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PBS’ Lidia Bastianich Cooks for – and with – Vets During Her ‘Holiday for Heroes’
December 16, 2016  | By David Hinckley

Frankly, it shouldn’t be difficult for a professional chef to serve a holiday meal that military combat veterans would appreciate.

These are people, after all, who have spent some time with MREs, prefab packaged military chow.  

They do a lot better than that in Lidia Celebrates America: Holiday for Heroes, which premieres Friday at 10 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings).

Chef and food maven Lidia Bastianich serves simple but fine meals, and good for her. It’s a commendable gesture.

But the more impressive dramatic achievement of the show is that it subtly shines a light on the lives of veterans who returned from Iraq or Afghanistan with scars and are now fighting for rejuvenation.  

These aren’t new or unique stories. But Bastianich finds a different path into them by using food as an icebreaker for the conversation. She visits half a dozen vets, sometimes cooking for them and often cooking with them.

Like veterans of every known previous war, some veterans of the recent ones talk more than others about what they did or saw.  

The show bills them as heroes, and several have purple hearts to certify it. Those who broach the “h” word, though, brush it aside, saying they did what they were trained to do.

Marlene Rodriguez (left, with Lydia), whom Bastianich visits in Texas, was assigned to supply delivery on her two tours in Iraq. On the second tour her vehicle hit a bomb.

She woke up later to learn her driver, next to whom she had been sitting, had been killed.

She survived nominally intact, but suffering from seizures, depression and general PTSD. She’s working her way back from that, she tells Bastianich, and while she’ll never outrun all of it, she’s determined to regain as much of her life as she can.

Bastianich sets up in her kitchen, where they make lasagna. It’s not a Michelin Star occasion. It’s comfort food, and Rodriguez talks about how the smell and look of home cooking has been one of the anchors to which she held both during her deployment and after.

Many of the guests here echo that sentiment. Edith Casas, who served for years in the Navy, says the smell of Mom’s kitchen was something she missed while, at the same time, the memory kept home alive for her.

The vets here suffered a range of injuries. Bryan Anderson lost both legs to a bomb and recalls that it took him less time to recover from the physical wounds than to decide he wanted “to live.”

He seems to be living here, though one imagines that for purposes of a holiday celebration show, we’re seeing his more upbeat moments.

He does seem to enjoy fixing a meal with Bastianich.

Maybe the most interesting story, though it may be the least food-centric, comes from Yonas Hagos, who looks and sounds entirely intact. It’s almost hard to believe he’s the same soldier whose injuries from a bomb were so severe that the Army called his mother to say he was injured and probably wouldn’t make it.

He did. Today he runs bakeries.

Hagos was born in Ethiopia and raised in a refugee camp in the Sudan before his family finally made it to America. He volunteered for the military after 9/11, as a way to show his appreciation for the country that took him in.

Bastianich notes that she can relate to that story, since her family emigrated to the U.S. from Eastern Europe when she was 12.

In a sense, the lesson from Holiday for Heroes might simmer down to the fact that for all the barriers we put up, people speak many universal languages. The one here happens to be food.

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