By Barbara Ehrenreich
Recently an acquaintance was telling me about the joys of rediscovering her ethnic and
“I know exactly what my ancestors were doing 2,000 years ago,” she
said, eyes gleaming with enthusiasm, “and I can do the same things now.” Then she
leaned forward and inquired politely, “And what is your ethnic background, if I may
“None,” I said, that being the first word in line to get out of my mouth.
Well, not “none,”
Scottish, English, Irish—that was something, I supposed.
Too much Irish
to qualify as a WASP, too much English to warrant a “Kiss me, I’m Irish” button; plus
there are a number of dead ends in the family tree due to adoptions, missing records,
failing memories, and the like.
I was blushing by this time.
Did “none” mean I was
rejecting my heritage out of Anglo-Celtic self-hatred?
But the truth is I was raised with “none.” We’d eaten ethnic foods in my childhood home,
but these were all borrowed, like the Cornish pasties, or meat pies, my father had picked
up from his fellow miners in Butte.
If my mother had one rule, it was militant
ecumenicism in all matter of food and experience: “Try new things,” she would say,
meaning anything from sweetbreads to clams, with an emphasis on the “new.”
My mother never introduced a domestic procedure by telling me, “Grandma did it this