears someone say that they make her feel comfortable, that “you make me feel I can cook.”
“Everybody can cook something,” she says. “Never feel like you are lost in the kitchen. Just go in and get started, and something will come into the pot. Cooking, especially feeding people at the table, is such a pivotal point of my life. I think it’s the epicenter of life. People should sit at a table, no matter what you put on it. Sit at a table with family, with a friend, with whoever you love.”
Some of her earliest memories are of food, but she knows from family stories that the forces that led to her journey to America began even before she was born.
Her family was from the Friuli–Venezia Giulia region of northern Italy. As the World War II ended, it was clear that her small city on the southern tip of the Istrian Peninsula would be given to communist Yugoslavia. As the borders were redrawn, people were terrified of the possible outcomes, but her mother was pregnant with Bastianich, and there was her older brother, three-year-old Franco, to consider as well.
In her memoir, Bastianich tells harrowing accounts of what it was like for her family to live in a war zone, waving farewell and watching as their friends left the besieged town.
Bastianich was born on Feb. 21, 1947, and “seven months after that, on the 15th of September, the day the provisions of the Treaty of Paris were put into place, the border between Italy and Yugoslavia was officially closed. My parents—and Franco and I—were now stuck in Yugoslavia. Change came to Pola (“Pula” in Croatian) almost immediately under communism. The names of streets, towns, and monuments were changed to reflect the area’s new official language,” she writes in her memoir.
“Everybody’s last name was changed as the new documents and identification cards were issued. Ours was changed from the Italian ‘Matticchio’ to the Slavic ‘Motika.’ Churches across the peninsula were ordered closed. Suddenly, people weren’t allowed to go to church or even practice religion openly. It was a sharp blow to many—both Italian and Croatian—who lived in the city and had practiced Catholicism for generations. My mother wanted to have me baptized, but now even that seemed out of the question.”
They managed, with a bit of subterfuge, to get the job done, but hearing the family talk about that experience and her later experiences left her feeling in her early years that she always had to be hiding something.
“It was always hush, hush. Someone is always watching you. I realized then that there are forces way beyond a person that act upon that person and that can determine the path of their life and direction,” she says in our interview.
Misery to Endure, and Wonderful Memories
While there was much misery to endure at that time, also among her earliest memories are those that later fueled her wildly successful career in America.
While her family did not have much, her mother had a garden with apricot trees, a walnut tree, a fig tree, and a loquat tree. Her Nonna Rosa had a bustling farm with goats, pigs, rabbits, and a huge garden. Between the gardens and the farm, her extended family had plenty to eat.
“Well, you know, my whole reference library of flavors reverts to that period of my life,” she says. “I literally learned how to pick a fig at its ripest. It has to be at the stem a little shriveled, and it still has to have like a drop of nectar coming out. That’s a perfect fig. You learn that, and those memories stay with you forever. I was testing all of the things we made and building up my reference library.”
Eventually, things got so bad that her family decided to make a dramatic escape across the border, with half of the family leaving and the other half following later. When the opportunity came, the family had to make a quick decision. Bastianich, then 10 years old, did not know what was happening.
“For me it was so traumatic,” she says. “I did not realize I was not coming back and I didn’t say goodbye to my Grandma and my friends.”
But it was also a turning point in another way, in that when she cooked and ate, she realized it brought back memories of those she left behind.
“I realized later, my passion for food and cooking was initially caught up in that kind of separation. In Italy, I had a great aunt who was also a very, very good cook. I would help her cook. I loved that. And the way she cooked, was the same dishes and flavors as my grandmother. When I came to the states I continued that. Food was my umbilical cord to my past.”
Her early years in America were hard.
“We had nobody here,” she says. “A lot of people helped us, and the Red Cross and the Catholic aid charities, but with nothing we came. And I said, ‘OK, this is the opportunity.’ I would observe my parents, and the sadness and worry they had. My mother would cry a lot, remembering her old friends. But as kids, we learned the language faster and I knew I had to help my parents. I wanted to achieve so that I could show them and that they made the right choice.”
There were many struggles along the way, recounted honestly in her book.
“Life is life and you encounter hills and valleys and you have to make the best,” she says. “And certainly, not to give up. You have to make the right choices, and analyze, and take the support of the people around you, your partners, your children, your faith. All of those things. But the opportunity was here and is here. There is no place in the world like this.”
The book signing takes place from 4 to 6 p.m. at Gateway Community College (GCC), 20 Church Street, New Haven. Tickets are $26 and include a copy of My American Dream, along with admission to the meet-and-greet book signing. A private reception follows in the GCC demonstration kitchen and restaurant, Café Vincenzo, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Recipes from Bastianich will be prepared by GCC culinary students under the direction of Chef Dave McCoart. Private reception tickets are limited to the first 60 guests at $100 per person, and include a copy of the memoir. This event is made possible through the GCC Foundation Chefs of our Kitchen (COOK) Series, and is sponsored by People’s Untied Bank, and Barnes & Noble Booksellers in North Haven. For tickets to the book signing and/or the private reception, and to reserve a copy of My American Dream: A Life of Love, Family and Food, visit www.GatewayFDN.org/cook-tickets or call 203-285-2617.
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