Witness the Power of Food: Lydia Bastianich Honors Vets in Holiday Special

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Just the smell of a certain dish takes celebrity chef, author and TV host Lydia Bastianich back to her grandparent’s kitchen and her youngest of days in Italy. Understanding the power of food — those smells of home cooking — is what moved her to dedicate her latest PBS special, Lidia Celebrates America: Holiday For Heroes to our country’s military families. The documentary special airs on PBS Friday, Dec. 16 at 10pmET (check your local listings).

“Within our family, we kept our Italian heritage. My father would only speak Italian. He would only eat the things that he would eat. Then I made my career of this Italian culture. What I realized along the way is that it’s not only the Italians. That’s what America is,” Lydia says. “It’s all these different cultures and all living well together, making this great America. We are allowed to cook whatever we want, celebrate whatever food we want. This is actually my sixth special for PBS and I wanted to explore this. My venue, my road is food. With food you can get in any culture — everybody relates to food.

“The one thing that I observed and really appreciated are the veterans, because I came here and I got freedom. I always wanted to connect to this and — in my own way — thank these people, these young people, these veterans, who were willing to give their lives to protect our freedom,” she adds. “I’m going to do it in the only way I know how. I’m going to do it through food because that’s how I can connect.”

The special follows Lidia as she visits a handful of men and women who served our country and chronicles their conversations and meal making in short, intimate segments Their stories are heart wrenching and inspiring. The five individuals profiled include: Bryan Anderson (in Los Angeles) who served two tours of duty in Iraq before he lost both legs and his left hand (smoking literally saved his right arm); Yonas Hagos (in Yorkville, Ill.) a Purple Heart recipient and now retired army staff sergeant who came to the USA from a refugee camp in Sudan at 10 years-old; Marlene Rodriguez (in San Antonio, Texas) a Purple Heart recipient who served three tours in Iraq before sustaining injuries that forced her to retire; Willie Sherrer (in Methuen, Mass.) who struggled with homelessness but now owns a barbeque enterprise in New England thanks to Culinary Command, an elite program that trains vets in new careers as cooks; and August Dannehl (in Los Angeles) who was honorably discharged in 2010, he attended the Jon Stewart Veteran Immersion Program, which offers veterans job training in television and film.

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“Of course, what you find out is that all of these people, no matter where they were deployed, no matter what [arm of the military] they’re in — Army, Navy, whatever … they missed food. They missed the home food.” Lydia says. “The holidays are all about food. They wanted the smells of home. … I got them to tell me the story of why they did what they did and ultimately what happened and how they are moving on. I cooked with every single one of them. I talked about the food that they missed or that they cooked with their mothers or that they remember. What would they want me to teach them and so on — back and forth.”

The special ends with Lidia’s visit to Naval Station Norfolk, where she and news anchor Bob Woodruff board the massive USS George Washington where they cook and serve a holiday dinner for 250 active duty soldiers.

“This is a tremendous ship. I mean, it’s 9000 people on this ship. We just cooked for 250,” Lydia admits. One of the dishes was her Panzanella salad, which looked fabulous.

“What I heard from [the cooking staff] was that they kind of lacked in vegetables and the freshness. I thought that this was kind of a salad that they can make for themselves even when they are at sea. Panzanella is all bread. Bread that’s a day or two or a week old, cut into pieces, then tomatoes, ripe tomatoes cut into pieces. Some onions, capers and olives, basil and you can even put some mozzarella in there.You dress it with oil and vinegar. The bread absorbs the dressing. It reconstitutes itself. You have this wonderful, refreshing salad that they can make themselves.”

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In sharing her conversations with some of our nation’s heroes, Lydia hopes more people will extend their gratitude to all who have served our country.

“These young men and women went out there and willingly put themselves at risk for something that they believe … we owe them a lot. We owe these five people, but these five people are representatives, as they’re so many out there throughout history,” she says. “If we are to enjoy our freedom, and I truly appreciate freedom because I know otherwise [she was born in a part of Italy that was given to communist Yugoslavia after World War II]. Then we need to exult, thank, support, and make it known to them how much we support them.

“I just wanted to thank them my way and I want all of my followers, supporters, whoever is going to watch it to be grateful and to, I don’t know, in their own way, make it known and appreciate them.“