“Maria’s Portuguese Table” is a new show on KLCS’ CreateTV which takes viewers on the road to various Portuguese restaurants in America as well as to Portugal. Host Maria Lawton’s path to being on PBS is something that doesn’t happen nowadays – she called the local PBS station, Rhode Island PBS, and they actually took her call and made an appointment for a meeting. Maria talks to KLCS about how she got the show on TV, despite people telling her reasons why they wouldn’t fund her, her favorite dish to make, and watching Julia Child, growing up in the large Portuguese community in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
What was your path to cooking and this show?
It all started with loss. I’m an immigrant, I was born in the Azores, in an island called Sao Miguel. The Azores is an archipelago island in the middle of the Atlantic and w are an autonomous region of Portugal. When I was six years, old my parents and siblings immigrated to the United States. It was because my mom’s family immigrated years before that and Portugal was under dictatorship. It was not a good time in history for Portugal and my father wanted to come here like every immigrant for his children, his grandchildren. So I grew up in the south end of New Bedford, where it was an enclave of Portuguese. We lived in a three family home and the first floor was my parents and my siblings, second floor was my maternal grandparents and the third floor was my aunt and uncle. I grew up going up and down those stairs to different kitchens. My mom was an amazing cook, my grandmother was an amazing baker and I baked with my grandmother if not everyday, pretty much every day. So the love of baking came from my grandmother. As you get older, I married, I had children. I think I was first one who married a non-Portuguese, I married an English-Irishman who loves everything there is to know about being Portuguese and everything that comes with it. Within four years time I lost my grandfather, my mother, grandmother, my father. It was just a very dark time, because just as I was feeling like I was coming up for air and getting through one death that was so hard to get through, it was losing another person. And then one day I was sitting with my husband and when my mom passed, my mom was like the pinnacle, the person at the center of it all. She was on top of all the events, all the holidays, all the Sunday dinners, so when she passed away, all of that was gone. So it was not only mourning her, but mourning everything that came with it. I was sitting with my husband on night and said, “Oh my God, I’ve lost everything and here I have three daughters, who I never want them to ever forget who they are and who they come from. They’re not going to know, they’re not going to have these dinners that we used to have with my mom. They’re not going to have these events we always had together, they’re not going to have the same memories that I had growing up and that my nieces and nephews had because they’re older. And I’ve got to preserve this.” It was at that moment that I knew I had to write a cookbook. And I had to write a book that not only did the recipes of what I grew up with, but I had to write the food memories that surrounded that recipe, because even though they could not be there for that memory, they could read it and they can live through it. So it all began with that. I wrote the book for family only and then it started with friends wanting it and then friends of friends wanting it and then stores that wanted it and a publisher who saw it and wanted to help me with it. It had gone from an idea for my family to having most of the times it’s number one for Amazon Canada, other times it’s best-selling Portuguese cooking for regular Amazon. It’s all of these crazy things that happened from that book that I never, ever had even cross my mind because the reason I wrote it was for my children. So in all that, I get asked to do book talks now, book signings, I do a book tour in Canada, which that blew me away. Everything just comes along and every time I did any of that, I would always have someone in the audience, they’d always say, “Why don’t we have a program about Portuguese food on TV? Why is it I see every nationality of food out there but there’s nothing in Portuguese?” I kept hearing that and I’d say, “I absolutely agree with you, this needs to be done and I know there’s chefs out there and hopefully they’ll do it!” (laughs) From that I went to, “I think we need to bring it up to PBS,” because I always watch all the cooking shows on PBS. That is one of the things I look forward to. I watch it, I always have it on, whether it was regular PBS or the PBS how-to channel of Create. I have it always on. I went to the closest PBS station, which is Rhode Island PBS. I called (laughs) and I’d never done this, I didn’t know what to do, but I figured I might as well go to the source, right? I called, they actually took my call, they actually made an appointment to meet with them. (laughs) And then I pitched them the thing of what they should be doing as a PBS station. They in turn turned to me and said, “We don’t have enough money in our budget to produce these things, but if you do it, you can do it.” I’m like, “I can do it?” They’re like, “Yeah, you put a pilot together of what the show should be like.” I’m like, “How do I find a cameraman, a producer, a sound guy?” After I did that, the pilot is on my YouTube channel, I gave it to them and they went, “Ok, we want 13 more!” I’m like, “Oh my God, ok! (laughs)” I’m going to have to find, because the person who did the pilot, that wasn’t their thing and long story short, it took me four years to not only find the right producer, the right kind of thing, but it took me that long to find sponsorship, people to give me money to do it.
Was it hard to get the show fully funded as a new show?
Yes, it was because I would go in and tell them why someone should be doing this, because I feel passionate about it and I had a lot of “No’s.” I had straight up in my face, “I’m not giving you money because you’re not a chef and you’re not a male chef.” And I had that said to me to my face a few times. I was straight out told, “Why would I give you money when this guy here tried doing it and he didn’t succeed, why would you succeed and you’re not even a chef?” When I would hear those things, the “no’s” became the word “next.” I would not hear the word, “no,” I would hear the word “next.”
How many years ago did you publish the book?
We’re talking about 2014. First I had done it on my own and then I worked with Union Park Press.
What were you doing then?
I worked with an elder law attorney firm. (laughs) That was their specialty. Setting up your wills, healthcare proxy. That’s what I was doing at the time.
What do you do now when you’re not doing the show and no longer at the law firm?
I can’t give a100 percent to two places. I’m writing book two. I haven’t been able because of Covid to do the book tours I wanted to do, but I just came back from doing a tour. I took thirty people with me to the Azores and just came back last week, so that’s something that people are like, “I’d love to travel with you.” That’s come out of nowhere. It’s showing people the Azores or Sao Miguel by eating from one side of the island to the other. Eating and drinking our way and immersing everyone in the culture. I warned everyone when we started the tour that they would fall in love with the island and they would come home and they would daydream about it and they’re going to keep daydreaming about it until they return again. And I’ve already heard from a few people saying, “Yes, I’m daydreaming!” (laughs) because it is such a beautiful place. Right now I’m working on finding sponsors for Season Two. I was Emmy-nominated for “Host of a show,” which is crazy. I went through a distributor for PBS to air it nationally, which is wonderful and Create picked me up as well for national distribution. I know that I’m seeing the numbers, which for a first time out is amazing and even the distributor was like, “Congratulations, Maria, these numbers are fantastic.” I know it was well received, I know that several hundreds of millions of people were able to see it and I’m very proud of it. I’m very proud of what I’ve done. I’m very proud of the fact that I came from a family who did not take “no” for an answer, so I was very well trained at a young ago to not let anybody tell me what I can and cannot do if I have something I know I need to do. And that I give props to my grandmother. She was a woman who did not tolerate any fools and when she walked into a room you knew she walked into a room and she taught me very well.
Do you have a favorite go-to dish that’s quick and healthy?
There is. When the cookbook first came out I had people from Weight Watchers in the local area saying, “We really love this recipe, can we use this?” It’s this tomato and onion sauce and garlic and you poach fresh cod on top of it. It’s just an amazing dish.
What do you pair it with, a starch?
My mom would either make a potato and have that off to the side as well as a butter rice, but those that are carb conscious, you don’t. You can even have it with any bread if you want a bread with it, but if you’re not going to have a starch, you don’t have to. You can add more vegetables.
What’s the favorite part of your job?
My favorite part is introducing the Portuguese culture to anyone who has not been part of it. And I live in an area where Portuguese is all around. You go to other parts of the U.S. and we are not. Or we have pockets of it in different states, so I have loved the fact that I’ve heard from people in Texas, Utah, Colorado, upstate Washington, saying, “I just saw your show, I really loved it, now I’m thinking I’d love to go to the Azores” or “I just bought your book and I can’t wait to create some of the recipes.” It’s something that I feel that is just beyond anything I could have ever imagined. I think it’s that and this trip that I just did, With the exception of two people, everyone else had never been to the Azores. For them, it was the first time ever and they loved everything. I love that part of introducing.
So far almost everyone’s had a Julia Child story or she’s influenced them. Do you have a Julia Child story?
I do, I do! How can you not? Because when I would come home from school, you can either watch “Dark Shadows” (laughs) or you could watch Julia cook. And it was Julia. I thought she was the funniest thing, I thought she was the funniest thing. We had WGBH here in this area. What’s funny is when I went to, this was before everything, when I was at the museum in Washington D.C., the Smithsonian, that actually has her kitchen and seeing that in real life, it was an amazing thing. I absolutely loved everything that she did. It was nothing that I saw her and went, “I want to be like her.” No, it was I enjoyed watching her and I always did. I have a lot of respect for her and what she used to do, even as a young child I used to like watching her on TV. Little did I know (laughs) that I’d be on PBS as well, doing something very little and only hope to wishing I could do a second season now, when she was the queen. She was the queen, absolutely.
Do you pinch yourself you get to do this for a living and follow in those footsteps, educating people to cook on TV?
Yes. Absolutely. It’s funny, I’ll be somewhere and someone will go, “Are you Maria Lawton?” “Yes, I am!” And that still surprises me, I don’t why but it does, it surprises me still. It’s very humbling and I’m very grateful for it all. I really am. But it always surprises me and my husband keeps saying, “Why should that surprise you, you know people are going to recognize you.” But I still don’t think people will recognize me! (laughs)
What’s the most popular question you get?
How did I start? Everybody always wants to know how I started. So I always make sure that I tell everyone no matter what nationality you are, no matter where you are in your life right now, you need to start writing down your recipes because every family has their own story and everyone needs to preserve those stories for those that are here and for those that are to come. And that is what I always tell everyone, “You just have to start. You just have to start writing.”
As a cook, what’s your cleaning routine? Cleaning is the hardest part of cooking.
Not if when things are sautéing, you cover, you wait, now you’re going to simmer for a while, you have that time that you’ve got to start cleaning. I make a big mess, if while I’m baking and things are in the oven waiting, that’s when you’ve got to clean. It can’t be when everything is done. And again, I have a wonderful husband who comes in and helps me clean, so I’m lucky in that sense. Any moments that I can to clean and alleviate, I do because then it’s overwhelming.
Do you clean the grate in the vent above the stove and take it out all the time?
(laughs) Yes, I do, enough times. You have to, it gets oily and greasy, you don’t want that. You know what’s funny, when we were looking at doing the tour, I actually went out a few times to the Azores to make sure that the places, the restaurants we were going to, everything was in the same line of what I wanted to show people. I always go to the bathroom (laughs), because if I go in the bathrooms and the bathrooms are spick and span, the kitchen’s going to be spick and span. I’ve gone into some restaurants where I’ve gone into the bathroom and there is no attention to keeping it clean, so how are they going to keep their kitchen clean? I look it that first, isn’t that something? And then I go into the kitchen and check it out and meet the chefs. But it usually goes hand in hand.
Do you ever indulge and just watch a bunch of PBS cooking shows?
Saturdays is the perfect time to do that. Saturdays are my day to have it on. It’s just amazing to see other cultures, other foods, I love Lidia, I love everything about her, she’s one of my favorites. I love “Ciao Italia.” I feel Italians and Portuguese are very interconnected. I love the Greek show, they’re all about family, food is love, those tables filled with family and friends. The whole zest for life and that’s what I grew up with and that’s what I want. So I see that mutual, it’s very much the same.
What keeps it fun for you?
You said something that’s very important to me, I will keep doing what I do as long as I’m enjoying myself and having fun, because life is too short. I’ve lost too many people in too fast of a time, my parents had just retired and were looking forward to their retirement and didn’t get to enjoy life. If I am not having fun, I will stop doing what I am doing. I will only do this as I am having fun and right now I’m having a blast.
For those of us who watch the show, is there anything you want to add to tell viewers?
I would hope that they understand how my love for Portuguese food, but I would hope that when someone sees a Portuguese restaurant or dish on the menu, that they give it a try, because usually Portuguese traditional food is what’s in season, It is not as heavy as people think. It is so many different spices and it’s a well-developed flavor that we do in our cooking, so just to give it a try. To give the way of our food and all of that a chance to at least try it and don’t be afraid to try it.
Visit klcs.org to find out when “Maria’s Portuguese Table” airs on Create TV next. In the meantime, you can catch up with Maria on her social media; Facebook (facebook.com/MariaLawtonAzoreanGreenBean) and Instagram (@azoreangreenbean). Can’t wait for the new season? Check out Maria’s YouTube channel to see some of her favorite recipes: youtube.com/c/marialawton