by Megan Labrise -
Lidia Bastianich’s earliest Christmases are distinguished by luxuries few, simple and sweet: juniper bushes, figs, bay leaves and a warm familial welcome at her grandparents’ home in Istria, a peninsula on the Adriatic Sea.
This year, Bastianich celebrates the season with the release of Nonna Tell Me a Story: Lidia’s Christmas Kitchen (Running Press Kids; Ages 4-8; $15.95), a hardcover story- and cookbook illustrated by Laura Logan. She will be at the Barnes & Noble on Route 9W in the Town of Ulster on Wednesday, Nov. 17 at 6:30 p.m. to speak and sign copies of the book.
Bastianich is a James Beard Award-winning chef and empress of a New York City-based Italian food and culture empire that includes award-winning restaurants and a stake in Eataly, a Fifth Avenue emporium of dining, commerce and education. As she regales her five grandchildren with stories of childhood holidays and traditions, she invites readers to the table to read, to cook and to create new holiday traditions together. The offer echoes the famous incantation of her Emmy-nominated television show, Lidia’s Italy —“Tutti a tavola a mangiare!” or “Everyone to the table to eat!”
Grandchildren Olivia, Lorenzo, Miles, Ethan and Julia inspired Bastianich to preserve her memories for posterity.
“What inspired me, I think, was I first wanted to record, to put down the family traditions and history for my grandchildren. The interaction I had with them was so good — they loved hearing the stories. ‘Tell me a story about when you were a little girl,’ children always ask. I felt I had to share. This book extends my affectionate feelings for my family to other families,” said Bastianich.
Christmas in Istria meant scouting the woods with her brother, Franco, for the best juniper bush to serve as a Christmas tree. The fragrance commingled with the scents of oven-dried orange peel and fresh-baked cookies which were used to decorate the tree. They hung candies from the boughs with care. (Some were liberated from their vibrant wrappers by the clever duo and replaced with smooth pebbles.) Special seasonal ingredients — dried figs, dates, pine nuts and tangerines — traditions and togetherness were honored.
“I think today [those values] are not maybe lost, the meaning is there but it’s synthetic, in a way. It’s up to us to bring it back to reality, back to basics. Get some orange peel and dry it out; I do it all the time. Just really put it in the oven and it will permeate your whole house instead of spending X amount of dollars on potpourri. We learn through our senses. Sense of smell is first: the baby smells its mother, the mother’s milk. This is how they find their way around just coming out of the womb — and so I think that we are not in touch with that as much.
“What I did with my grandparents: I remember going to the garden and picking up the basil and smelling the basil. We played hide and seek in the rosemary bushes and smelled like rosemary for two years. It’s marked in my mind as one of my smells that brings me back to a zone that’s very comfortable, very nice. It’s very important to collect that knowledge, those senses that are going to be with you for the rest of your life,” she said.
An appendix to Nonna Tell Me a Story allows readers to sample some signature flavors of an Italian Christmas for themselves. Recipes include “Ugly but Good” Cookies (Brutti ma Buoni), Pine Nut Cookies (Amaretti con Pignoli), Almond Stuffed Figs and Fruit Tea (Compote).
“You know food is the one common denominator, no matter who, what, we all have that in common. Food nurtures us, nourishes us and keeps us alive, so with food — when you share food, when you prepare food — that message comes automatically: I care for you; I care for your well-being; I care for you to stay alive. To care is to cook for somebody,” said Bastianich.
She hopes Nonna Tell Me a Story will serve as a template and inspiration for families to care and cook for one another not only at Christmastime, but throughout the year.
“It isn’t a book that should be put away after Christmas. It’s a book that should stay, and hopefully will, in the kitchen all year round. It pulls together the child, with the mother, the grandmother, the siblings, in a quest to do something. Hopefully, the child would say, ‘Mother, I want to decorate this tree,’ ‘Grandmother, let’s bake those cookies.’ Hopefully it is a book that brings families, children together in the kitchen to collaborate with grandparents, siblings, those teenagers that think they know it all,” said Bastianich.
The book represents a family project in its own right. Her grandchildren served not only as inspiration, but editors.
“Every step of the way, they were there. They’re picking up right away if I change something: ‘You didn’t say that the last time, grandmother.’ Not only that, but I got them involved in the illustration and they all kind of looked at something and said, ‘My hair is not like that; my eyes are like this.’ It was a joint effort. It was wonderful. I would e-mail them the pictures and we would discuss. I sent them all a copy and they already took it to school. They’re so proud because they can show off — this is them. In a children’s world, to be animated I think, is optimal,” she said.
While much of her extended family resides close-by in New York City, Bastianich’s brother Franco lives in Hopewell Junction — one possible reason for her special affinity for the Hudson River Valley.
“I think it’s a beautiful valley, scenic-wise. I love the seasons. It’s a very organic valley in the sense of farms and milk and cheese and produce. It’s close to New York. All of them, even from the very beginning, when they used to come with their little pickup trucks and then they got assembled a little bit, began to deliver together. It’s great. I can only encourage them to grow more and more,” said Bastianich.