As I watched Lidia Bastianich masterfully present a series of dishes here Sunday night, lecturing and entertaining all the while, I reflected upon her stature as national treasure.
The late Julia Child was, of course, our national treasure. Though her spirit lives on, she is gone, and it could be we feel we need another master chef to take her place. Someone to lead us gently but firmly through the basics of a venerable cuisine, instructing us to master what is difficult and instilling in us respect for the simple. We need someone who imparts not only lessons in preparing food well, but in eating with joy and thoughtfulness.
I believe Lidia is such a one. We don’t see her flouncing around on the Food Network, brandishing her knife in those silly commercials or showing us how difficult she can be to work with in a kitchen. As did Julia, she does what she does with steadiness and grace, without gimmickry, but in singular style. If she is motherly, that is because she raised a family. If she can be stern and exacting, doesn’t that fit with our fond stereotype of the Italian matriarch gathering her extended family around her table?
Of course it does. During her presentation on Sunday, as she prepared fresh broccoli raab for a pasta dish with Italian sausage, she looked up from her work to tell the audience to pipe down.
“OK,” she said, in a matter-of-fact tone. “You are talking. And you and I can’t talk at the same time.” Those who were listening laughed. Those who were talking stopped.
This is what we need. I won’t tout Lidia as the next president of the United States. But when a wise and knowledgeable person talks, on whatever the subject, wouldn’t it be good if we could all be quiet and listen; that rude people might pay attention instead of interrupting?
Bastianich was asked, during the question and answer session, about her relationship with Child. It was a friendship as well as a professional collaboration. “Julia always was very curious about Italian food,” Bastianich said. But the two personalities met on another level as well. They recognized that, in addition to providing nourishment, one of the messages that comes from food is “the social element, the sharing of ideas, sharing a meal,” said Bastianich.
Sharing a meal? How much do we do that anymore? Some have said that the recession might be bringing families together around the dinner table. I don’t have any figures to back this up, but I’d like to think that it was true. And if it is true, who better to guide us back with some very, very good food reasonably easy to prepare at home than Bastianich?
Child presented Americans with culinary lessons that would raise our level of sophistication, make us aware of what a classic cuisine was all about and how introduce its lessons into our lifestyle. I might not make boeuf à la bourguignonne once a month, but I can tell you that when I want to brown cubes of beef, I pat them dry before introducing them to the properly heated oil in the pan. When I use wine in a recipe I don’t use wine I wouldn’t drink, and I have no fear of butter.
I like the idea of Bastianich as our new, most respected chef. But she will never be the “new” Julia, nor would we want her to be. She would remain completely what she is and has always been —a wonderful personality, expert cook and teacher.
The following are links to recipes for the dishes Bastianich presented at the KLRN Chef Series Sunday, Nov. 1, at the St. Anthony Hotel in San Antonio. The Italian-American chef’s Public Television series, “Lidia’s Italy”, airs locally on KLRN, several days during the week. Her book is “Cooking From The Heart of Italy,” which she wrote with her daughter, Tanya Bastianich Manuali (Knopf, $35).