Maria Lawton has gone from self-publishing a cookbook of her Azorean family’s recipes to presenting a nationally broadcast cooking show and leading tours to her birthplace, Sao Miguel – a journey she says she couldn’t have imagined for herself.
Born in the village of Rosario de Lagoa, Lawton is the author of “Azorean Cooking: From My Family Table to Yours,” and host of “Maria’s Portuguese Table.”
She emigrated to the United States at age six, and grew up in the South End of New Bedford in the triple-decker her extended family shared, savoring the food of her mother and grandmother and learning Portuguese history at the knee of her grandfather.
In the seemingly limitless universe of cooking shows on television, Lawton’s is the first to showcase Portuguese cuisine. Beginning as a regional program on Rhode Island PBS in 2019, “Maria’s Portuguese Table” is now available nationally on the PBS app and Create TV. She’s now developing season two of the program that mixes equal parts cooking, Portuguese culture, and travelogue.
“Maria’s Portuguese Table” was honored in March with the Spotlight Award at the 13th annual Taste Awards, known as “the Oscars for lifestyle programs,” as well as a bronze award for food series and a silver for cultural series in the Telly Awards presented in May. In spring 2020, Lawton was nominated for a New England Emmy Award for outstanding program host/moderator.
It’s taken plenty of determination and persistence for Lawton to arrive where she is today. She credits that to lessons from her grandmother, Filomena, who lived to age 96: “She was a tough woman, a loving woman. I adored her so much. Anything she would say were pearls of wisdom to me. I was taught very early on that you do not look back and you always look forward. You always keep moving forward – sempre para frente. And it is literally her words that kept me moving forward.”
Here, Lawton talks to The Light about being a proud immigrant, why she dubbed herself The Azorean Green Bean, and the pleasure she takes in sharing her heritage with others.
New Bedford Light: Obviously, you have a lot of pride in your Azorean heritage. How does it feel to share it with others through “Maria’s Portuguese Table”?
Maria Lawton: You know, it has really been amazing, to not hear only from those that are Portuguese, whether from the mainland or Madeira, or from the Azores. They are just so [proud]. I think like any nationality, you know – my husband’s English-Irish; he loves being English-Irish.
I have lots of friends who are French, they love being French, and as well as I have dear friends that are Italian and they’re very proud of where they come from. So, why wouldn’t I be proud of who I am and where I come from, and to see it for the first time being a national show, and being seen in every state. … I am beyond proud that we made TV history.
I’m also hearing from people who are not Portuguese, who haven’t been to Portugal or didn’t even know about the Azores. And now they’re going. … I give them fair warning. I’m like, ‘You’re going to fall in love with the islands, and then you’re going to always dream about it, and you’re going to keep dreaming about it til you come back again. And so far everyone I’ve said that to sends me messages [saying], ‘Oh, my God, you were right.’
NBL: Azorean Green Bean is an unusual name. Can you explain where you got that idea?
ML: Well, Joanna, let me tell you. I never thought in a million years we’d be talking about it right now, let alone any of this happening. [I wrote the book of] family recipes that I wanted to make sure I was preserving for my family. And then it kind of blew up.
[Working for attorneys at the time, Lawton was advised to create a company name and set up an LLC.]
I was going over it with my husband, Bob … coming up with different names for the company. I needed to have the word Azorean, because I’m very proud of those roots of mine. Granted, I can [also] trace my family back to the mainland eight generations. …
You’re teased when you’re an immigrant, and I get it, everyone has their turn at it. The Italians had their names, certain names that when you hear them, you know, it goes up your backside. The French did too, but … those names never hurt me because I was very proud of who I was. … So when those names were called, you know, whether it’s greenhorn or fava bean, or you know, a pork and cheese … my answer back was, ‘Ha! You wish! You wish you were!’ That is exactly how I felt.
So first I was going to be The Azorean Greenhorn and my husband was like, ‘No, Maria, that’s not going to work.’ And I’m like, ’OK, then I’m going to be The Azorean Green Bean, for fava bean. So I kind of took a play on those insults and put it out there – I’m very, very proud of being who I am. So you want to call me Azorean Green Bean? Sure. Go right ahead, honey.
The Portuguese aren’t new to this, because every immigrant nationality that comes in, they have their litany of what they’re called and how [people try to put them down].
NBL: You self-published “Azorean Cooking: From My Family Table to Yours” in 2013. Then it was picked up by Union Park Press in 2014. Could you ever imagine what it would lead to?
ML: No. And that is the honest-to-goodness truth. Never. I really did not. It’s just like the book has a mind of its own. It kind of just blew up completely. …
From the book talks, and from speaking engagements that I’ve done and all of the things that I was doing … I would always have questions and answers at the end. So anyone could ask me anything. And the one question that would come up all the time is ‘Why don’t we have Portuguese food represented on a cooking show?
I would say, ‘Absolutely, you’re absolutely right. I absolutely agree with you. There should be, and you know, hopefully there will be a chef coming up that’s going to take those reins’ because I’m thinking, ’It’s not going to be me.’
NBL: How does Azorean cooking differ from continental Portuguese cooking?
ML: All right, the best way to describe that – I’m going to use the United States for an example.
Now, we can give people in New England the same ingredients that you would give to someone in the Midwest and on the West Coast, and you’re gonna get three different meals, right? Different seasoning, different techniques – but it’s the same ingredients.
[The Azores are] these nine islands in the middle of the Atlantic. It’s written somewhere that Columbus saw them and just kept going. He didn’t stop – but the Portuguese stopped [laughs].
The majority of people that inhabited these islands, you have the people who were from the mainland. So they came over with the same traditions, recipes, all of that. But now you’ve come from the mainland – different terrain – to a semi-tropical island. Your food cannot stay the same. Your food has to adapt to what was available there. So if you were in … the middle of the country, and now you’re on the island, you’re eating more fish, right? You’re eating things that are completely different. …
There’s so much history in our food. We’ve got Moorish influences when you go to Terceira, because you’ve got Portuguese Jews that came … into the Azores. On the island of Terceira, they cook in these clay pots, which are very similar to the tagine [a type of conical clay pot from North Africa]. … And they take very cheap cuts of meat, but it’s cooked low and slow in this clay pot, and when you eat it, it just falls apart.
NBL: Julia Child’s husband Paul played an important role behind the scenes in the early days of her career. Was your husband Bob a supporter from the beginning? Did he have a role in your early success?
ML: He has been part of it since Day One. The only time he couldn’t be there with me, because he had stuff with work, was when I traveled to film in the Azores … but when I did my book tours throughout the country and Canada, he came along with me. … And so I had a few people in the beginning ask me ‘Is that guy your bodyguard?’
And I started laughing. I’m like, ‘All the above. He’s my bodyguard. He’s my partner in crime. He is my cheerleader.’ I could not do what I do without him.
He loves the Portuguese culture. He loves everything about it. You know, he’s very happy and feels very much at home when we travel there. … Everyone speaks English, so he doesn’t feel left out at all.
NBL: The recipes in your book are drawn from what you remember about your mother’s and grandmother’s cooking. How would they feel about the success you’ve had?
ML: I can only imagine, because the reason I wrote the book is because of loss. Within a few years’ span I lost my mother, my grandmother, my father … then I lost my brother-in-law, who was like a brother to me. …
I really went through a time of going, ‘Oh my God, I can’t do [anything]. And then once I came out of that fog … I said to my husband, I’ve got to write down these recipes. Because I don’t know how to make this. My mom would always make it. She never had recipes. She never wrote anything down. … That’s how it all began. And that’s the other thing that I always tell people: that book is my family story. There are so many family stories. It’s so important. I don’t care what nationality you are. You should be writing all your family stories down. You need to save it, because once they are gone, they’re gone.
So to answer the question about my mom and my grandmother – oh, they’re looking down. They’re looking down. I know I make them proud.
NBL: I noticed on your website that your October trip to Sao Miguel, your second, is sold out. How did the first one go?
ML: PBS Rhode Island has a travel club. So the [viewers] that belong to the travel club were calling the people that lead it at PBS Rhode Island [saying] ‘Can you put something together? We want to travel with her.’ That’s how it all began. So Rhode Island PBS … said ‘Would you like to do a tour with us?’ And I said “OK – as long as I’m going to tell you where we’re going to go.’ If I’m going to take anyone with me to the island of Sao Miguel, I’m going to show you everything that I love. …
And what I really want after anyone going through with me in the island is … when anyone now comes back they don’t need to be on a tour. They’ll see how easy it is to travel around the island. They’ll know the restaurants to go to, they’ll know the hotels to stay in. … I even took them shopping in a grocery store. …. I felt it was an honor to be the person who introduced everyone on that trip who had never been there before or aren’t even Portuguese, to introduce them to that culture, to that island. … It was beautiful. We had an amazing time.
NBL: You’re about to start preparing your next round of programs. How many episodes will it be this time?
ML: We’re going to do eight, and if we find more money, I’ll make more. We’ve already started putting together what we’re filming here in the United States. I want to do half of the season in the United States, going to different places in the United States. We [the Portuguese people] are in every state, so we can go on and on and on – we have so many people in Texas, we have so many people in Idaho, we have so many people in Arizona, we have so many people in Seattle and Hawaii.
I told my producer, Dean Camara, this time around we’re not going to Canada, but we need to go to Canada. As well as we’ll be filming, God willing, one day in Madeira as well as on the mainland as well as anywhere where the Portuguese can be found. … I’ll continue to do it as long as I have the support.
Joanna McQuillan Weeks is a freelance writer and frequent correspondent for The New Bedford Light.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Learn more at marialawton.com