When Stephen Colbert did his own parody of a traditional Christmas special a few years ago, complete with a homey, festively-decorated set populated with singing celebrity guests, he was really dating himself. It's been a long time since David Bowie knocked on the door of his next-door neighbor, Bing Crosby and, delighted to learn that they were both in the music business, proposed a holiday duet. Once a mainstay of network TV, the entertainment-clogged celebrity Christmas special has lumbered off into the same tar pit that consumed the prime time network variety hour and the network made-for-TV movie. Now, Christmas specials are more likely to be low-budget, instructional lectures on how to cook the right holiday dinner, trim the tree, and set up a lighting display that'll knock out the power to half the surrounding area.
Lidia Bastianich, the Croatian-born, American-raised, Italian-identified celebrity chef, is a likable ball of energy and platitudes who's established a niche for herself on public television, where she uses her personal history (which includes time spent in an Italian refugee camp after she and her family fled what was then Toto's Yugoslavia) to lend weight to her obsessive emphasis on the virtues of family and bonding together around the dinner table. Her latest special is divided into four parts, covering Christmas Eve at both Lidia's home base in New York, Christmas Day in San Antonio, Chinese New Year's in San Francisco, and Passover back in New York, where Lidia and a couple of her grandkids sit in on seder with a Jewish family and special guest Ruth Reichl. This gives Lidia the chance to tie together a string of disparate but sorta-linked holidays with different groups of people in different locations. It also gives her the chance to deliver a show that can premiere at Christmas time and that local PBS affiliates can find an excuse to run again come late January and April.
The first 15 minutes are as star-studded as it's going to get, with Lidia hitting the Little Italy section of the Bronx with a now grey-haired Mo Rocca and gathering ingredients that she will later plow into her big dinner at home, where the guests include Stanley Tucci and his parents. The menu includes octopus salad, linguini and clam sauce, whipped baccala, mozzarella with peppers, stuffed lobster, and monkfish, i.e., the stuff of a million stand-up routines and sitcom jokes about how Italian families can put it away. Before Stanley Tucci, a man who could floss his teeth on camera in a way that would made you want to join his cult and subscribe to his newsletter, slaps on a salmon-pink apron and takes over Lidia's kitchen, the most memorable sight on the show is an unwelcome close-up of the face of the monkfish, which ought to be subtitled "Nature's Cruelest Mistake." In all those giant-monster movies of the drive-in '50s, when members of the Arness family went to the desert and tried to figure out how to kill ants and scorpions and dung beetles the size of Shell stations while some idiot in a lab jacket stood behind them screaming about the need to further scientific progress, was there ever a movie in which a big-ass monkfish strutted its stuff in 3-D? I guess there were places that even Bert I. Gordon just preferred not to go.
Although he's not invited to dinner and Lidia's referring to him as an "actor" seems like a bit of a stretch based on the odd guest spot on Ugly Betty and Law & Order: SVU and a cameo in the Bewitched movie, it's Mo Rocca, master of the sound bite, who sums up Lidia's show, if not her whole philosophy of life, when he tells her, “Cooking and food is about more than sustenance. The sacredness of family and friends eating together is something that crosses all lines. It may be the only thing that crosses all lines.” Lidia is very devoted to the idea that what we all have in common is more important than what makes us different. In fact, when she learns more about a different culture, she seems programmed to immediately zero in on how she can make the details seem like the details of the culture she calls her own. It's a good, blandly progressive, and maybe slightly condescending approach, which helps to explain why Lidia's franchise has taken root on PBS, as opposed to, say, the Travel Channel, which is full of celebrity eaters who are basically yelling in the faces of foreigners, "You crazy bastards eat what!?"
Lidia is less interested in what the crazy bastards are eating than in how it ties in with their family history and ethnic background, what jangled cultural nerves it's settling, and how long they've been doing it. Whenever she enters a family-owned place of business, the first thing she invariably wants to ask the current managers is which generation they are: Was this place originally set up by your parents, your grandparents, or what? In San Antonio, she makes Christmas tamales and whacks the bejesus out of a pinata with the Cortez family, the founders of the Mi Tierra restaurant. In between listening to a mariachi band's spirited renditions of "Feliz Navidad" and admiring the ever-expanding family mural on the wall, she listens to current (third-generation) owner Michael Cortez talk about how his grandparents came to wind up in what he likens to "the Ellis Island of San Antonio" and talk about his grandfather as if the old man was not only the living embodiment of the American dream (“America has a lot to offer to anyone who is willing to work hard") but had also personally invented gumption.
In Chinatown, Lidia, accompanied by the late food and travel writer Shirley Fong-Torres, sees nothing but parallels between the culture she's embracing and the culture she knows best: Tea-drinking is important to the Chinese, just as drinking wine is important in Italian cooking; tofu skin looks a lot like pasta, etc. She does hit a brief speed bump when she tries to operate chopsticks. But things pick up when she attends the New Year's parade and bumps into Shirley's brother, Ben Fong-Torres, a name that will set off unexpected little inner whirlpools of memory and nostalgia in viewers who went through a classic-rock-journalism period at some point in their lives and spent enough time burrowing through old issues of Rolling Stone to groove to Ben's profiles and interviews with the likes of Ray Charles, Sly and the Family Stone, Marvin Gaye, and Steve Martin. The two of them discussed cultural and family, while I fought to restrain the urge to yell "What's Sly Stone really like?" at my TV.
Things are at their chummiest on New York's Lower East Side, where Lidia visits Russ & Daughters, a specialty store founded in 1914 by the great-grandfather of the current owners, who in setting it up had some financial help from his older sister, who was "a herring monger," maybe my favorite phrase that I was absolutely not expecting to hear uttered by someone on TV this week. Lidia is not only charmed by her dinner companions but delighted to learn about the symbolic meaning behind the matzo and the other foods enjoyed, or at least eaten, at Seder. "I'm told," she says, "horseradish is symbolic of the bitterness of slavery." Hearing that made me wonder if Lidia isn't sometimes told things by people who have overestimated her sense of humor, but damned if somebody doesn't say the same thing, with a straight face, at the table, so probably I should just keep my pisk shut and try not to look like a schmuck for a change.
This show, which is the first of a series of PBS specials in which, it's promised, Lidia will be toddling around America celebrating shit, could itself be seen as symbolic of matzo: There's some nutritional value, and it isn't altogether unpleasant to the taste, but the leavening process has been left out. Lidia just keeps discovering how alike we all are, and there's no surprise in it, because she knows going in that she's going to find out how alike we all are, just as sure as a Fox News commentator knows before he begins his research on the new administration program he's going to report on that he's going to find out that it's an unhinged socialism-based scheme to put Joe and Missus Sixpack in the yoke of tyranny and make George Washington's ghost cry. She's not really finding anything out; she's just going from place to place, cutting out pieces of experience with the same cookie cutter. “The more I discover about new cultures," Lidia says, "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.” Put that to music, and it's a Cat Stevens song, although, to be fair, I'm a lot less interested in sampling Cat Stevens' octopus soup.