One of the best-loved chefs on television, Lidia Bastianich (PBS: Lidia Celebrates America), herself an immigrant from Pula, Croatia (then Italy), traditionally visits other immigrant populations to share in a cultural cooking experience. Although food is the common denominator, she says her show goes beyond cooking—“It is a celebration of the rich diversity of cultures across the United States. Food is the basis of who we are; it helps us to understand each other better,” she says.
A recent culinary filming trip detoured from the show’s typical route, focusing on original inhabitants—a visit to Navajo land in New Mexico and Utah. Not only was the cultural thrust different, the recipe for the show involved a lot of non-traditional ingredients. On set, Bastianich was joined by Navajo Chef Freddie Bitsoie and Navajo Culture! Grammy award nominee Radmilla Cody (Read: Grammys-Bound and Grateful) at a newly built home conceived and constructed by architecture students at the Park City, Utah-based nonprofit DesignBuildBLUFF. (Every year, DesignBuildBLUFF gives students the opportunity to design and build sustainable homes on the Navajo reservation for a family in need with respect for the unique social, cultural and environmental needs of the region.)
“I loved it,” said Lidia. “There are few better ways to foster understanding than to sit down at the table and share culture and cuisine. I came to the Navajo Nation as the outsider, the stranger, visiting someone else’s homeland. It stopped me in my tracks to experience and appreciate the Navajo way of life and rites of passage involved. And, naturally, since every kind of celebration includes food, we had a reason to party.”
On day one, the television crew filmed Chef Bitsoie shopping at a Navajo market for fresh food and cooking tools for the meal portion of the housewarming ceremony. The Navajo vendor who sold him cooking utensils referred to them as weapons—weapons against hunger. Nodding in agreement, the chef acknowledged, “Food is a dominating feature of how we live our life.
“I got some beads to pay the medicine man and some corn pollen,” he said, aware that naadaa (corn) has nourished Navajos for ages, whether roasted, steamed, in boiled hominy, in tea or ground together with piñon nuts.
The next day, Bitsoie showed Bastianich how to prepare a roasted shoulder of lamb with local herbs. “When Navajos cook lamb, they generally lay it out in strips and grill it, but I wanted to present the Navajo-centric dish in a new way.”
With her Italian background, Lidia and olive oil—lots of it—are good friends. Chef Bitsoie showed her how to cook a sumac dish (high in Vitamin C) the Native way with no oil. “She embraced the concept,” he said.
“Freddie broke all the barriers and introduced me to blue corn meal and juniper ash that makes your mouth tingle, a dish that provides both calcium and minerals,” she said. “Cultures are similar in feeding their people from the earth with what is available, they just do it differently.”
The Traditional Navajo Food Pyramid at the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock notes: “Our ancestors ate what they grew and hunted, but everything they ate then still has its place in our modern pyramid.”
“Lidia loves to make the culinary connection between cultures,” explained the show’s creative director Rob Tate. “The scenery in the Four Corners area is beautiful, and filming on day three involved the sun rising over the house to be blessed. Navajo performer Radmilla Cody [one of National Public Radio’s 50 Great Voices] sang as we celebrated the greeting of the day.”
Most of the show featured Freddie and Lidia shopping for their lamb dish entre and then collaborating to prepare a feast to enjoy with company when the house was blessed.
“Chef Freddie taught me how healthy traditional Navajo cooking is, and when you talk food, all barriers are removed,” said Lidia.
The Navajo segment of Lidia Celebrates America is a production of WGBH Boston, the station that started the original Julia Child shows. It is scheduled to air sometime this spring, exact date currently unknown.
Read more articles in Indian Country Today Media Network about Chef Freddie Bitsoie here.