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Lidia Bastianich talks weddings, food and cultural traditions

Lidia Bastianich has a way of making everyone feel like part of the family. It’s amazing how food can bring people together, particularly during a joyful celebration like a wedding. Lidia gets it and shares her insight with us during a recent interview.

Lidia Bastianich at Korean wedding

When you watch Lidia on PBS cooking up beloved Italian dishes on Lidia’s Italy, she seems more like your favorite aunt whose food you adore than celebrity chef, cookbook author and restaurateur. Lidia understands how culture and food bind families and traditions together. In her new primetime special, Lidia Celebrates America: Weddings: Something Borrowed, Something New, she brings viewers along as guests to the weddings of several couples to explore the varied and rich cultural traditions each incorporates into its special day.

The food of many cultures

In the spirit of weddings, we talked to Lidia about the best way to weave together food, culture and traditions into a newly formed family. The special, which airs tonight on PBS (check your local listings for times), is an hour that is filled with a colorful and rich exploration of many cultures here in America. From one couple’s return to New Orleans for their nuptials to a couple honoring their Indian and Sri Lankan traditions, you’ll almost smell and taste the experiences as if you were there. Lidia is also a guest at a traditional Korean wedding, and another — the wedding of her niece — that incorporates Italian and Irish traditions.

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Borrow something

Two people can retain traditions from their earlier lives and include them in their new life together. We wondered what a newly married couple could do to keep the celebration of culture from their wedding going throughout the years, or even just a Wednesday night. “Your traditions are a profile of who you are and they give you your identity,” said Lidia. “I think we all should feel special about who we are. You can celebrate your food traditions every day with simple recipes. Stay seasonal, stay local and stay simple. Incorporate your own ethnicities into a meal but put some excitement and challenge into it. Bring home what you see elsewhere. You don’t have to copy it, but you can build upon it with your own touch.”

Try something new

We don’t always think about how traditions start, much less how to start new ones, but Lidia had a few suggestions. “I think a couple should take three or four family recipes — from each side — and make them its own. Try to change them a little bit because that’s what evolution is all about. As a chef, I contemporize recipes that are traditional. What’s beautiful about tradition is that the flavors bring you to a certain place and time and you want to bring those memories to your table. Eventually, the flavors you bring into your home will repeat themselves with your new family, and there is your tradition. For example, if curry is a flavor from your culture, use it in a different way, like in a burger. Why not! It’s one element that ties it back to your tradition.”

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Cooking couples

What newly wedded couple hasn’t been teased about not knowing how to cook? It can be done, no matter what your level, and Lidia agrees. Everyone needs to eat, right? “I feel very strongly that everyone can handle food! You just have to be open to it and make the simplest things. Begin with the premise that you can cook something. Then you need to make a little effort. If you ate a certain meal growing up but you don’t know how to make it, ask your family. For example, ask your grandmother for her recipe or to show you how to make a particular dish. Make it an event and record the experience. Or take a class together as a couple, then get back in the kitchen and cook together. Cooking is a great way to spend time together. There is something about food — it’s life. It opens lines of communication. It’s nurturing.”

Find out how to cook up a storm as a couple >>

Lidia Bastianich at Korean wedding

Involve the family

The couples in Lidia’s special honored their families in different ways, but particularly through food. But not all couples can plan a big or elaborate wedding. Some plan small or informal weddings, or they need to keep costs down. According to Lidia, they can still include traditional elements in the food they serve at their celebration. “If you’re on a small budget, get your family involved. That is a tradition in itself! In Italy, and at many Italian weddings in America, the relatives often make the desserts for the wedding. You could even use certain desserts as your party favors that guests take home, depending on what you decide to make. Dessert is a great place to make your cultural statement. Often, meaningful things aren’t complicated and they need not be. Bringing the family together to help make something is a great experience, and you can have young family members working side-by-side with the older people, listening to their stories and learning from them.”

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Food brings people together

Food was one of the key cultural elements in each wedding in this special. Have you ever wondered what it is about food that brings people together?

“Food is the essence of life,” says Lidia. “That’s the one thing that we cannot dictate — we need to eat to stay alive. You sit and have breakfast, you have lunch and dinner, and in every culture this is the same. When you’re seated at a table to eat, your defenses are down. You are replenishing and nourishing yourself in a defenseless way. We accept food with joy and with pleasure and with taste, and when you do that, you’re open to other things. Why do you think there are business lunches or marriage proposals over dinner? Besides eating, anything else that happens at the table, we take in, whether it’s love or advice. It’s important to share family dinners at the table because there are stories to hear, lessons to learn and experiences to share. The table is a special place to enter into each other and communicate with each other, whether it’s parents to children, loved ones to loved ones or even business transactions.”

Whether you’re planning a wedding, celebrating an anniversary or interested in food and culture, Something Borrowed, Something New has something for everyone.

“I had so much fun with the special. I became part of these families. They shared the excitement of their celebration and their families with me. I was fascinated by all the elements and the cultures of these celebratory rites. My connection is food — my openness to take in their food culture exposed me to their lives. When someone sits down and eats with you, it means they want to spend time with you. It’s a very positive thing!”

Watch previews of each wedding featured in the special, which airs April 17 on PBS.

Up next: Try a few of Lidia’s recipes to make your mealtime divine >>

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