Lidia Bastianich connects to people through the food of Italy. Her new memoir, “My American Dream: A Life of Love, Family, and Food,” tells how life as a refugee and immigrant led to her career celebrating the food and culture of a country that was sometimes out of reach.
The award-winning television host, author, and chef was born in 1947 in Pola (now Pula), a former Italian city on the Istrian peninsula that was annexed by communist Yugoslavia after World War II. It is now part of Croatia. When she was 9, Bastianich’s family escaped across the border to Italy, where they lived in a refugee camp for two years before ultimately receiving visas to emigrate to the United States. After settling in New York, Bastianich was free to return to Italy and began reconnecting with family, immersing herself in the culture, studying the country’s food.
Bastianich credits her audiences with encouraging her to tell this story. “There seems to be such a connection between my viewers, my readers, my customers. I think I took them to a trip of their own — different ethnicities, not only Italians — which is wonderful because it tells you how universal this message is,” she says.
Bastianich spoke on a recent visit to Boston, where she hosted a book signing at Eataly Boston, the Italian marketplace in which she is a partner.
Q. Has your experience as an immigrant always been a story you tell?
A. Being an immigrant, you want to be assimilated. I remember being a young teenager, all I wanted to do is have the bobby socks, dance the rock ’n’ roll like the rest. . . . As I began to write books and cook, I had a medium where I connected. My stories were always in the background because I said nobody is interested in that. But food reflects a culture, a topography, a climate, and so I would slowly put it in. I was kind of enlightened that I could release this secret, if you will, of being an immigrant. Oddly enough, it fits into today’s situation.
Q. How did growing up under Yugoslavian rule affect your Italian identity?
A. We were Italian at home. To this day, I speak Italian with my mother. In [Pola] there were the Italians, the fascists, the Nazis came down, the Croatians, and everybody was against each other. It was kind of this neighbor against neighbor, not unlike what’s happening now. You know, you were afraid.
Q. Do you think being separated from Italy is why it looms so large in your life and career?
A. You know I actually never thought of this until you brought it up. But I have this need not to miss Italy and what it’s up to. I need to go there and see what the Italians are doing. I felt like my home was beyond my reach, our reach, our control. The forces came and went kind of like the wind and pushed us here. There was not the appreciation for allowing different ethnicities to coexist like they did.
Q. When your family made it to Italy, it was as refugees. Why was that?
A. We had no papers. They couldn’t go and check in Yugoslavia because when the Yugoslavians came they changed our name. So, the only option was to stay in the [refugee] camp and to wait without citizenship until somebody accepted us. But the rules were such that we weren’t immigrants, we were refugees. If we had the Italian citizenship, we had to stay in Italy. We couldn’t have gone anyplace else. And I think it was a choice of my parents to just go on. So, it’s one of those complicated decisions that one makes in life. I’m grateful for it.
Q. Your mother kept wanting to repay Catholic Charities for their help after you settled in New York.
A. She thought it was going to haunt her. She thought it was building up. I think that’s valiant. I personally think that sometimes today there is an abuse of the goodness of America. I really do. There’s no place that does better, that stands by the people in need. And, you know, I think that things like that should be respected. If somebody gives you a chance and you make it and you become something, it’s not all yours to keep. You have to give something back.
Q. After moving so much, when did you finally feel like you’d found home?
A. When I turned 18, six years after I came here, the first thing I did was I applied for my citizenship. I just wanted to make sure that nobody’s going to take me away from here. And I remember that as being one of the most joyous moments in my life, kind of a relief. . . . I have a home. I’m accepted. I am like everybody else here. And from then on, I just kind of grabbed on to being an American in every single way and [took] every opportunity that came along. And I still do. You know because, as strong as I am in the Italian [culture] . . . I am an American.
Interview was edited and condensed. Michael Floreak can be reached at [email protected].