The unbearable whiteness of eating

I’ve probably mentioned bits of my family background before, so some of this may be a repeat, but it’s heading toward an entirely different story, and it was brought to mind because of a coupon.

I’m a regular shopper at Ralphs, a supermarket chain owned by Kroger, and I have their rewards card. It’s the only chain I’ve shopped, other than Trader Joe’s, my entire adult life.

So, for a while now, every six weeks, I get about a dozen coupons in the mail. They come in two sheets of six each, and it always works the same way. The first page: Coupons for stuff I buy all the time. This one gets used up.

Second page: Stuff I might have bought once in the past, or lasts so long that I don’t need it, or is something I never have or would buy. This one usually stays intact.

One of the coupons they always send me is for a free jar of mayo — sometimes my preferred brand (Kraft) and sometimes not (Best Foods.)

Tonight was a free jar of Best Foods, and as I put it in the fridge, I realized, “Damn, I have a lot of unopened mayo in there.”

Fortunately, and contrary to popular belief, mayo has a long shelf life despite containing eggs because it is full of vinegar, too. Why do you think they leave it on the non-refrigerated shelves in the market?

But this surfeit of mayo reminded me that, when I was growing up, my fridge at home was not like this at all. There would be nary a jar of mayo to be found.

Flashback to my mom’s origin story. She was the daughter of an Irish Catholic couple from a suburb adjacent to Joseph Biden’s birthplace, Scranton, Pennsylvania. Grandfather was a coal miner. Grandmother was a baby machine.

No, seriously, that seemed to be all she did. Over the course of twenty-six years, from the ages of about 19 to 45, she popped out thirteen babies. If you’re counting, that’s one every two years. She started all of that not long before the Great Depression — not a good time for a laborer, even one in a union, to try to be raising that many kids.

Only seven of them made it to adulthood. There were a lot of stillbirths, and one who died in middle childhood. I’d assume miscarriages as well. But my mother was right in the middle of the surviving bunch, so she and her one older sister wound up helping grandma raise the other kids.

The oldest was one of her sisters, and the two boys, of course, were never expected to do “women’s work.” (Rolls eyes.) This left her two younger sisters and the youngest, who was born with Down’s Syndrome right around the time grandma turned 45.

He was her last.

Anyway, my  mom learned everything she knew about homemaking from Grandma Molly and Aunt Pat, particularly cooking, although food at home at the time was necessarily… not great.

They had nine mouths to feed on a limited budget, not to mention that a lot of them were not very adventurous when it came to what they ate, so it was apparently a lot of meat and potatoes. It was a typical Irish-American diet, I suppose.

But it all had to be done in bulk and cheaply, and there was a World War in there somewhere as well, so for a while they had to deal with rationing.

By the time my mom married my dad, who was a white collar professional and decidedly middle (if not upper-middle) class, she had improved her culinary skills enormously, but she still leaned toward the money-saving choices from her childhood.

She was also the only one to move all the way across the country to California, and I think being here influenced her cooking enormously — she had quite a few specialties of the Mexican and Italian food variety, which played nicely into a genetic thing that I improbably share with my dad’s half-German side of the family.

For the Bastians, the rule is “the spicier the better.”

But… the occasional lasagna or enchiladas or tamale pie were rare treats, maybe once a month, because I watched and learned from her, and they were involved and complicated.

Spaghetti and meatballs, not so much, since the only intricate part there is the meatball prep, but the cooking the spaghetti part was so simple that Mom could and did trust Dad to do it. (Took me years to figure out that was because it was something he could basically not screw up.)

Outside of the specialties, though, we were also pretty much meat and potatoes, with Sunday dinner traditionally being a huge rump roast with potatoes, usually mashed, and a side of thick-cut cooked carrots if I were lucky, or green beans if I weren’t.

I despise green beans. No one can convince me that they do not only exist as wax fruit that is inexplicably slipped into cookpots for no good reason.

But, without the sides, that Sunday dinner would turn into roast beef sandwich lunches for both Dad and me for the rest of the week, and I had no complaints.

And those sandwiches? Roast beef on Wonder Bread with Miracle Whip. Our house also lacked butter — for Mom, it was Parkay Margarine all the way or, as I say now, “¿por qué margarina?” We also had Carnation instant milk, which was (is?) powder mixed with water, and the only “cheese” I ever knew were individually wrapped Kraft American singles, which IIRC were always referred to as “cheese food product,” which sounds about as unappealing as possible.

The plastic each slice came wrapped in probably had more nutritional value and tasted better.

Mom also committed what I now consider from my own experience cooking and baking as the ultimate culinary sin. She used Bisquick.

In case you’re not familiar with it, it’s a product designed for people who couldn’t be arsed to measure out and whisk together a little flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda — and anathema if you need to leave out the last two ingredients for health reasons.

So, yeah… Other than the occasional ethnic meals, my culinary upbringing was about as damn white as you could get. It always amazed me, because she certainly could have afforded a lot more and better, but the habits we develop in childhood, especially when it comes to food choices, can be very hard to break.

Then I went off to college. It was a Catholic university — which I attended for the film school, not the religion — but, ironically, it opened up a whole new world of food for me.

On my first lunch from campus food service on my first day living there, I had a burger and I had real mayo on it, which I had never tasted before.

OMFG, what a revelation. The sugary blandness of the very misnamed Miracle Whip faded into memory as I discovered the sassy, tangy goodness of real mayo enticingly teasing my taste buds.

And then there was wheat bread, which actually tasted like something, and delivered every bite of sandwich with a little hug. Don’t get me started on tasting real butter for the first time, and then the goodness of butter spread thick on hot wheat toast.

Then there were the real cheese and milk that, like the butter, actually came out of a cow and were not created artificially or reconstituted. Swiss cheese. Cheddar cheese. Mozzarella. Gorgonzola. Bleu cheese. Feta. Goat cheese. Cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese! Glorious cheese!

And I was absolutely addicted to milk. I still am. But even real non-fat milk was better than the reanimated corpse milk I’d grown up on, and I’d even occasionally dare a 2%.

This was also when and where I first took my tongue around the world. In a culinary sense, you pervs. I was already familiar with Mexican and Italian food, but discovered Chinese, Indian, Thai, Indonesian, Salvadoran, and German cuisine — I’m probably missing a lot on that list — largely thanks to my university having a very diverse student body, both of native-born Americans from different cultures and international students from different countries.

Did I mention that my very Catholic university had an amazing bagel bar every morning, with every conceivable kind of bagel and shmear, along with lox and onions and the works?

And how amusing it was to see the Catholic high school kids the first week not know that you cut it in half and the stuff goes inside, you don’t spread it on top?

But, like I’d been, they were also clearly lacking in certain culinary experiences, so I shouldn’t really make too much fun of them. I’ll reserve that mocking for people who are having authentic tamales for the first time and don’t know that you have to take the corn husks off before eating because, I mean, duh. That should be obvious, right?

That’s like trying to eat your Del Taco burrito while it’s still wrapped in the paper. And that’s just silly.

About as silly as what I was stuck eating until I turned 18 and went off on my own, but I really can’t fault my mother for it. She did amazing things with what she was limited to, but she also went beyond those boundaries.

It was just the common basics of the everyday that were so much wrapped up in her past as the daughter of a poor working man with a big family. On the other hand, it kept me also stuck firmly to her roots instead of realizing how well-off dad actually was, so it kept me from growing up to be an entitled brat.

At least I’ve come to terms with it, and no longer consider having grown up on Miracle Whip and Wonder Bread to be child abuse. But, nowadays, it should be. Oh, yes, it should be.

Image “White bread sandwich with cheese” by Freefoodphotos at FreeImagesLive. Licensed under (CC by 3.0) Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported.

Talky Tuesday Special: Erin go, bro!

In which I don’t so much write about language as indulge in my Irish gift of gab in the most meta way possible.

America may or may not be celebrating St. Patrick’s Day today, depending upon what stage of pandemic we’re at — after all, New York City already cancelled theirs, and it was one of the biggest in the country, along with Chicago (postponed) and Boston (also cancelled).

But the salient point is that, like Cinco de Mayo to actual Mexicans, St. Patrick’s Day isn’t all that big a deal over in Ireland. It’s more of a religious holiday than a boozefest. They still celebrate it, just not on the same scale as… oh. Never mind. Ireland has cancelled, too.

In honor of the day, I’m bringing up my mother’s people because the Irish in America are a very good example of a group that was once an identifiable and hated minority that went on to assimilate with a vengeance.

If you trust traditional sources, that might not seem the case. According to the Census, 10.5% consider themselves of Irish descent. But, of course, that’s totally unreliable because it’s a self-reported figure. Some people may have no idea where their grandparents or great-grandparents came from. Others may not care about their Irish ancestry, or may identify more strongly with another group or country in their background.

But when you look at objective sources and include any degree of Irish heritage, the number changes dramatically. DNA tests via Ancestry show that two thirds of all people tested have at least some Irish blood in them.

In other words, in that regard, the Irish are the hidden majority in this country. Nice trick, considering that for so much of their history here, mo mhuintir (my people) were a much hated minority.

A group of refuges, fleeing what is basically an attempt at genocide back home, suddenly flood the country. Many of them speak a foreign language or speak English badly; they practice a different religion than most Americans of the time; they are perceived as a big threat to American jobs (although they only took the ones Americans didn’t want); and they are accused of being violent criminals, addicts, or rapists.

Sound familiar? Ripped from recent headlines?

Yes, but all of those attributes were applied to the Irish who came to America in the wake of the potato famine, or the Great Hunger, of the 1850s. A big part of it was religious discrimination. At the time, America was predominantly Protestant, thanks to its initial British invaders… sorry, settlers, but another big group who came over, the Germans, tended to be Lutheran. The Catholic Germans of the north stayed home.

The English never had any problem with the Germans because, surprise, by the time America was founded, the English royal family was actually… German. They ruled via four Georges, one William, and somebody known as Victoria.

After she died, the name of the house changed twice, first with her successor, and then again during World War I (then known as the Great War) because Windsor sounded so much more British than the German Hanover, and the British were fighting the Germans, after all.

That’s right. World War I wasn’t so much a war as a family squabble.

The Germans in America did just fine, though, and I have plenty of them in my background as well. My last name is German, and my great grandfather came from there. He was pretty successful as well, and as far as I know, the only elected official (mayor) who’s my direct ancestor for at least four hundred years.

My Irish ancestors, not so much. They were depicted in the press in completely stereotyped and racist ways — and yes, even though Irish is a nationality, the prejudice they faced was a type of racism because the Irish were not considered to be white by the native-born of the era.

Note that the mention of Germans also being stereotyped in that era refers to the Catholic ones, who finally came over as Germany dissolved into civil war in the mid to late 1800s. Note that this is exactly when my great-grandfather came over with his family.

It was 1883 and he was 18. The village he came from was Michelbach, in Gaggenau, just outside of Stuttgart. It’s close enough to Hamburg to assume that it was very Catholic, but I don’t have to assume.

Thanks to a genealogist who, while studying the village as a whole, found my query online, I know all about all of my ancestors from there back to the late 17th century, thanks to the Catholic Church they were preserved in. So those Bastians were probably Catholic. My dad was definitely not.

I don’t think he practiced any religion except for the Ritual of the Earliest Tee Time via its patron, St. Golf, but I suspect that it was because his mother, who was a combination of French, Welsh, Scottish, maybe Native American, and who knows what-all else, wasn’t at all religious.

But if it was one civil war that brought my German ancestors to America, it was another that really messed with my Irish ancestors. This would be the American Civil War itself, and, ironically (or not) it was a perfect example of the rich pitting one downtrodden class against another.

April 1, 1863 was the date the government in the north set for all men between 20 and 45 to register for the first ever draft, whether they were citizens or immigrants seeking citizenship. On top of this, while you’d think that everyone in the North was against slavery, you’d be wrong. In fact, not only did the business elites in New York support it because they profited off of the cheap labor, too, but so did the lower classes, because they feared the possibility of freed slaves coming to take their jobs.

Hm. That whole mishmash sounds familiar, too.

Oh… there was one other big flaw in the law, and it was this. Anyone could buy their way out of being drafted by either finding a substitute to take their place, or paying $300. Obviously, this meant that buying their way out was impossible for the poor and working class, and these people went apeshit.

This led to the draft riots, the second largest act of civil insurrection in U.S. history, ironically only beaten out by the Civil War itself. Of course, as the riots started, the disgruntled poor, largely Irish, didn’t go after the rich bastards in charge. Nope — they went after the black community instead.

Even then, America used divide and conquer. An object lesson for today. Keep in mind that before the Civil War, the Irish were shoved into the same social circles as blacks who were not slaves, and there was a lot of intermarriage and the like going on. Sadly, the above scare tactics of “they’ll take your jobs” during the Civil War worked, permanently damaging the Irish/Black relationship.

But… it planted a seed, so to speak, and there are plenty of black Americans today who happen to have Irish genes in them.

So how did the Irish manage to climb up the ladder to become respected and considered “white?” Simple… America, never one to back down on xenophobia, simply found new targets. After the whole Irish thing, there were suddenly Italians, Eastern Europeans, Chinese, and Mexicans flooding our shores.

After all that, the Irish didn’t seem all that bad.

By the time that Great War ended, the Irish were totally assimilated. And they saw their first president elected in 1960… wait, right, no. JFK was not the first Irish-American president. That would have been bloody, bloody Andrew Jackson. Too bad he didn’t also claim the title of biggest racist asshole prior to… well, you know who.

But, surprisingly, even as recently as 1960, the big worry was whether an Irish Catholic president would follow the Pope instead of the Constitution. (Hint: It was unfounded.)

So happy St. Patrick’s Day. Although it’s not really celebrated that much in Ireland, it probably is in America because, if all y’all strip down to your genes, you probably do have a little Irish in you. Erin go bragh!

Better seen than heard?

If you’ve ever tried to learn Gaelic, then all those silent letters may have stopped you. But there’s apparently a method to that madness. Not so much in English, where there’s only one letter that is never silent.

First, a quick quiz to be answered later. Without cheating in Google translator or something, how would you pronounce this Gaelic surname? Mudhean. Hint: The answer is not “mud hen.”

Now, I’d mentioned previously that I’m glad I learned English first because it’s the hardest to pronounce. However, I’ve tried several times to learn my mother’s family’s mother tongue, which is Irish Gaelic, and have failed completely for exactly that reason: It is impossible to pronounce!

Seriously, look at these Americans trying to pronounce common Irish first names — and trust me, I once watched my own father being totally clueless on how to pronounce the very common name “Sean.”

Now look at this liar of an Irishman (because all of us are liars!) claiming that it’s so easy! Right. Maybe if you get rid of all those damn extra H’s and silent letters and dipthongs that bear no resemblance to the vowels in them!

But… this brings me to the point of this article. As difficult as Gaelic pronunciation can seem to English speakers, our language is still weirder because almost every letter in it can be silent. In fact, Miriam-Webster only found one and a half exceptions in their very fascinating article. The first is kind of a cheat because it comes from a direct borrowing from Spanish, and it shouldn’t exactly be unpronounced. I’ll give it to you here as a freebie: it’s the “J” in marijuana. And it isn’t silent, it’s a “y” sound, but hey, I don’t expect gabachos to know that.

The other letter might surprise you, though, and I’ll give you a free hint: It’s not a vowel, so you’ve only got 21 guesses. Well, make that 20, since we’ve already eliminated J. So… which letter in the English language has no examples (to date) of words in which it is silent? To find out, you’ll have to read the Miriam-Webster article.

And, to answer the original question, the name “Mudhean” is pronounced like “Moon,” but with a very, very liquid “u” sound in the middle. Imagine it like drawing that “oo” out a couple of syllables.