More than 15 family members, various friends, neighbors, two dogs and a camera crew were crammed into the cozy living room and kitchen of a Hastings home to watch an 87-year-old chef slice into Mo Rocca.
“I don’t want any lumps!” snapped Aslaug Warmboe, as the former “Daily Show” contributor vigorously stirred a cream sauce for a potato dish. “Oh, shucks. You need more butter!”
During the afternoon shoot for the Cooking Channel’s “My Grandmother’s Ravioli,” a series in which the elder generation shares family recipes, Warmboe was sarcastic, stubborn and blunt, bragging about how easily she smuggles Icelandic lamb through airport security and coming up with the perfect rejoinder to Rocca’s quip that the shoot was actually her intervention.
“I call it an invasion,” she replied.
This is just the way Rocca likes it.
“We had a Polish grandmother in Season 1 and at the end of the shoot I asked her, ‘Did you have fun?’ ” said Rocca, sitting on damp patio furniture in the Warmboe family’s back yard. “She said, ‘It’s been real fun, kiddo. Now get out of my house.’ ”
Rocca, who created and hosts the series that’s now in its third season, believes older grandparents make better guests because they don’t care about the results. They aren’t looking for a reality show. They don’t wig out if their hair is a little out of place. In Warmboe’s case, if they think it’s time to take a break from the hot lights and do something important — like walk slowly to her armchair to crochet a dishcloth — well, that’s what’s going to happen.
“These people have had a really full life and being on TV is so far down on their list of priorities,” said Rocca, casually dressed in jeans, red and white sneakers and an untucked shirt he might have swiped from Don Ho’s closet. “They can take it or leave it, which is what we want.”
Warmboe, who instructed Rocca on how to prepare the traditional Icelandic Christmas dinner that centers around smoked lamb, isn’t the only local cook to be featured this season. While in Minnesota this past summer, Rocca got his first gulp of Jell-O salad while learning Midwest dishes with Joenie Haas, the mother-in-law of Andrew Zimmern, and sampled varieties of herring with curry and cream sauces at the Danish Center with Grethe Petersen.
The choice to film three episodes in Minnesota was partly economical, but it also gave Rocca a chance to hang out with his college friend, Carol Bagnoli, who never stops bragging about her state.
“There are so many things I know about the Twin Cities that I shouldn’t know. My friend has just drilled it into my head,” he said. “Why do I know that Minneapolis has the second most theater seats per capita? Why do I know that the longest uninterrupted row of Victorian-style housing is on Summit Avenue? Just crazy stuff.”
But Rocca’s tie to the state isn’t only Trivial Pursuit answers.
His cerebral sense of humor, displayed regularly on NPR’s “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me” and “CBS Sunday Morning,” fits squarely into Minnesota’s smarty-pants reputation. In 2006, he spoke at Minnesota State University, after students overwhelmingly voted for him over bigger names, including Salman Rushdie and animation king Seth McFarlane.
Bagnoli, a consumer strategist for General Mills, said Rocca and the state have had a love affair ever since 1996, when she took him on a camping trip in the Boundary Waters.
“We were in Nye’s once and it was like being with a rock star with everyone singing along with him and the manager getting us free drinks,” Bagnoli said. “One time we were walking down Nicollet Mall and 12 different people stopped him. That doesn’t happen to him in New York.”
But even his biggest fans may wonder why the comedian who used to skewer the establishment on “The Daily Show” and “Tonight Show” is focusing most of his energy these days toward a low-simmering food show on a four-year-old network that doesn’t even rank in the top 25 among 18- to 49-year-old viewers, the channel’s target audience.
To understand Rocca’s passion for “Ravioli” is to understand that the series, at its heart, is not a food show, although if you want to learn how to make shrimp cocktail shooters, you’ll get the chance.
It’s really about Rocca paying tribute to a loved one.
While growing up in the Washington, D.C., area, his grandmother would made homemade ravioli every Sunday night. She passed away before Rocca got around to asking her for the recipe. The series is a way to preserve signature dishes as well as personal stories from immigrants who struggled to fulfill the American dream.
In the very first episode in 2012, Ruth Teig, a former math teacher in Scarsdale, N.Y., prepared a Sabbath dinner while sharing how she became a Holocaust survivor. South Carolina’s Millie Martin taught Rocca how to make hot cabbage as she talked about a childhood of picking cotton.
And then there’s Warmboe, who took a break from her needling (both the dishcloth and Rocca) to reflect on enduring polio as a child in small-town Iceland and how her mother defied doctor’s orders by collecting ocean water every morning and then heating it up. She would then soak her daughter’s feet in the bowl and rub them. Eventually, Warmboe was able to walk.
The frequent result of these emotional memories: tears in your eyes that aren’t from chopping onions.
It’s Rocca’s job to lighten the mood with gentle, affectionate jokes that would make him a stand-up star on the nursing home circuit, and he relishes it.
“I once thought it was hokey when people said it was better to have fun with somebody rather than making fun at their expense, because, I would think, every joke has to have a butt,” he said. “Theoretically, that’s true. But this show doesn’t. I loved ‘The Daily Show’ and those were worthy targets, but I love the simplicity of this. This show means more to me than any other project I’ve done.”
Even Warmboe was eventually charmed. After chastising Rocca for throwing cans into a regular trash can rather than a recycling bin and halfway threatening to bop him over the head with a mini Thor hammer from her utensils drawer, she finally mustered up enough compassion to pay him her ultimate compliment: