“I have the most amazing fans. I have so much to be thankful for.”
Maria Lawton is grateful. The home cook, who resides on the South Coast and is known professionally as The Azorean Green Bean, has become a household name thanks to the success of her PBS program, Maria’s Portuguese Table.
Never in a million years did Maria think she would become a television celebrity. That didn’t happen overnight and it may never have happened at all, if it wasn’t for BayCoast Bank.
Lawton was born on the Portuguese island of São Miguel, the largest island in the Azores archipelago, located in the Atlantic Ocean. From September 27, 1957 through October 24, 1958, the Capelinhos volcano on the Island of Faial erupted, causing massive devastation. Hundreds of homes were lost, prompting evacuations of nearly 1,800 people from the island of Faial, many of whom emigrated to the United States. In 1958, U.S. Congressmen John F. Kennedy and John O. Pastore wrote the Azorean Refugee Act, which allowed people from all the nine islands to emigrate.
Maria and her parents were among them.
“I was six years old when I arrived here with my mother and father. My mother’s family came a few years before us, but my father’s side of the family all stayed behind. While we missed them, this did give me a close connection to my Portuguese roots and heritage.”
Lawton grew up on the South End of New Bedford in a multifamily home with her parents, maternal grandparents as well as her aunt and uncle. Cooking was always a big part of her life.
“I would come home from school and if my mother wasn’t cooking on the first floor, I’d run up to the second floor to see what my grandmother was baking. Those tastes and smells fill me with so many wonderful childhood memories.”
Growing up, Lawton says she endured bullying in school for being Portuguese, though she never let the taunts get to her. “I learned a great lesson thanks to my grandfather, who loved to read and always had a book in his hand. After school, he would sit me down and tell me stories about famous Portuguese discoverers. So from a very young age, I grew up thinking I came from amazing people. That is why I was able to ignore the name-calling as a child because I have always been proud of who I am and where I came from. I would tell those kids ‘you wish you were Portuguese!’”
Years later when Lawton’s beloved mother, father and maternal grandmother all passed within a short time, she remembers thinking, “Life is short. When my mother died, our family dynamic changed. Carrying on our family traditions was important. I wanted to recreate all the wonderful recipes I remembered from my childhood so that my three daughters, as well as my nieces and nephews would never forget where they came from.”
That’s how her cookbook Azorean Cooking: From My Family Table to Yours was born. “I had to leave something behind for my family,” adds Lawton.
When the cookbook was written, Maria needed to establish a company name; Azorean Green Bean seemed like a perfect fit. “I used green because of São Miguel, which is known as the Green Island, and the word bean came from being teased and called ‘fava bean’ as a child.”
The cookbook became a top seller on Amazon and that’s when the idea of a television show came about.
“Ciao Italia with Mary Ann Esposito is America’s longest running cooking show, which premiered in 1989. It’s the oldest Italian cooking show on PBS and it started on Rhode Island PBS. A friend told me I should bring the idea of a Portuguese cooking show to the station because we have never had any programs on TV that focused on Portuguese food and culture. So, I called Rhode Island PBS and I gave them the idea, but I wasn’t thinking I would produce it. They told me, ‘Sure, Maria, we love that idea, go ahead and do it.’”
It took several years to get season one off the ground because raising enough funds to produce the show was a challenge.
“You don’t do a show on PBS for the money. You do it out of love. It is a labor of love. I wanted to show off my culture to a wide audience because of how proud I am of being who I am. It took me four years of knocking on doors and getting no after no after no, before I finally met someone who believed in me.”
That someone was BayCoast Bank President and CEO, Nicholas M. Christ.
“I love that man,” says an extremely emotional Lawton, who was able to schedule a meeting with Christ through a friend. “We had a conversation and I told him how much funding was needed to complete the show and then he said ‘Say no more…done.’”
Lawton continues, “He believed in me and what I was doing and I am so moved and overwhelmed by his support. It has just meant the world to me and I was finally able to get the show produced. Season one was incredible. I connected with many fans, not just locally, but from all over the country when the program went national. It has been a humbling experience.”
Season two of Maria’s Portuguese Table premiered the first of eight episodes on Rhode Island PBS on Sunday, April 2, 2023. Season two will roll out nationally soon after. Maria says she is truly honored and blessed to have this opportunity.
“We are living in a land of immigrants and we tend to forget that. Everyone has their own story. The reason we come to America is because we want better opportunities. None of our families left our home countries because we were doing well. We wanted better for our family and the generations to come.”
Adds Lawton, “I am so thankful for my family and I am thankful to BayCoast for helping me bring Portuguese cooking and culture to television.”