Holidays make us cherish family and traditions
Rita Papazian
Norwalk-Citizen News
Published: 01:24 p.m., Tuesday, November 23, 2010

I wonder if there is a community in the New York metropolitan area that loves Lidia Bastianich as much as Norwalk does. It could be the city's large Italian-American population or even its immigrant population that identifies with this Italian immigrant from Istria who came to this country at age 12 and through years of adapting to her new home and typical immigrant struggles, worked hard to become one of this country's most beloved chef/cookbook author/ restaurateur. The Bastianich family business keeps growing with its popular wines, food products, serving dishes and cookware and most recently the opening of Eataly at 200 Fifth Ave., between 23rd and 24 Street in Manhattan. Eataly is a food market and restaurant complex that typically exemplifies how eating and food shopping is definitely a form of entertainment.

Bastianich does not stand still for long. She has just written her first children's picture book, published by Running Press Kids. In this storybook, Bastianich has managed to capture the essence of the message that she espouses to her thousands of fans through her cookbooks and most recent and popular PBS television show, "Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy," a 26-part TV series which is complemented with a companion cookbook with 175 recipes.

That message is the importance of family and tradition, especially during the holidays.

"Nonna Tell Me A Story: Lidia's Christmas Kitchen" tells a story within a story. Lidia is surrounded by her five grandchildren as she reminisces about celebrating Christmas as a child in Italy. Her family would visit her grandparents and she and her brother Franco would go off into the woods to find a Juniper bush that would be their Christmas tree. As a child, Lidia recalls she and her brother would make their own Christmas decorations. They would string together figs and bay leaves to make wreaths. They would place shiny-wrapped candies on the bush in place of lights.

In the introduction to her children's book, Bastianich states that her family did not have much: "Most everything we ate, we grew or made ourselves. The simple delights of family, cooking, and working together, brought great satisfaction to me then, and still do." In sharing her childhood memories of celebrating the holidays, Bastianich encourages others-- "privileged or less fortunate" -- to celebrate together and to share the memories of years past.

"Nona Tell Me A Story" also includes 15 holiday recipes and encourages others to start a new tradition of baking or cooking them together each year. Bastianich has adapted some of the recipes to reflect modern times, such as some flourless recipes or her Angel Food Cupcakes or Peanut Butter and Jelly Cookies.

Bastianich's storybook comes with another message she wishes to convey to "every child of the world...May their food be healthy and grown in harmony with the earth and the season."

This is really a wonderful time of year for Bastianich to write her children's book, which is very special for it is accompanied with illustrations capturing the features of all her family members: her daughter and son and their families as well as her 90-year-old mother, Ermina. The illustrations remind us of the importance in gathering with our own families this holiday season so we can create new memories for the next generation.

This picture book is quite special because of the variety of cookie recipes as well as the Fruit Tea (Compote) that begins the recipe section. Some of the recipes reflect Lidia's Italian heritage such as the Pine Nut Cookies (Amaretti Con Pignoli) and the Sesame Cookies (Biscotti At Semi Di Sesamo). For the more ambitious baker, try the Almond Stuffed Figs recipe.

I am very excited about this new book, especially for the cookie recipes to add to my own Christmas cookie recipe index. As with many of you, I made sure to set aside a day for baking Christmas cookies when the children were very young. I remember my friend and I having this marathon baking day while our children were just toddlers. I don't know how we managed to produce edible cookies. As the years passed, it became much easier to engage the children in the baking and to share their joy in decorating the cookies. Aren't those gingerbread "dolls" the most fun and challenging? Sometimes, we would roll out the dough so thin, that an arm or leg would be left on the table. Other times, the dough would be so thick, that when we opened the oven door to take a peak they would be puffed out like Santa Claus or a balloon man. If we were really good, after the cookies cooled, we could pick them up and sing, "Run, Run, as fast as you can, here comes the Gingerbread Man."

What delightful memories.

How quiet the years were when the children seemed to be too busy during their college years to make time for a baking day. But, now, we're back to those good times again with the grandchildren just the right age. I can just hear Vivi getting ready to shout, "My turn, my turn" or "me do it."

Bastianich's book inspires me to make sure I tell my grandchildren about my own childhood Christmas memories, when members of my mother's family would take turns hosting Christmas Eve dinner, and my cousins and I would always be surprised to see that Santa had left some presents for us.

I can still hear the laughter.

Rita Papazian is a freelance writer who has covered Norwalk extensively.

Copyright 2010 Rita Papazian All rights reserved.