With her TV show, Maria has won seven Telly Awards, a Taste Award, and a prize for Best Travel Series. Maria Lawton who bleeds “red and green”, is proud of her roots and wants to show how great Portuguese culture is.

The Portugal News (TPN): Why did you move to the United States?

Maria Lawton (ML): I was born in the Azores. I was born on the island of São Miguel, but I can trace my ancestry on my mother's side back to Trás-os-Montes. And then from Trás-os-Montes, they worked their way down to the Algarve. My great-grandparents went to Santa Maria and from Santa Maria, they went to São Miguel.

I was born there, and we came to the United States in the 60s, when things were very hard for anyone living in Portugal at the time as we were under dictatorship. Then, my mother's family slowly started coming to the United States.

TPN: Do you still speak Portuguese and feel connected to Portugal?

ML: That’s how I grew up. I came from grandparents and parents who were very proud of their roots. My grandfather would always be reading history books. It was history, especially Portuguese History. So, I would come home from school, and I would get history lessons on Portugal.

I was brought up that way and my parents were always like “You will never forget who you are and where you come from.” So, at home, when that door closed, I was in the Azores, I was in Portugal. But when the door opened and I went outside, I was in the US.

TPN: Did your family environment influence your passion for cooking?

ML: We lived in a three-family home. On the first floor were my parents and us. On the second floor were my grandparents and my mom's parents. On the third floor, my mom's sister and her brother-in-law, and so my mom and dad worked different schedules in the factory because my dad had to work in a factory too.

My dad would work in the late evening and my mom would go in the morning, so there'd always be someone home. But when it was time for me to come home from school, I would go upstairs, I would go to my madrinha’s (godmother) and my madrinha was a wonderful baker. So, she baked her bread, her cakes, etc. And my mom was an amazing cook.

Then I married, and I realised I never cooked with my mom. I was the youngest of three daughters, so the older two would help my mom in the kitchen. I never really did. And so it was a little different.

Now I had to start cooking, and my husband's favourite food was Italian. So, I learned how to cook Italian for my husband, and I always had my mom making her Portuguese dishes. I just depended on her. We think that we'll have them forever and that's not the case, you know? So, in my late thirties, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, and it was two years before she passed, but in those two years, you don't sit with your mother and ask her for recipes.

She passed and then we went through mourning, you know, and then after that, my grandmother passed in all of those times, it was like four of my loved ones passed and then my dad and that was all within four years of each other.

I lost my parents, my grandparents, and my brother-in-law, and after that, I realised that I didn't have my mom's recipes. I couldn't recreate those. We lost it! I talked with my older sisters, and they had a few recipes here and there. And that was fine, but then I started looking for all the recipes that I would want, and no one had it around here.

I went to São Miguel because that's where my family was from. I went with a notebook, and I wrote down all the recipes that I wanted

TPN: When did all that become a book?

ML: I had a friend of mine who had a printing company, but he would print signs for businesses, it wasn't like he printed books. I reached out to him, and I said that I just needed a few books printed. They printed enough books for me to give to my family and friends, but then when they were printing them, I got a phone call and they said that the people who were printing them wanted copies. And then all of a sudden, I get calls from like little stores telling me they wanted to sell the book.

TPN: When did the book become the TV show, Maria's Portuguese Table?

ML: In those talks that I would have at the end of book presentations, someone would say, “How come there's no representation of Portuguese cooking on PBS or the Food Network?”

One day, one of the people who was at that table said that he knew someone who works for PBS, Rhode Island. I called PBS and asked for the person that they had given me the name of, I explained my idea, and I was told that I would have a face-to-face meeting. I was expecting to be talking to one person, I got there, and I had a table of people. So, I went through my spiel talking about Portuguese culture and they accepted.

TPN: What happened after that moment?

ML: They needed a pilot, and I've been friends with The Portuguese Kids for so long, and they were doing a lot of filming and doing commercials for people and this and that. I reached out to Derek and Brian, and I said this, and this just happened, they want a pilot. They filmed the pilot for me, and I paid them with a beautiful dinner.

I gave PBS the pilot and they wanted 13 more. I called back Derek and Brian and they did not feel comfortable doing 13 episodes, however, they had a friend in California. It was when I met Dean, who was my producer for season one and season two.

TPN: I watched the episode where you were in São Jorge. And by the end of the episode, you were very emotional, could you please explain what happened?

ML: I'm gonna start crying now. I was always very close to my mom and my dad. I was always very close to my grandparents. Oh, very close to them.

And the first season we dedicated it to our moms [Maria and Dean’s mom].

Therefore, I wanted to dedicate the second season to our dads. When we go to Terceira, the party island is happening, and they always do Sopas de Espírito Santo. So, when we went there, I wanted to do that because it was one of my dad's favourites. But when I arrived on the island, nobody was doing Sopas.

We went from Terceira to São Jorge and when we landed, we were waiting for all the equipment to be taken out. And I saw my husband talking to someone and that someone went over to him asking what was happening. The lady reached me asking if I was the Green Bean and what I was going to film. And then I was told that they were doing Sopas.

We filmed at Café Nunes, and we went down some stairs and saw those people that we saw at the airport, and everybody knew that we would be coming with cameras. There were some people there that have moved from Canada that have moved there. So, they're speaking English perfectly.

We go through it the whole bit and she's telling me they put liver on top of their soup, which I had never seen before, but I like liver. My dad loved liver too. We're sitting down with everyone who had been there before they left the people who are hiking and all that stuff. And I wanted to sit down with all the people who cooked and did all the hard work. I started eating it and all of a sudden, it was like I was transported back to having it with my dad. And it was my dad that came through and I just started crying because there was a reason why no one could do it in Terceira for me. It was meant for me to do it there.

Besides wanting to publish her book in Portugal and broadcasting her TV show on Portuguese television, Maria has found a hard time doing it. However, she still has hope that someday it will be possible.


Deeply in love with music and with a guilty pleasure in criminal cases, Bruno G. Santos decided to study Journalism and Communication, hoping to combine both passions into writing. The journalist is also a passionate traveller who likes to write about other cultures and discover the various hidden gems from Portugal and the world. Press card: 8463. 

Bruno G. Santos