When I was little, I wanted to be ethnic.
I wanted a strong, proud, national heritage, something other than the United States of America. My own family was a mix of European descent. My dad’s side, Storms, was predominantly German. On my mom’s side, we were a mixture of English, Irish, and a smattering of other things thrown in. My mom and uncle always claimed we are a little bit Native American – but I had my doubts.
Even though I later learned of the dominant German genetic, I did not realize that in first grade. We were all-American in every sense of the word. I grew up in a 1960s suburban ranch home. We ate jello salads with our dinner and cheeseburger upside down pie made with Bisquick. My dad drove a station wagon with wooden sides, and we had a swing set in the back yard.
The problem came when my first grade teacher asked each of us to prepare and bring in one of our family’s traditional ethnic dishes. Confused, I looked to see what my other friends would do. Jill Smith and her twin brother Jack were Czechoslovakian. While we could barely spell their country’s name, they did have a pretty flag.
Everybody seemed to know their country of origin. The Italian students were bringing spaghetti and pizza. One Irish student was bringing soda bread. I was stumped. What country made Bisquick? Our job was to write a report on the country, make a crayon-colored replica of the flag, and then bring in a traditional dish to share for the school open house.
I sat at my little desk deliberating a bit.
Then, I chose Sweden.
I’m not sure why I chose that country. I did like the flag. It was nice and clean, blue with a yellow cross, and easy to color. I also knew for certain that one time my mom had made Swedish meatballs with a recipe from the Betty Crocker cookbook.
The night of the open house, I was ready. The blue and yellow paper flag swung proudly over my formica-wooden covered school desk. “Swedish” it proudly proclaimed. That was me!
My mom brought in her pyrex bowl of Swedish meatballs and set it on my desk along with my report on my country. “What is this?” she asked.
I showed off my handiwork to my surprised parents. Slowly they read the report and looked again at the flag.
“You do know that we’re not Swedish,” said my mom, “right?” But for the rest of the night, I felt a little bit Swedish. I could almost imagine my dark brown hair becoming blonder, neatly plaited into braids. Maybe I could even wear clogs.
Many years later, I married a man who is 100 percent Polish. His mom makes us “golumpki” (cabbage rolls), and I even tried my hand at homemade pierogi. For Christmas one year, I celebrated in the Polish tradition with a baby Jesus in the center of the table and a wafer cookie, “oplatek”, that you use to break and say “I love you” to those near and dear.
But, I still made my family a jello salad.
Because, after all, I guess I’m just plain-old American. That’s my ethnicity.