Years ago I spit into a tube and mailed it off to 23&Me to discover my true heritage. It was as Prime Day impulse buy, and it seemed frivolous even as I opened the results, because to my knowledge there were no mysteries or scandals in my family tree (that we didn’t already know about). I thought about the commercials for genetic testing where people discovered something completely remarkable — a half sibling, the origin of their long lost great-grandparents — and decided spending time and money on it had been dumb. I opened the results and saw I was German and Irish, which I already knew. Shocking.
Ancestry and 23&Me are constantly updating their results, which has been a bit of a rollercoaster. My first readout declared I was over sixty percent Irish and twenty percent German, with the rest being unremarkable “European something-or-other.” I’ve always felt very close to my German grandmother so it bothered me to learn I wasn’t as scientifically linked as I once thought. We have a lot in common, like our love of food and our three children, so finding out I wasn’t at least half German was a let down. I knew I was about half Irish/English, I just figured my affinity for my German relative meant we had a stronger genetic connection, but it turns out my DNA hails from mostly London and Dublin. My maiden name is Tevebaugh which is a mangled version of the original Diefenbach (spelled 147 different ways) so my paternal grandfather was also somewhat German, and his wife gave me my English genes. All my grandparents were born in America, so we’re relying on memories and very little documentation to place our overseas ancestors.
My German grandmother married a man of Irish decent whose father was a butcher. If PETA asks, this is why I can’t be a vegetarian — it’s genetic. It’s actually kind of ridiculous to assume I’m any less Irish than my results showed, since I have dark hair (now with some chemical help) and freckled skin that bursts into flames when I’m in the sun. There’s a pot I have that I always associated with my grandma’s cooking, but it actually belonged to the butcher first. Perhaps the pot is a metaphor for my genetic expectations.
Cooking is the connection between generations. I can’t talk to my great-grandfather to ask what he made in this pot, so I’m trying out some standard Irish recipes in honor of St Paddy’s (not Patty’s) Day and my family history. I’m told a lot of off-cuts were on the menu in his house since he took home whatever didn’t sell, but I’m working with that I’ve got: the internet. I do the same thing for my German half (which has become more of a “half” with every update of my results). I may not know exactly what they ate, but I can guess. Sometime this year I’ll make pfeffernusse, a dry and peppery cookie Grandma told me about. I’ve tried schnitzel and purple cabbage and even made soft pretzels for the boys to take to school on Heritage Day one year.
I’ll never know exactly what my ancestor’s lives were like since I haven’t lived through any world wars, civil wars, or potato famines, but I bet the ones alive during the 1918 flu would raise a glass to their descendants today. The one thing we share is food. We’ve all shared meals with family, generation through generation, and passed down what memories we could to those who would carry our genes into the next branch of our ever-expanding tree. Grandma shared a room with her own German grandmother during her childhood, and told me she brewed her own beer for a taste of home. She also taught her to smoke and swear, which is how I will always picture this woman I’ve never met: calling a passerby a “dummkopf” while slurping bathtub beer and holding a cigarette in her teeth. It’s probably not a faithful representation but it’s certainly the one I prefer.
I don’t think I’ll use my heirloom pot to make corned beef tonight because according to my family the thin metal bottom “burns the shit out of everything,” but I’ll keep it forever. What boney bits and offal were braised in that pot eighty years ago? I’m so proud to have come from my four grandparents who had to push through challenges and adapt to the future while hanging on to the lessons of the past. My Irish grandfather was a remarkable person who never met a stranger he couldn’t charm, and I hope I do his genes proud. I have an extensive collection of recipes from my grandma’s life and her relatives, but none from the Irish relatives, so I’ll have to make do with what the internet provides. We’ll raise a glass of Guinness to those who came before us, and enjoy our traditional meal with pride in our heritage.
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall soft upon your fields, and until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.