Tuesday, December 20 at 8 p.m. – Lidia Celebrates America: Holiday Tables and Traditions
(Rochester, NY) – An Italian Christmas Eve. A Mexican-American Christmas Day. A Chinese New Year. A Passover Seder. Four holidays, four different tables and traditions. Join celebrity chef and culinary author Lidia Bastianich as she travels across America in a celebration of culture through food. Lidia Celebrates America: Holiday Tables and Traditions airs Tuesday, December 20 at 8 p.m. on WXXI-TV/HD (DT21.1/cable 1011 and 11).
In her Italian Christmas Eve segment, Lidia takes viewers on a delicious holiday adventure beginning in New York City, where she prepares a traditional Italian Christmas Eve La Vigilia — feast of the seven fishes — with actor Stanley Tucci (Julie and Julia, Big Night). But first, actor Mo Rocca (Wait, Wait...Don’t Tell Me!) accompanies Lidia on an unforgettable shopping trip to a fish market on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. “Cooking and food is about more than sustenance,” says Rocca. “The sacredness of family and friends eating together is something that crosses all lines. It may be the only thing that crosses all lines.”
It’s a sentiment repeated throughout Lidia Celebrates America. From New York City to San Antonio to San Francisco, Lidia listens as multiple generations of Americans explain the importance of food in preserving cultural traditions and the overall holiday experience.
“Traditions are extremely important to keep, to continue, and to instill in children,” Lidia says. “Traditions give you roots, give you stability, so if a storm comes, you can weather it. If you don’t have any roots, you topple, no matter how big a tree you are.”
Back in her kitchen with Stanley Tucci, Lidia prepares a feast that includes octopus salad, linguine and clam sauce, whipped baccala, insalata di mare, mozzarella with peppers, broccoli rapini, stuffed lobster and monkfish.
“The idea of taking those recipes that have been around for centuries … it’s a way of passing on family history, emotions — it’s a way of connecting with somebody,” says Tucci. “It’s a way of expressing love … and that’s the thing for me that makes food so interesting.”
As Christmas Eve turns to Christmas Day, Lidia travels to San Antonio, Texas, to celebrate the holiday Mexican-style with the Cortez family, owners of the famed Mi Tierra restaurant. “America has a lot to offer to anyone who is willing to work hard,” says Michael Cortez, current owner of the restaurant. “My grandfather would often say he was an American by choice, not by chance.”
What started as a small counter operation has expanded to fill an entire city block, employing four generations of the Cortez family. Here, Christmas is all about making the traditional Mexican-American tamales — and some decadent desserts. Traditional pecan pralines, peanut patties, macadamia pralines — there’s even a candy the color of the Mexican flag, a long-held family tradition! Here, Lidia learns how to make Mexican bunuelos, a fried dough topped with cinnamon and sugar that the children gobble up as fast as it’s made.
From San Antonio, Lidia heads to San Francisco to celebrate a colorful and plentiful Chinese New Year, the most important holiday of the year for Chinese Americans. With the late Shirley Fong-Torres, renowned travel writer and chef as her guide, Lidia visits Chinatown for tea and dim sum before returning to Fong-Torres’ kitchen to make Chinese dumplings, also known as pot stickers. “My granddaughters and I love to make pot stickers together,” Fong-Torres explains. “Dumplings are very significant in the New Year. It’s like enveloping the fillings, and enveloping love.”
The Chinese New Year symbolizes the beginning of a new season and a hope for a better year. Much of the symbolism has to do with prosperity and rebirth. “This is what America is all about … this great exchange of culture,” Lidia says. “The more I discover about new cultures, the more I notice how close they are to each other. They are all about the family, staying together, and being good to each other.”
Finally, Lidia returns to New York City to celebrate a Passover seder with food author Ruth Reichl and the fourth-generation owners of the specialty food shop Russ & Daughters. On the menu: smoked salmon, charoset, chicken soup with matzo balls, and, of course, beef brisket and horseradish. Reichl, former editor of Gourmet and a longtime Russ & Daughters customer, joins Lidia in the kitchen. “As you know, my mother was the world’s worst cook,” says Reichl. “So this is maybe the only recipe of hers that I would ever dare to share. She loved showing up at seder with her brisket and everyone would gasp and say I’ve never seen anything like that before!”
As viewers participate in the various ethnic and religious celebrations across the country, it’s clear food is the common denominator that ties all human beings. “No matter what your religion, or your ethnicity,” Lidia says, “we have the opportunity to celebrate whatever we worship, whoever our families are, and this is something to celebrate: America is something to celebrate.”
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