This is an excerpt from an essay I wrote for an English class in 2007. On an unrelated note, it was written for one of those professors you initially can’t stand but appreciate so much after the fact. She passed away just about two years later, but sometimes I still hear her barking “clichéd! clichéd! clichéd!” That’s one way to get me to aim for originality over perfection in everything.
I was baking bread in my roommate’s casserole dish for the third time in a week when my mother called to wish me a happy St. Patrick’s Day. Thanking her, I asked about how long, in her experience, Irish soda bread needed to bake. It was the only step of the recipe I had failed to memorize and never would, no matter how many loaves I made in my lifetime.
“About 45 minutes to an hour,” she responded. When I pointed out that this range could be the difference between the perfect loaf and a kitchen fire, she told me to stab the center with a knife. I glanced at the already pockmarked top of my loaf and thanked her for the advice.
Bread-stabbing is a habit learned from my mother, just a generation away from becoming a tradition. She also taught me to immediately serve one quarter of a fresh loaf of Irish soda bread. I cut a quarter of my casserole-shaped soda bread into slices before remembering I was the only person in my apartment.
One-quarter loaf for the one-quarter Irish, I thought as I took a bite. Sugary and dotted with raisins, it tasted like nothing my Irish ancestors would ever recognize. It connected me only to my mother, and she to the grandfather I never met. His name was Patrick, and I’d often wondered if that was by choice or just the general rule for males born on March 17 in Ireland.
As I was working my way through my third slice of soda bread, my roommate came home. I shoved the plate of bread slices at her and sighed.
“What are you doing tonight?” I asked.
It was a Saturday and St. Patrick’s Day, so I was shocked when she said, “Stay home and sleep.”
She said she felt left out on St. Patrick’s Day because she’s not Irish. I pointed out that we lived in the middle of Minnesota, land of Scandinavians, and almost no one we knew was Irish.
“Yeah,” she said, “But everyone can tell I’m not Irish.”
When my roommate fills out the race/ethnicity portion of surveys, she checks Latina, Asian, and Caucasian. It bothers her to be told that the first two cancel out the last; it bothers me that I have to skip all of the interesting entries just for the last. I was surprised to find her jealous of something that, for once, fell under the scope of my white bread heritage, but I understand the need to check that third identity.
Because of an obsession with genealogy, I have divided myself into fractions. Rather than a pie-chart, I am a Rachel-chart. This leg is Irish, this one is Acadian. My toes are German, my ears a throwback to “a Micmac Indian woman” who dead-ends my family tree. It is a mix that is uniquely mine, and yet rather than make me diverse it has watered-down my sense of heritage. I am a child of the melting pot; I have no single culture to embrace as my own. Instead, I have a half-remembered recipe for a simple variation of white bread.
On what would have been my grandfather’s 95th birthday, I once again ate Irish soda bread and imagined what it would be like to meet him and ask him just one question. As I stared at the remaining three-quarter loaf of Irish soda bread, and I knew I would ask him how it felt to be celebrated whole.
This ends the flashback essay series. Tomorrow, I will be celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, my grandfather Patrick’s 100th birthday, and the wonderful thing it is to be Irish-American.