Mo Rocca has reported for the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, he’s a regular on CBS Sunday Morning and NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me. But Mo never learned how to cook.
Growing up, Rocca’s grandmother Mary made a spread of Italian food for Sunday dinners with the family. Mary’s raviolis always stole the show, but Rocca never arrived early enough to learn her recipes. In an effort to cleanse his culinary conscience, Rocca is learning to cook family recipes from grandparents across America in My Grandmother’s Ravioli, premiering Wed., Oct. 24 at 8:30 p.m. on the Cooking Channel.Speaking to Creative Loafing from his office at CBS Sunday Morning, Rocca talked about learning to cook, shooting shotguns and his search for a wicked grandmother.
CL: We are in Tampa, Fl. I’m curious if you have a good or bad Florida food experience you could share with us?
Mo Rocca: I was just down in Miami doing a piece on Cuban barbecue. I learned about this thing called a Caja China, a box that this Cuban-American entrepreneur and his family created. It was a way of doing a Cuban barbecued hog without digging a hole. When it was time for the yearly pig roast, they’d [usually] have to dig the hole and put cinder blocks down, etc. His father kept having flashbacks of Havana in the 1950s, there was a Chinese community in Havana and they'd made this box, the Caja China, for roasting a pig. These were people who had fled from Mao Zedong.
And then went to Cuba right before Castro took over.
I know, it’s like you’re constantly getting screwed by dictators.
But I guess we did get some good fusion food out of it.
Exactly, we can thank dictators for fusion cuisine.
Your mother is Colombian and your dad was Italian. What was for dinner at home? Did you have a favorite recipe?
My father’s mother, my Italian grandmother, was a fantastic cook. I look back and think about how I’d show up when the food was ready and wolf it down. If I had just come a half hour earlier, I could have learned from her. Her name was Mary. We need more Marys; enough with naming kids after fruits and vegetables. She was a great cook. It was funny, of all the things she made her ravioli was very simple. But it’s the thing I remember the most. The ravioli pasta was handmade and the filling was ground beef, spinach and garlic. The pockets were big and delicate; the pasta wasn’t thick. It was thinly rolled and they were big pockets. Because they were so delicate, I think you savored each bite more because you didn’t want them to break. This was no Chef Boyardee, where you cram it all down.
How did she make the raviolis?
I recently got together with Lidia Bastianich to make my grandmother’s ravioli. I remember they didn’t have cheese in them. But Lidia said there’s no way she didn’t use cheese. But I don’t remember them having any cheese at all.
So this inspired your new show?
My Grandmother’s Ravioli is me learning how to cook from grandparents across the country. I learned how to make gefilte fish from a Jewish grandmother in New York, venison stew from a grandfather who uses a shotgun and still goes hunting. I am going into different grandparents’ homes and learning not just how they cook but why they cook. We are looking for people with strong personalities, but they are also good cooks who genuinely love cooking for friends and family.
How do you find all these grandparents willing to teach you to cook?
It’s not easy. I have a deep respect for reality television but it’s hard to find people that want to be on television but aren’t looking for fame. These are people who have great full lives, who are willing to be on TV rather than, well, fame whores.
Can you talk more about some of the grandparents we’ll see on the show?
My favorite was Mary and her pierogies. She was so warm and wonderful. She lives with a bunch of other older women and they call themselves The Golden Girls. We spent two days there and when we were done she said, “Okay, get out of my house now.”
You’re making up for the fact you didn’t learn your grandmother’s recipes by learning from other people’s grandparents?
Exactly. This is guilt abatement. I had a close relationship with my grandmother. I used my money to take her to see Yul Brynner in The King and I. My dad was so impressed that he reimbursed me the money, so it was a win-win.
What was the best experience and worst experience so far on the show?
I used a Winchester .22 rifle to shoot and eat a squirrel with Gaetano. He’s a 91-year-old grandfather who does not screw around.
Do you have a go-to recipe?
I do not. We are only in the first season. I’m still in the stage of me learning that’s salt not sugar. We’re still at the point literally learning from the old masters.
Have you had any angry or mean grandparents yet?
We’ve had salty sweet, not bitter or sour. We’ve not had a bad experience. For season two I’d like to find an angry grandmother or a wicked grandmother. Someone told me about their wicked grandmother who was an amazing cook. She was so mean but no one could resist her food. It was really sadistic.
So you are looking for a wicked grandmother for the next season?
Absolutely. But overall, the grandparents from the first season have been really amazing. Not to be self-righteous, but these are people that are absent on TV. There is this really bone-headed idea that no one wants to see older people on TV. This isn’t a social obligation for me, I’m doing it because so often older people are generally better storytellers. I did a really lame show on Bravo [Things I Hate About You] and the network kept asking me to bring young hot people on the show. Young hot people are really boring. For me, this is the culmination of a lot of things I’ve been interested in. These are people I actually want to spend time with.
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