It feels nothing short of a miracle for a child today to reach adolescence with a healthy relationship to food.
Childhood obesity statistics are in a constant swirl around them. Food allergies — their own or their peers' — lurk menacingly in the background. Adults warn of the many perils of sugary treats, even as we mark their favorite occasions — birthdays, holidays, parties — with sugary treats.
It's no wonder they get stuck on a singular, simple dish and refuse to stray far. (Pasta! No sauce! No seasonings!) Sigh.
Thankfully, we share this food-phobic landscape with folks who adore good meals and all the ways in which they feed us — body and soul. Folks sich as Lidia Bastianich.
Bastianich is a celebrated Italian-American chef and cookbook author who owns restaurants in New York, Kansas City, Mo., and Pittsburgh. She's also the grandmother of five.
It's a recipe of roles that makes for a delightful little story in the newly released "Nonna's Birthday Surprise" (Running Press Kids, $16.95), a picture book about Bastianich's grandchildren planning a surprise birthday dinner for their great-grandmother, Nonna Mima (Bastianich's mother).
The book, beautifully illustrated by Renee Graef, follows along as the children learn what kind of meal would most delight their Nonna — specifically, one that would remind her of growing, gathering and preparing her own meals from her farm in Italy.
"It was happy, alive and ever-changing," Bastianich tells the grandchildren of her parents' farm. "Each season brought its own special magic of colors, smells and flavors."
The story describes the local markets that populated Bastianich's childhood and the seasonal bounties that made up all of her family's meals. The grandchildren in the story gather vegetables, sniff fresh herbs, sample cheeses. "Ingredients are like members of a family," she tells them. "Each one is unique, and together they can make something quite special."
The back of "Nonna's Birthday Surprise" contains kid-friendly, seasonal recipes: panna cotta with berries, sausage and bread frittata, potato gnocchi with butter sage sauce, roasted sweet potatoes with thyme, and chocolate bread parfait among them.
"Time has instilled in me a profound appreciation for anyone who works to feed a family well — and that's how we ate: well," Bastianich writes in the book's introduction. "Our meals were never fancy or expensive, but they were thoughtfully crafted from fresh ingredients, with love."
Nothing menacing about that.