When Natalie Morales’ sons voiced concerns about a planned cross-country move in 2016, she understood where they were coming from. She also knew what to tell them.
“I told them, ‘Listen, you’ll find the most exciting times in your life and some of the best things that will happen to you,’” she recalled. “You have to get up and move somewhere new, you’ve got to try something new. You can’t always live in the same house, go to the same school. You’re not always going to have the same friends. You have to broaden your horizons.”
Ms. Morales might be better qualified than most to offer such advice. A self-described Air Force “brat,” the broadcaster estimates that she moved eight times in her first 18 years.
IF YOU GO:
What: Authors! Authors! with Natalie Morales
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Stranahan Theater, 4645 Heatherdowns Blvd.
Admission: $20 at toledolibrary.org/authors
It’s an upbringing that significantly influenced Ms. Morales, a longtime Today show personality who in 2016 transitioned to a new role as the show’s Los Angeles-based West Coast anchor. She simultaneously took on hosting gigs with the same network’s entertainment-oriented Access and Access Live. In a recent phone call with The Blade, she described the many ways that a childhood spent in countries like Panama, Brazil, and Spain shaped her as an individual, as a journalist, and as a home cook.
The latter is at the heart of her debut cookbook, At Home with Natalie, set for release Tuesday. Through a series of globally inspired recipes that reflect her heritage, her travels, and her penchant for healthy eating, Ms. Morales shares her long-held belief that home-cooking is key to fostering a sense of home and family regardless of geography.
Ms. Morales will discuss At Home with Natalie and other topics at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Stranahan Theater, 4645 Heatherdowns Blvd., as the next presenter in the the 2017-2018 Authors! Authors! lecture series sponsored by The Blade and Buckeye Broadband.
Ms. Morales, 45, estimates that her family averaged three years in any one country while she and her sisters were growing up. Born in Taiwan, she spent formative years in Panama, Brazil and Spain; the influence of the latter, a comparatively long five-year stint, can be seen in cookbook recipes like Pollo al Ajillo, Paella with Chicken and Sausage and 20-Minute Gazpacho.
While she said she and her sisters today can easily appreciate the rich experiences that came with such a globe-trotting childhood, at the time, they didn’t always share that perspective. Whenever her father would approach his young daughters about an impending move, Morales recalled, the new destination tended to thrill her more than it did her sisters.
“For me, it was always an opportunity to be excited and happy,” she said. “I was always looking forward to change.”
She credits her entree into journalism to these years of packing up and settling back down. In addition to fostering the sort of adaptability and on-your-feet thinking that have enabled her to excel as a journalist, she said, it also inspired in her a sense of wanderlust and a hunger to be where history is happening.
Take the years she and her family lived in Panama, for example. When Jimmy Carter came to the country to discuss the status of the since-dissolved Canal Zone, where Ms. Morales and her family were living, she can recall actually shaking hands with the sitting president.
“It’s one of those memories that sticks with you,” she said. “There is no question that, for me, when it came to choosing a profession, having had that opportunity and experience to see the world at such a young age, I knew that I had to continue on that path, that I wouldn’t be happy if I couldn’t continue to travel and couldn’t continue to see amazing events and witness history.”
Ms. Morales would go on to Rutgers University, where she graduated summa cum laude with a degree in journalism and Latin American studies. She spent two years in banking after graduation, before she switched gears to pursue what she realized was her real passion.
Her first on-air job was with News 12 The Bronx, a “one-man band kind of place” where the young journalist reported, produced and anchored. She took that training to a morning anchor position in Hartford, Conn., then, in 2002, to MSNBC.
MSNBC positioned her to fill in as needed on Today, and the morning show officially brought her on as a national correspondent in 2006. She was later named a news anchor and a co-host of the show’s third hour.
Ms. Morales herself, in large part, conceived and advocated for her transition to Los Angeles and to the newly created role of West Coast anchor. She was already flying to the West Coast as frequently as every two weeks for Today, she said, and living there had long been on her bucket list.
“Even as a little kid, I remember growing up, people would say, ‘Where were you born?’ And instead of saying Taiwan, for whatever reason, I would say, ‘California,’ ” she recalled. “It was just easier than having to explain where Taiwan is and why I was born there.”
While she remains a familiar presence on the Today show, sometimes shooting as early as 3 a.m. or 4 a.m., her move to Los Angeles also puts her more firmly in the entertainment realm. Award show viewers can spot her on red carpets, and, as host of Access and co-host of Access Live, she regularly interviews celebrities and covers what she describes as the lighter “water cooler stories of the day.”
Of course there are plenty of parallels — perhaps more now than ever — between the worlds of news and entertainment, as Ms. Morales noted. Consider President Donald Trump’s crossover from an entertainment figure to a political one in recent years, or the #MeToo movement in which Ms. Morales said she takes heart.
That movement crossed paths with Ms. Morales publically last year, when her former Today colleague Matt Lauer was fired following allegations of sexual misconduct. Ms. Morales released a statement at the time expressing her shock and noting the courage of the unnamed complainant; in her recent conversation with The Blade, she praised the women who have spoken out about sexual misconduct in their industries and counted herself among the innumerable more who have experienced discrimination, pay inequality or crossed lines.
“I would be silly and Pollyanna-ish if I believed that that was not going to continue,” she said. “But I’m glad there’s awareness and that more women now feel empowered to speak up. … I feel like this is our time.”
“I think there’s still a lot more work to be done,” she continued. “For once, though, I think this is the new feminist revolution that I think actually is going to truly lead to change.”
While plans for the cookbook were in motion well before Ms. Morales and her family discussed leaving their home in Hoboken, N.J., the cross-country move has come to underscore its overarching theme. As her family adjusted to life away from the only home that her 9-year-old and 14-year-old sons had ever known — and that Ms. Morales herself had known for longer than any other in her life — she found herself turning to the kitchen, in the model of her own mother throughout all those childhood moves.
“Needless to say,” Ms. Morales writes in the introduction to At Home with Natalie, “when we arrived in California I found myself channeling my mother’s ability to create home wherever we were.”
Included in the cookbook are recipes she recalls from her mother and grandmother’s kitchens, like Picadinho, Slow-Cooker Ropa Vieja and Arroz con Pollo y Grandules. Many of the Latin-inspired recipes reflect her own Puerto Rican and Brazilian heritage; if there’s one dish that defines her, she writes, it’s her Classic Brazilian Black Beans and Rice.
There are also recipes inspired by travels — vacations in Italy, work trips to cover the Olympics in Greece — and her delight in the availability of healthy, fresh ingredients in California. Others, like a favorite Everyday Green Smoothie for 4 a.m. breakfasts, offer insight into how Ms. Morales squeezes health and nutrition into a packed personal and professional schedule.
While it’s the numerous recipes that constitute the bulk of At Home with Natalie, Ms. Morales said she wrote the cookbook to more generally encourage families to spend time talking together. It’s something that she feels strongly is important, she said, and that, in her experience, is best done around food.
That’s what she in part hopes to discuss with audience members in Toledo, she said. It’s just too bad they won’t be having that conversation around a dinner table.
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