A 93-year-old man takes a DNA test, and everything changes.
Nazanin is a beloved member of the Gimlet family, overseeing Gimlet’s advertising wing. She also has an incredible family story, moving to the U.S. from Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. And Nazanin’s family tree is filled with people who left their communities and started over, from the victim of an epidemic, to two literary icons. We’ll tell these stories, and introduce her to a mystery relative.
Naz: One of my first memories is seeing American breakfast for the first time and the breakfast here seemed so gross.
Naz: Yes! because like in Iran we would eat fresh bread and feta cheese and tea. And and here it was like my cousin is eating fruity pebbles… it’s like pouring like primary colors into a bowl and then pouring milk on top and then eating it (laughs)
I’m AJ Jacobs. And this is Twice Removed. The show that proves we are, in fact, one big family.
Right now there are two people here with me, in separate studios. And what they don’t realize is…they’re related. One of these people is our mystery relative who will be hidden away until the end of our show. But the other…is right here in the studio with me… our guest! Nazanin Rafsanjani. Hello, Nazanin.
Naz: Hello. Hello AJ.
We, uh, Nazanin, we are delighted to have you. People in the Gimlet Office of course know you very well. But why don’t you go ahead and introduce yourself to the rest of our audience.
Naz: My name is Nazanin Rafsanjani, I’m the Creative Director at Gimlet. Gimlet is the company that makes this podcast. That means that I work on all the ads and branded content that we make.
Right. You are our advertising guru. You’ve also produced stories for This American Life, and you worked for the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC. You have a fascinating personal history and an amazing family… So we’ve been working for months to dig into that history.
Now as we heard at the top of the show you came to the US from Iran as a kid. And because of that you had to leave a lot of your family behind. So how much do you know about your family?
Naz: I don’t know much about my family. Like all i know are like these little snippets. I think one of the things that sometimes you give up when you immigrate here is is is all this stuff. Who were your grandparents grandparents? What did they do? I don’t know, we have like 5 family members in the United States and that’s who we’re gonna know about.
AJ: If you could have a fantasy of what your ancestors were like, what, what would you want them to be? Do you want them to be like you know princes and princesses? Or do you want them to be like gangsters? What what would you like?
NAZ: Oh my god, I haven’t – uh I think i definitely would not want them to be princes and princesses. I can’t believe I’m saying this. I don’t know why I’m saying this, but like I would love to know if any of them were artistic? Like painting or drawing or writing or anything like that. I just have questions more than fantasies of who I want them to be… since I’ve had my own kids. I think it’s really weird for me to have these totally American kids. They’re just American. There’s a part of me that wants them to have like a connection to my whole family and like where I’m from. Or at least at want them to know that like the parts of my personality that I’m proud of come from some people they’ve never met.
Well, Nazanin I couldn’t have said it better myself – this idea that parts of who we are… parts of our experience… are wrapped up in family we’ve never even met. That’s exactly what we found with your family.
So here’s how Twice Removed works. We’ve spent the last few months doing research- talking to historians, distant relatives… finding people who are related to you.
If you look here, we’ve actually – we’ve built a road map. And it starts with you on one end – that’s you over there.
And it ends with your mystery relative
Naz: Oh okay. (Laughs) Wow.
And in between the two of you there are forty people, related by blood or marriage. They’re across generations, across borders… it’s like six degrees of separation, only in this case,
Nas: Uh huh
it’s forty degrees of separation.
Now in the course of the show, we’re gonna make our way through this road map… one person to the next. And along the way, we’ll stop at five of your most interesting relatives. And we’re gonna tell their stories.
With all of these people… one theme kept coming up… Exile. People who have left their communities and had to start over. They are artists and dreamers… We’ll meet a victim of one of the world’s oldest diseases… and not just one but two literary icons… And, at the end of the show… after we’ve made our way through this road map… we’re gonna bring our mystery relative into the studio…for a family reunion unlike any other.
AJ: She says laughing nervously.
AJ: And what do you think – do you have any idea who your mystery relative might be?
Naz: No – I have – I have no idea. I mean I’m just looking at this chart and like
AJ: No idea? What about one guess. Give me one guess.
Naz: I mean if Michelle Obama’s in there I would be psyched. And if she’s not I’ll be really disappointed. So.
OK! Uh, Now, mystery relative, I’m talking to you now, I can hear you but Nazanin can’t.
How are you doing?
Pat: I’m doing just fine, thank you.
Excellent. Is there anything you would like me to say to Nazanin for you?
Pat: Just that it is going to be absolutely wonderful to meet her.
AJ: Lovely. They say that it will be absolutely wonderful to meet you.
Naz: Okay. Yes. It will be wonderful to meet them.
Alright! Mystery relative please hang tight… soon you’ll be in the studio with us, meeting Nazanin face to face.
Hopefully, the two of you will be filled with delight, though it could be abject horror. You never know. It’s family.
Alright, so Nazanin, let’s get started with our first story. Now, if you take a look at the road map of your family right here… so we actually don’t have to go too far to get to your first remarkable relative…
AJ: In fact just one step…
AJ: One step to the right…
Naz: Uh huh.
AJ: Hi Nilu it’s AJ Jacobs.
Nilu: Hey how are you?
AJ: I’m good how are you?
Nilu: I’m doing well I’m doing well.
Naz: My sister.
You recognized her.
Her name, of course, is Nilufar. She goes by Nilu. She is about five years older than you.
Naz: Mm hm.
And the story of how you and Nilu came to America is pretty harrowing. And because Nilu older than you, she has a more detailed memory of how drastically your life changed.
Naz: Yes, she – knows more about that than me.
It all starts in the nineteen seventies… Tehran was a city split between two cultures… You’ve got a modern, western capital… but one that is deeply steeped in the Islamic faith… in photos it looks just like Los Angeles, or Paris, with people walking down the street in business suits or bell bottoms… but also, hijabs. And in a lot of ways, Nilu’s early years don’t seem all that different from a kid growing up in the U.S.
Nilu: I wanted to be a boxer.
Nilu: Cause I was obsessed with Rocky. At the time it was like a big deal to like get western movies. You know that was like a thing.
AJ: And did you ever train? Did you ever do a little Rocky either running up stairs or-?
Nilu: Oh all the time. Like when I was by myself I used to pretend I was Rocky all the time. It was like shadowbox and do pushups and that – you know that kind of thing. I was always kind of embarrassed by it. Like I was always – I always made sure like no one knew I was playing Rocky.
Nilu: Man did I love Rocky.
Mina: My favorite movie was uh-mm Sabrina.
Mina: With Audrey Hepburn. I couldn’t get enough.
AJ: You know what, that was my father’s favorite movie and I was gonna be named Sabrina if I were a girl.
So Nazanin, you wanna tell us who this is.
Naz: That is my mom. I mean she’ll watch anything so there – just take that all with a grain of salt.
AJ: (laughs) It’s a good movie .
Naz: It is a good movie.
AJ: Not the re-make but-
Naz: No no no yeah. The Audrey Hepburn version. Yeah.
So that is your mother. Mina Attar. Now, during this, there was actually a massive political shift happening outside your home… in the streets of Tehran….
Reporter: At dusk last night there were fires burning and roads blocked. This was the scene all over Tehran. It was the beginning of a night of violence that followed a day of violence.
In nineteen seventy nine… there were two sides struggling for the control of Iran … on one side, the Shah who was aligned with the west but also very corrupt and unpopular in his own country… and on the other side was the Ayatollah Khomeini, a religious hardliner.…
Now in that year, revolution broke out and the balance of power shifted away from the Shah… and toward the Ayatollah.
NBC: Ayatollah Khomeini. The winner. He now controls Iran, the oil, the money, the government, billions in military equipment bought by the Shah, he has it all.
And with that power, Khomeini started instituting harsher laws…
Mina: The year that I got pregnant by Nazanin, was the year that they forbidden everything, alcohol and western movie… and they put the hijab in the woman’s head.
Nilu: my least favorite part which I absolutely hated, was the, um, this thing they called a man na’eh… which is like a lycra almost… fabric that would cover your hair. I hated that… and I just didn’t understand why the boys didn’t have to wear that and I did. And I would get in trouble.
Mina: She would get so mad. And she would, she would argue yeah, yeah.
And the head covering was just one new requirement under the Ayatollah. There were restrictions on where women could travel, what jobs they could do… The way your mom tells it, Nazanin – it was overwhelming…
Mina: Everything was tighter and tighter and harder to breathe for woman. It was horrible horrible. They take your identity. They take everything. Who you are. What you think. (exhales) It feels like you’re trapped. You’re in a wheel that you just keep – just keep uh screaming and nobody hears you.
AJ: Are you alright?
Naz: Yeah yeah yeah. It’s hard to hear your mom cry.
September 21st, 1980. Does that date ring a bell?
Naz: Yes that is my birthday.
AJ: That’s right!
Naz: Yes. [laughs]
Now by then, the revolution was about 2 years in. And literally the very next day, war broke out in Iran. And soon, life in Tehran would go from oppressive… to outright dangerous.
NBC: Good evening. In the middle east iraq’s border troubles with iran exploded into fighting today that had all the appearances of a war.
The Iran-Iraq war – it started as a border dispute. But it quickly escalated. Saddam Hussein started flying planes hundreds of miles into Iran, and dropped bombs on the capital, Tehran, where you lived.
Do you remember anything about the bombings?
Naz: I didn’t know they were bombings until later. I remember being woken up in the middle of the night and being like – shuffled down to our basement and not knowing why.
We actually talked to your mom and sister about it. And they remember of course very clearly. And – on any given night bombs would start falling on your neighborhood and your mom would have to react….fast.
Mina: We all wake up. I grab nazanin. Just put the blanket on Nazanin. Tried not to fall. And my husband get another blanket and grabbed Nilofar… Nilofar was six years old seven years old then. Then we go in a hole in the wall or somewhere we think is safe. We go and we shiver. Literally shiver for all the time that the bombing continues.
AJ: What did you say to your daughters at that point?
Mina: In fact, i’m I’m I’m so wimpy that- i just shiver and cry. Nazanin was just an infant, but Nilufar was the bravest.
Nilu: She would be crying, and my grandma would be crying, my sister would be crying. And i would be the one, like, comforting everyone.
Mina: She would tell me, “don’t worry, at least we all are together. Don’t worry.
AJ: Wow, that’s amazing.
Nilu: i kind of I kind of remember liking it almost, um It almost kind of felt like a little like a slumber party.
Naz: That’s so funny.
AJ: What’s funny?
Naz: Yeah, I mean – she really experienced these things you know where I have like snippets of a – a memory. Almost looks like you looked at a picture and you’re just remembering the picture.
Yeah… and the bombings were basically the last straw for your mom. She said enough… we need to leave. The first step was for your mom needed to quit her job without looking suspicious. She was worried her boss at the time would turn her in.
Mina: I put my resignation and he said no where are you going and I said, my husband didn’t let me to work anymore and he said Oh OK. [laugh]
AJ: That makes sense!
Mina: So he said yeah yeah, my sister, you have to look after your husband first. I said, yeah, right. (Laughs)
Naz: Yeah. that is absolutely in her character.
AJ: That sums it up?
So that was the easy part. But your parents actually had to get your family out.
She made a plan. She’d line up at four in the morning to get travel visas. And she had to get there super early to beat the crowds. The whole family would then fly to Turkey. And from Turkey, you would catch a plane to Minnesota. Where two of your uncles already lived.
The day comes. You all go to the airport. Your mom and dad say goodbye to their families. The plane takes off. And the emotions were complicated… Your mom, she was sad to leave her life behind… but at the same time it was also a relief…
Mina: We were still in Iranian territory. You have to keep the hjiab. As soon as we flew over iran’s border I remember… nilufar was the first one, she was nine years old… she said no power puts this hijab on my head ever again… all the women cheer, and they take the hijab and they clap, and… [laughing] I took it off I said no matter what it takes… I’m gonna make it… I’m not going- I’m not gonna do this anymore. Enough is enough… I have only one life to live. They have no control.
The plane touched down in Minnesota, now your family – they were only here on a travel visa. So like a lot of immigrants, your mom had to work under the table. And she worked a lot.
Mina I worked at night cleaning offices. One of them was Chuck e’ Cheese.
AJ: Oh really?
Mina: I said oh my god – how many tables do they have?
Naz: I did not know she worked at Chuck E Cheese. It’s like my kid’s favorite place now. If she still worked there they’d be so psyched.
AJ: You gotta tell em. That’ll give some cred
Naz: all my kids ever want my parents to do is take them to Chuck E Cheese.
AJ: Do you think maybe that’s why she doesn’t take her?
Naz: May – I don’t know. Or ‘cause it’s awful but like yeah. (laughing)
While Mina worked nights as a cleaner, just to make ends meet… Nilu was focused on trying to fit in.
Nilu: I remember feeling very defensive. Very defensive. I – I think I went up to sharpen a pencil and and some kid was like – tried to teach me how to like use the pencil sharpener and I was really offended. Like – I may not speak the language but I know what a pencil sharpener is. Like we have Pencil sharpeners in Iran. You know?
Nilu: You just want to not be different when you’re that age.
Nilu: We were just so different. Everything about us was different. There was just this like overwhelming sense of like I don’t belong anywhere.
Naz: Yeah, I hated it. I felt so weird. I mean, every kid does I think, but we were weird. You know all the houses had christmas lights, everyone had a christmas tree. Everyone was named lindsay. That’s how it felt. There were a lot of Lindsay’s.The most popular girl at our bus stop, her name was lindsay. It felt really isolating.
What about your parents? Your mom, she didn’t have the same experience it seems because she was so busy working.
Naz: I never thought about how hard they were working ever. Such a selfish little kid.
AJ: Was there a moment when you got older that you were like “Oh my God, I can’t believe the sacrifices they made”?
Naz. Yeah. (laughs) Yes. I have those moments all the time. I think about that all the time now. I think about it all the time. I can’t imagine making the decisions that they made. My Dad said goodbye to every member of his family. Everybody. My parents, they worked six days a week. They were just never around, and as a kid, I um, I would get mad about it. Or like, I wanted them to, especially my Mom, I wanted her to like be volunteering and doing all the things. Or like having her nails perfectly done, because that’s how the Moms of my friends were like. I never thought about how … I never thought about how it must’ve been like beyond just all the leaving your family behind and all that stuff. How it must’ve been just painful for them never to, like never to see us.
Nazanin: Yeah. And now, my Mom is always you know, trying to convince me to be a stay at home Mom and I always yell at her. But, um, she’s always like “You’re going to regret not seeing the kids.” I mean I feel like I won the lottery. For all the things we’ve like given up, and my parents especially, literally I feel like the life I live now is like equivalent to having won the lottery when I was six.
We are going to take a quick break. And when we come back — Your family’s history with one of the oldest diseases known to mankind. And we’ll start to make our way toward your mystery relative.
Naz: Okay. [laughs]
Welcome back to Twice Removed – the show that proves we are, in fact, one big family.
I’m here with Nazanin Rafsanjani, my co-worker here at Gimlet. We just heard about how her family immigrated from Tehran to the US when she was a kid. Nazanin, are you ready to get back on this road to your mystery relative?
Naz: Yes I am.
Let’s do it.
Next stop, we’re staying in Tehran… For a story that’s not about coming to a new country… It’s about what gets left behind.
Take a look at this map again. We’re gonna go one, two, three steps from your sister, Nilu.
So – we called up your great aunt …
Naz: Uh huh.
AJ: you look a little emotional.
Naz: I know. We call her Hala-joon, which means dear aunt.
Others call her Effat. That’s her name. She speaks a little English, but mostly Farsi, so we had a translator come to help us out… but there was only so much she could do with idiots like me…
AJ: Vale Vale
AJ: Does Bale mean ok?
Raha: Yes, that means ok
AJ: I feel like I got it, I’m almost fluent.
AJ: Okay so. That’s all I got. That’s my –
Naz: Oh man. That’s that’s – that was a – that’s brave that’s a brave effort.
AJ: That’s my Farsi, you’ll have to teach me later
Naz: Uh huh.
Effat remembers the day your family left Tehran. She met you at the airport to say goodbye. And she says it was one of the saddest days of her life.
Effat: (In Farsi) It was really not believable. I didn’t realize until we were in the airport that she was leaving. And the moment that she took her hands from mine, the last moment, it was like she took the life from me.
AJ: Nazanin… What did she say?
Naz: She said that uh every single thing about my mom leaving Iran was incredibly difficult for her. Down to the last moment when – I could be translating this better but in the moment when my mom um let go of my great aunt at the airport it felt like she was taking a piece of her life away.
AJ: But your mom and Effat they’re still in touch right? They’re still close?
Naz: Yes. She’s just like a force of nature. She was a Principal in Iran for a school for the blind for many, many, many years. She had a bunch of brothers and a Dad who like weren’t particularly interested in having her be educated. And she made that happen for herself. And she’s just like a good person.
Yeah. Effat is sort of the external hard drive of your mother’s family. The memory-keeper. And that’s especially important in a country like Iran. People like Effat, who have lived there for many decades, they can be the best … and sometimes the only… link to the past.
So we asked Effat about your more distant ancestors. She started with her father, Hajee Ghanei, who was your great grandfather…
Hajee was born in 1892. Effat describes him as a difficult man. A tough father.
Raha: somewhat dictatorial in the way that I think he ran things.
But, she does remember something very special about him… his love of poetry. So Naz, you were hoping to learn if you had any artists in the family… turns out there was one not too far away … your great grandfather. He would write poetry. And sing it. He would memorize his favorite poets…
Raha: and expected everyone to also know these words and to have an appreciation for these things. Especially Saadi …
Saadi is a major figure in classical poetry. He’s sort of the Persian Shakespeare. Only… he lived 350 years before Shakespeare.
AJ: Did your father um make you memorize those poems, and if so do you remember any of them?
Raha: Some of them a little bit?
AJ: Wow, first of all, I am just astounded that you still remember that. Just amazing.
Effat: Vale vale vale…
Were you able to understand that poem at all?
Naz: I ca – I can understand a little bit but it’s like it I mean it is kind of like listening to Shakespeare when you –
AJ: What little bit did you understand?
Naz: Um something about – uh the – youth or like children to a mother.
AJ: I didn’t understand it either but – it was translated. And it’s the voice of a mother who is disappointed in her son’s behavior. So there you go Nazanin. You have a deep love the arts baked into your genes.
Now, something else came up in our conversation with Effat that surprised us. It took us back one hundred years. You see, for most of Iranian history, people didn’t have formal last names, at least not in the way that we think of them.
But in the 1920s, the Shah decided it was time for the country to westernize. And one of the first things he did… was give everyone a formal last name. That single decision makes it hard to research any Iranian family… because a hundred years ago, it’s likely they had a totally different last name.
A perfect example of how confusing this can be is Effat’s last name, Ghanei…
Effat speaking in Farsi
Translator speaking in Farsi
Raha: Her father actually changed his last name from Daneshmand which means knowledgable to Ghanei. He just thought the name didn’t fit.
AJ: That’s very humble of him to change the name. What does the new name mean?
Raha: It’s also a very humble last name, it means whatever God has given you, you should not ask for more. You should be happy with what he has given you.
Did you know your great grandpa had changed his name?
Naz: No. I had no idea their last name was made up. And I feel this weird like sense of relief that he didn’t change his name to like Awesome Superstar or something you know. Naz: Um. I was saying like I want my kids to know that the parts of me that I’m – that I’m most proud of come from people they’ve never met. I think Hallajoon is the main person. She’s just incredibly poised and brave and strong. I don’t think without her influence would my mom have ever had the like courage to leave Iran. Like ever.
Ok, Nazanin. We’re moving onto your next relative …
our next story … It’s about the battle to stop one of the oldest diseases in the world… a disease that affected your family… and how that battle changed modern medicine.
Okay so, let’s go back to the map here. You see Effat? Uh. Now we’re going to take four steps to the right to get to your cousin Saeed and his wife Casey.
Naz: Mm hm.
And you know them. You know Saeed and Casey pretty well, right?
Naz: Yes I do, yeah I do.
When was your last time you saw them?
Naz: My last time seeing them was last year in Minnesota for my grandfather’s 90th birthday.
Naz: Which was the first time I had seen them in a long time.
Now you probably don’t know this, but Casey’s grandfather was one of seventeen children: Arnold, Billy, Pierce, Malcolm, John-Burnum, Annie-Mae, Mattie-Lou, Cecil, Maclyn, Huie, Hosie, Hershel, James, Howard, Hubert, Andrew, and Leona… Turner.
Naz: (laughs) That’s insane.
Fourteen Turner boys and three Turner girls. And we’re going to focus on just one of them for this story… John Burnum, or JB.
Like you and your family, JB had to leave his home… though his exile wasn’t political…. It was physical.
Tovia: I can just remember us coming in, I guess from outside playin. And he was coughing up blood.
This is Tovia McWhorter… She’s JB’s niece.
Tovia: And Mother was running to the telephone. And daddy came home early the next day, and took JB to the doctor. And then found out that he had TB. ..
Or, Tuberculosis. It’s among the oldest infectious diseases known to humans. It’s been killing us since the Stone Age… Literally. And by 1800, Tuberculosis had killed one in seven people who had ever lived.
Yeah. Just a crazy statistic.
Living and dying with TB was a fact of life for nearly all of human history. So.. .when JB heard the diagnosis, he knew what it meant. Back then, getting TB was basically a death sentence.
But today, that’s no longer the case… at least not in the United States. And that shift … is one of the greatest public health triumphs in history.
Narrator: Once it was a hopeless curse, but now thanks to our knowledge it can be brought under control.
This is a newsreel from 1937. See, the big reason that TB was so rampant… is that people had no idea where it came from. Most people thought it was hereditary. Or that it came from dirty air or water. Nobody thought TB was something that we could pass on to each other.
So, Nazanin… would you mind trying an experiment with me?
AJ: I like – I like your willingness.
Okay so I have some delicious ice cream – some Haagen Daz ice cream – and I’m going to take a big bite of it…
AJ: Mm. Mm mm mm mm mm. OK! Here, now you have some.
AJ: With the same spoon that I just used I only have one spoon.
Naz: I know. I um – I uh. Uhhh.
AJ: I should mention, 15 to 20 other people have also licked this spoon before I did and I have no
AJ: …idea who they are or where they’ve been. But have a taste.
Naz: Thank you but no thank you.
AJ: You’re gonna pass?
Naz: Yeah I’m gonna pass yes thank you. I know.
AJ: All right –
Naz: I know.
AJ: your – your loss. All right.
So obviously yes – a little gross – a lot gross – but it was actually a thing. People used to pay a penny for tastes of ice cream out of these little glasses. They were called penny licks, and-
Naz: Oh Jesus. that’s horrible.
It was like all of lower Manhattan sharing one sample spoon.
Naz: Wow. God. It’s like licking the subway pole or something.
AJ: It is totally.
Naz: It’s like paying to lick the subway pole.
AJ: But just a penny.
There’s a reason you think this is gross. In eighteen eighty-two a German scientist discovered the bacterium that causes TB. This was a big deal. Not just for how we understood TB, but for how we understood all infectious diseases. Back then… People were just coming around to the idea that germs were a real thing. And this TB bacterium? This was proof…
Narrator: Tuberculosis is caused by a germ so small, thousands could pass through a pinhole without crowding.
This new discovery led to a revolutionary new idea: that disease could be fought with awareness.
Organizations popped up to get the word out… they made newsreels and handed out pamphlets at schools and offices. They encouraged basic sanitary practices, like washing your hands and using your tissues — things that seem so obvious to us now.
And TB infection rates went down. On the face of it … all of this worked.
But… there was an unintended consequence: we became scared of each other.
People with suspicious coughs were evicted from their homes and refused jobs. Their names were made public. And finally… people with TB were quarantined.
That’s what happened to your relative… JB. After he got his diagnosis, JB was put away…
Tovia: He stayed with us for about a week while they found him a place, a sanatorium, for TB patients.
A sanatorium was a place where people with tuberculosis could be treated long term… A place where they could get fresh air, good nutrition, and rest. LOTS of rest.
And these sanatoria were everywhere… hundreds of them all across the United States.
Three miles away from where you got married in the Catskills?
There was one there: Ulster County Tuberculosis Sanatorium. And if you walk about a mile east from where we’re sitting right here at Gimlet Studios… there’s another one.
So on one level… Sanatoria were a way of curing patients. But on another… they were a convenient way to get the infected people out of the community.
Tovia: He had to go in this hospital, and, he was put in this room, and he wasn’t allowed to associate with anyone else. You don’t have a whole lot of human contact unless someone comes to see you and not too many people want to come see you. You know, kind of like you’re waiting to die.
Tovia described it as a prison for sick people. And it kind of was. People would hold their breath as they drove by. Some patients had their belongings and houses burned. People went in there and they were forgotten about.
But JB’s family, they made sure that never happened to him.
Tovia: You know my dad would go in to see his brother, and he would tell him that we were outside playing in the yard and he would just come to the window and wave at us. You know, it had to be heartbreaking for him. To know that, you know, he’d never be outside again.
JB spent a year in the sanatorium… but he wasn’t getting better. So he volunteered for a surgery that was so experimental half of the patients died.
Tovia: Because if they could do something to cure him or make him better, he wanted to try it because you know he couldn’t go anywhere, he couldn’t do anything. He didn’t have a life.
Sadly… JB died in surgery … He was thirty four years old.
It was 1957 when JB died. Around that time, the US finally got Tuberculosis under control… which meant that the old sanatoria – they weren’t really needed anymore. They turned into schools, resorts, assisted living facilities… The one near Gimlet? It’s now a fancy apartment building.
Places that were used to keep people away from the community… they have become places for people to gather.
Did you know anything about this?
Naz: No I didn’t know anything about this. That sounds horrible. To be sort of – like isolated in that way. Like I can’t believe that someone who was having that experience in the United States is tied to me in any way, you know what I mean?
Ok Naz, I’m just gonna check in real quick with our Mystery relative, so sit tight. Mystery Relative, I want to say hi, because you have quite a connection to this chapter of history, right? There was a sanitorium near your house.
Pat: Yeah… The one near my house was called Nopeming, it’s long gone now.
Pat: I mean you just knew that you didn’t go near there. you knew there were people with tuberculosis, and if you went near it, you were going to get it. The belief was you were just going to die. You didn’t want to get close to it.
But did you ever get close to it?
Pat My dad did a lot of social … I mean, he helped a lot of people. And I remember going to the Nopeming Sanatorium with him, he said, “You stay in the car, don’t want you exposed”. He went in, he came out, and and I did later test positive for exposure, that’s when my mother went ballistic. But I was put on a course of antibiotics, and I’ve never had trouble with it.
Alright, Mystery relative, we’ll be back with you in just a few minutes. Please sit tight.
How are you feeling, Naz?
Naz: I’m feeling excited how are you guys?
AJ: I’m excited.
Naz: Okay good.
AJ: Are you nervous are you uh exci-
Naz: Um – I’m I yeah. I’m –
Naz: I’m curious yeah I’m curious –
AJ: Curious is good.
Naz: And um yeah. Yeah.
I am very excited about our next stop… It’s a relative who is deeply connected to the arts… He’s 18 steps away from JB Turner… More than half our way to your mystery relative…
He’s in Massachusetts, 1803… He’s someone I’m pretty sure you’ve heard of, though maybe not someone you thought of as family… his name… Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Naz: [laughs] Okay. That is so weird. Um.
AJ: Cousin Ralph.
Naz: Yeah. Cousin Ralph. Um yes I know who that – I know who that is.
For those who are un… or maybe only vaguely familiar,
Naz: Uh huh
He’s often considered the father of American literature. He’s a poet and an essayist. He’s most famous for an essay called Self-Reliance.
But in our research we heard this story that totally changed how we thought about Emerson. And his influence on American culture.
In the early part of his life Emerson was a Unitarian minister. But in 1832, he quits. Leaves the clergy. And he’s not sure what to do with himself.
Einboden: He’s a little bit adrift.
This is Jeffrey Einboden an Emerson Scholar at Northern Illinois University. He says that Emerson did what lots of upper class 20-somethings do when they’re out of work… trying to figure things out… He went to Europe.
Einboden: And he makes his way up through Italy and france and eventually Britain.
And while Emerson’s in Britain… he goes to meet a hero of his… the famous poet, Samuel Coleridge. He goes over to Coleridge’s house… walks up the front stairs…
Einboden: And when Emerson climbs the stairs to go see coleridge, he’s expecting to see this great romantic master. Instead Coleridge is only a year away from death. So he’s in a state of illness and repose.
But all is not lost. On that same trip to England, Emerson came across another piece of literature that was arguably as influential on him as Coleridge’s… wandering through the streets of London, he ducked into a small bookstore. And while he was pacing through… one particular volume caught his eye… he wrote about it in his journal…
Einboden: He writes that he’s bought a copy of the Quran, the muslim scripture… an english copy of the Quran. And that he eventually we believe takes home with him to New England.
He bought a Quran… for 2 pence, 6 schilling. Remember that when you could get a book for 2 pence? Good days.
But it’s at this moment … that Emerson, the father of American literature, engages with a great western influence, Coleridge. And at the same time, engages with a great eastern influence… Islam.
See… While Emerson’s well known for his writing on Nature and Self-Reliance, he also wrote extensively about Persian poetry.
And Nazanin, this is how the lives of your ancestors in Tehran intersect with that of your distant relative in Massachusetts… Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Remember that poem your great aunt recited earlier in the show?
Effat reciting poetry
That poem was written by the Persian poet Saadi [SAH-dee].
In 1842, Ralph Waldo Emerson published one of his first major poems… it was called “Saadi.” In it, he takes on the name and voice of the Persian icon. It turns out Emerson was studying Saadi just a few years before your great grandfather was born in Tehran.
Saadi and the other Persian poets had an enormous impact on Emerson. He translated more than two thousand lines of persian poetry… he quoted it everywhere… in letters to friends… on the backs of envelopes. It’s all over his personal journals. In the 1850s, one poet referred to Emerson as “Our Concorde Saadi,” … as in Concord Massachusetts…. where Emerson lived. He said Emerson was, quote, “responding from today and America, over the ages and the sea, to the dead lyrist of Persia.”
Einboden: In some ways Emerson, he influenced a whole generation coming after him. Whitman, as well as Emily Dickinson, Emerson also heavily influenced Henry David Thoreau
Einboden calls this literary genealogy… the act of tying people and cultures together across borders, across languages… across time… by tracing their common influences… Influences like Saadi.
Emerson ends his essay “Persian Poetry” with a poem by Kermani, he’s another persian great. And it’s a poem about nostalgia for a former homeland… it reads in part:
Except the amber morning wind,
Not one salutes me here;
There is no lover in all Bagdat
To offer the exile cheer.
That poem is called “The Exile”
Naz: Hm. That’s beautiful. It makes me think of my parents. It just made me think about how it must have been for them. It was easy for me to like – blend in you know? But for my parents – it’s very lonely.
Naz: I think when you leave your country at that age, like my dad was 40 my mom was 30. You know you’re just not comfortable anymore like just –
Naz: in space.
AJ: It just doesn’t come naturally.
Naz: Nothing comes naturally.
We’re going to take a short break, but stick around… Because when we come back, we’ll meet our mystery relative.
Welcome back to Twice Removed. Nazanin… we have made it! We are at our final stop before your Mystery Relative. And it’s been quite the journey to get here… We’ve been to Tehran to Alabama, to a bookstore in London… but here we are, mere minutes from meeting your mystery relative. So… how you doing?
Naz: I don’t know I’m I’m sweaty. I’m nervous. I am! I’m nervous like my palms are sweating.
Yeah. Nazanin, we started out with the story of how your family came to this country. So for our last story, we thought we’d tell you how your mystery relative got here. And it’s from a very small part of the world in the nineteen-teens… And we land on a woman named Adelaide Lima Texeira.
OK, real quick here, I want to check in with our mystery guest.
Mystery guest, does the name Adelaide Lima Texeira ring a bell?
Mystery Relative: Yes it does! She’s my grandmother.
Uh, huh. What do you know about her?
Mystery Relative: She was born in the Azores, i think on san miguel island and came here with her first husband.
Well we’ve got a little more detail so hang tight. We’ll be right back.
Nazanin… Since you couldn’t hear that… Adelaide is our mystery guest’s grandmother.
AJ: Super close
Naz: Very exciting
So to learn more about Adelaide, we talked to another one of her granddaughters, Fran Conners.
Fran: I remember her as kind of short, kinda stocky lady, always remember her with grey hair, usually pulled back in a bun. And always in black clothing.”
Adelaide was born in 1891 on Sao Miguel, a remote Portuguese island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s part of a chain of islands called the Azores. And even though Sao Miguel is incredibly lush… the people there call it the green island…. there’s not a whole lot of opportunity.
And so at 23 years old, Adelaide and her husband Jacinto, gathered up their three kids, got on a boat…and left for a small town, unknown to most of the world. Fall River, Massachusetts.
Fall River was called the most Portuguese City in America. It was filled with people who’d left San Miguel. The backbone of the town was its cotton mills. “Spindle City” they called it. They were hard jobs, but good jobs. And jobs were the key. Most people coming over, like Adelaide… didn’t have much.
Fran: well she brought all of her possessions in steamer trunks, I know at least one because I have it now.
But Adelaide and Jacinto’s new life together in America… it lasted just nineteen days.
Fran: her husband died, and
Fran: he contracted some kind of nasty thing, so she came to a new country with three young children and lost her husband. That must have been very frightening. I think she had to be a pretty strong willed woman to survive that, being a young mother and a young widow.
Now remember, Nazanin, at the very beginning of our show, you said you wanted your kids to know that there are parts of your personality that come from people they’ve never met. Things like your great aunt’s kindness and strength. Well, those are the same sorts of things Fran remembers about Adelaide. More than dates and details… it’s Adelaide’s personality that is passed down through the generations…
… her strong will.
Fran: when she was you know bedridden, I used to go in the room and sit with her. I had to be maybe 7 years old, and she did actually teach me to crochet, and I made one long strand of crocheted yarn and then I didn’t know what to do with it, and she said let’s take that, and she tied it to the foot of the hospital bed, which it was iron railings, and when she wanted to sit up she would pull on that, to help pull herself sit up in the bed.” so that yeah, that just came back to me when we were talking about her. So maybe I got some of that strength and gumption from her, I don’t know.
It’s through memories like this that Fran understands herself. And I imagine that’s also true of your mystery relative… Who’s Adelaide’s other granddaughter…
Do you want to meet Adelaide’s granddaughter… your mystery relative?
Naz: Yes. Yes I do.
All right mystery relative! Come on in!
Mystery Relative: Hello.
Naz: Hi. I, I’m Nazanin.
AJ: Nazanin — so here is your mystery relative… do you have any idea who this is?
Naz: Yes. Hi!
Mystery Relative: Hello!
Naz: I do not.
AJ: Can I give you some clues?
AJ: Okay. You met in Minnesota –
Naz: We did?
AJ: Uh huh.
Mystery Relative: Mm hm.
AJ: It’s been 30 years since you last saw her.
AJ: You might not be in America if it weren’t for her.
Naz: Are you Pat?
Naz: Oh my God. Hi!
AJ: they are hugging people.
Pat: – see you again!
Naz: Oh hi!
AJ: It’s a good long hug.
Naz: Yeah. Um. Well I can tell people who she is. Pat is the woman – is the lawyer who helped us stay in the country.
So Pat… how long has it been since you’ve seen Nazanin?
Pat: It’s been about 30 years.
AJ: 30 –
Pat: She was just a little girl last time I saw her.
Naz: My memory of you is like – you had like uh 80’s hairstyle and you had like blue eyeliner and you just seemed like so in charge. Cause I think one of the things that happens is that like your parents who are like the people who always used to know what was going on – they did not know what was going on anymore and like you seem – you were a person who was like gonna make it okay. Which in those days was a rare feeling. It was hard to know who to trust. And it was scary. And you’re definitely like a person I’ve always been like grateful for. I would never assume you remember us or my family at all.
Pat: Oh yeah. I just remember this wonderful family. With these two wonderful little girls. Who just so desperately needed to stay here.
Naz: Were we a special case – did – was that your work?
Pat: That was my work –
Pat: and it still is.
Naz: It still is.
Naz: Is to help refugees stay in the country.
So, Pat… Can you tell us just a little more about what you did for for Naz’s family. Like how did they come to you and what did you do for them?
Pat: I’ll say I think they came to me through other clients –
Naz: Mm hm.
Pat: Because I was representing an awful lot of Iranians at the time. And so what they really had to do was sit down and talk about what had happened and what would happen if they went back.
AJ: And what would happen?
Pat: Well in particular, I think the focus was on Mina on your mom. And on what would happen to Iranian women who simply could not live under the restrictions that the Islamic republic had put on them.
AJ: Like what would happen if if a woman didn’t wear a hijab?
Pat: You could be arrested on the street you could be thrown in prison. Um, I think there was at that time even throwing acid on women’s faces if they did not wear it correctly. It was horrific. And we had to get the US government to actually recognize women as what’s called a particular social group.
Pat: Because at the time they said well no there’s too many Iranian women. Well we managed to narrow it to Iranian women who oppose the Islamic Republic. And what I’ve always said to people is – anyone who thinks that Iranian women are not strong has never met an Iranian woman. Because these were women who were protecting their families by any means necessary. You probably remember sitting in the waiting room at immigration.
Pat: And we all had to sit through that and and to tell the officer what was happening in Iran and why they couldn’t go back.
AJ: how much was riding on those meetings? What was at stake?
Pat: Everything. Their lives were at stake. If they went back to Iran, the chances that they would all survive I thought was pretty slim. Not only because of the war but because of the political issues, because of Mina’s objection to everything that was happening to women in Iran. Somebody, probably Mina, was gonna end up in prison. Ending up in prison – there was a high probability she would end up dead. It was literally life and death.
Naz: and what’s – what Pat’s saying like – it certainly is like – it – I mean my mom – or my sister – a little girl who wants to be like a boxer like. You know it’s it’s hard for that person to to grow up in Iran I think. It’s strange because you did this for us and like – changed our whole – like just changed our entire lives and then we see – don’t see each other for 30 years – you know it’s just like a — it’s like not an exaggeration to say that like – I wouldn’t ha-have any of the things that I have if you hadn’t helped us.
Pat, How many people have you helped over the years?
Pat: Well if you’d like to know how many closed files I have? – 3000.
AJ: 3000 people in America.
Pat: Over – well and that’s families.
AJ: 3000 families.
Pat: so there’s more in most of those files than just one person.
Pat: When I look at the number I go, who did this? I mean – it just doesn’t seem like it’s been that long and that many people. But it does feel like I’ve – I’ve lived what my mother taught me to live. Which is you never – you never ever turn your back if you can possibly help it. because if you do, worse things will happen.
Naz: when you’re a kid like people are protecting you and you don’t even know. You know? That’s Pat. Like for me and my family. Like there are these people in my life, who like like my great aunt, who i think about and i think like that’s a person who’s had this huge impact on me who I haven’t seen for 30 years, and you’re like that. You are this person who changed my life.
AJ: Thank you so much for being here. And uh – any parting words? Well they’re not parting forever, you know. I don’t wanna make – I don’t want – you guys can hang out as long as you want.
Naz: Any parting words for the purposes of this podcast.
AJ: That’s right.
Pat: Yeah. Yeah. I – you know I I really – I think I’m a little bit overwhelmed in terms of any parting words because when people move on they’re moving on with their lives and i don’t see what happens thirty years down the road how, what someone has does with their lives that they now have a family, that you know… it leaves you saying well, you did something good. And I’m really proud of you, and I’m proud of what you’ve done.
Naz: Thank you. Um – I think – It’s just like thank you. Like thank you for – for not just everything you’ve… Not just everything you’ve done for my family but like – thank you for like doing this for other people. um. I don’t know I – I…I hope you know – I think you do but I just like really hope you know the what you’re doing for people you know? But really thank you. Is – the the parting words.
Ted Allen’s family tree is a buffet of culinary amateurs, that suggest his Food Network stardom might be genetic. From baristas, to royal dinner guests, to a celebrity diet icon, Ted’s family tree shows that one of the best ways to look at history is food. We’ll tell these stories and introduce Ted to a mystery relative.
I’m A.J. Jacobs, and this is Twice Removed, the show that proves we are in fact one big family.
Right now, I have two people in this building, in separate studios. What they do not realize is they’re related. They’re family. One of them… our mystery relative will be hidden away until the end of the episode.
The other… is sitting right here with me… he’s our guest… Go ahead and introduce yourself:
TED: My name is Ted Allen, I’m the host of Chopped and Chopped Junior on the Food Network.
And for those who haven’t seen the show, Ted, Chopped is a cooking competition show. A bunch of chefs are given mystery ingredients and then have to prepare a dish in some insane amount of time. Like, 20 minutes.
Ted on Chopped: Four chefs, three courses, only one chance to win.
Ted: We’ve been doing that for about seven and a half years to my astonishment. We’ve made about 450 episodes of that show.
AJ: Wow. Thats uh, that’s a lot of food.
Ted: That’s a lot of food, and some of it’s good.
Ted: Uh and some of it’s not.
Some of you might know Ted as the food and wine expert on Queer Eye For the Straight Guy back in the early 2000s. You’ve won two James Beard awards. Dined with some of the best chefs in the world… To sum it up… you like food.
Ted: Yes! Yes!
AJ: But, if i’m not mistaken, growing up, food was not exactly a high art in your home. You were born and raised in Ohio, with roots in the deep South. So, what was food like for you as a kid?
Ted: My dad would take a can of salmon. You can get salmon in a can, if you didn’t know that. Uh, it still has bones in it, but they get soft enough that you can actually just mash them up and eat them.
Ted: It’s so nasty. He would dump canned salmon into a bowl, squirt ketchup on it, mash it into a paste with a fork, and eat it on saltine crackers. Have you ever heard of that?
AJ: I have never heard of that, but it sou- Have you tried it recently? Does it take you back, like Proust’s madeleine?
Ted: I can taste it like it was yesterday, and I loved it. Food is such a powerful trigger of memory. For some reasons it’s just one of the things that you remember best about people when they’re gone. I can make banana pudding that tastes exactly like my grandmother’s banana puddings, and it just transports me.
AJ: So… salmon and ketchup. Banana pudding… Any other special meals that you remember from your childhood?
Ted: My mom had a friend named Dee, who I remember a dinner party she threw with, individual beef wellingtons, which was the thing at the time, And, and I’m sure it was from Julia Child, or at least inspired by her, if not straight from one of her cookbooks.
AJ: Did you watch, uh, Julia Child growing up?
Ted: I remember, yeah, uh, uh, I remember a black-and-white TV in the kitchen with rabbit ears on it…. And, and that voice.
AJ: And how is your Julia Child impression?
Ted: You must never, never cut the lettuce. You must tear the … It’s not very good.
Ted: Um, I probably learned as much … I mean, uh, then o-, then of course I remember the Saturday Night Live impersonations of her, um, and Dan Akroyd with the Bassomatic.
AJ: Yeah, a lot of Julia Child impressions are impressions of Dan Akroyd doing …
(laughs)… Julia Child.
Ted: That’s probably what I just did. Ma- mangling it.
Alright, Ted. Here’s how Twice Removed works. We’ve spent the last several months doing research, talking to historians and distant relatives… finding people related to you.
So Ted, here’s a chart and on the far left side, that’s you… And on the far right side, is your mystery relative… their name is covered up, as you can see…because, they’re a mystery.
And in between the two of you are eighty family members, all connected by blood or marriage.
We’re going to make our way straight through this chain of relatives, one relative to the next… to the next… to the next… all the way to number eighty one … and that’s your mystery relative.
AJ: So, Are there any family mysteries you’re hoping we’ll uncover?
Ted: I would like to think that we come from a family of innkeepers with fabulous pubs that serve delightfully English things like grouse, uh, and, and make wonderful ales, and of course everybody would love to know that they had a relative in the House of Lords or something, but I think i- if that ever happened in the Allen family history, somebody became a bad seed somewhere along the line.
Ted: Because there, you know, there are a lot of stories in my family, not of bad behavior, but of just rough luck. Uh, but I eagerly await learning of blacksmiths and longshoremen and roustabouts and interesting characters. I hope you find them.
TED: I would be very grateful if you do.
AJ: We’re gonna look for some roustabouts, some carnies perhaps.
TED: Carnies, w-, now that I can see. (laughs)
TED: We were, uh, we’re not a fancy lot.
Now, today, Ted, we’re gonna stop at seven people in between you and your mystery relative… and we’re gonna tell their stories.
Some are big stories, some are small stories… but they all have one thing in common… food. Your family members are a window into the food of the past… We’ve got a rifle-toting barista, we’ve got an 18th century celebrity diet icon, and despite your claims to not being from a fancy lot, we have managed to find ourselves a lord.
Ted: No kidding?
AJ: Yeah, well sort of.
Ted: That’s cool.
AJ: Yeah, we didn’t … we actually had no idea what a lord was.
Ted: I don’t know what a roustabout is and I said that …
Ted: … earlier, so …
AJ: So we’re gonna find out together …
And at the end of the show… after we’ve made our way to the end of this chain… we’re gonna bring your mystery relative into the studio… for a family reunion like no other.
Are you excited?
Ted: Can’t wait.
Alright! let’s do it!
OK, Ted. For our first stop today we are taking to the field of battle. We’re traveling to the American South for some culinary improvisation.
If you look at this map, we’re going to go four steps away from you. Past your father, past his mother, past her father, and we land on Thomas Andrew Byrd. That’s your great-great-grandfather. He was a soldier for the Confederate Army.
Ted: That’s the one whose eight-by-10 picture was in my grandma and grandpa’s house. Has, has to have been.
AJ: What did the photo look like?
It was a full-length photo. He was wearing the uniform, looking, glowering, as people
did in photos, holding his rifle, if I’m not mistaken. I don’t even know whether he survived the war.
AJ: Well we have … We can tell you.
Ted: Oh, cool.
So Ted it turns out there’s this really amazing resource about your family. It’s an obscure book that chronicles the life of your ancestors. There’s only one copy in New York. So we went and found it.
AJ: Here we are in the Milstein Division of the New York Public Library, surrounded by thousands of obscure books, and we’ve got one of the most obscure right here in front of us, Byrd History and Related Families of Averett, Calloway, Chancey, and Gough, by Tara Byrd Averett, Enterprise, Alabama. This is what we’ve been looking for.
Now the first thing I should say is that this book is massive.
AJ: That’s a good thud.
Ted: I thought you’d been shot. (laughs)
AJ: No, that was the actual thud.
Now Ted, this book is more than 900 pages. It’s basically a scrapbook on steroids, and there are newspaper clippings about your family going back centuries.
Ted: Well I’m flabbergasted. I had no idea about that. [laughs] I wonder if my mom knows.
AJ: Let me take a picture of that
So this book, this massive tome was compiled by a distant relative of yours named Tara Byrd Averett, and amidst the hundreds of Byrds, hundreds of pages, on page 542, we found lots of stuff about your great-great-grandfather,
There are letters from people who remember Thomas… even old newspaper articles where he was interviewed.
And here’s what we learned. We know Thomas grew up on your family’s ancestral farm, which was built in 1813. it was a big farm filled with cows and pigs, which were sometimes eaten by alligators, as happened in 19th century Alabama.
Ted: That still happens.
AJ: (laughs) Does it?
Ted: Not to my family.
Oh, okay. (laughs) we have pictures of him. This is him as an older man. This is at age 86 sitting next to your great-great-grandmother Katie.
Ted: He looks like fun, doesn’t he? (laughs)
AJ: Yeah. Look. (laughs) How would you describe that for people?
He’s got a big, bushy, white, droopy mustache and a, and a pronounced scowl.
AJ: And here are some more pictures. This might be the picture that you had in your …
Ted: In my grandparent’s house.
AJ: Yes. Is that the one you recognize?
Ted: Yes, that’s the one, and was he decorated? Looks like he’s got some badges on him.
AJ: Well we’re gonna get to it.
Ted: Oh boy. Okay.
Okay Ted, come along with me to 1861… Thomas has just gotten word that Alabama is joining the Confederate war effort. About 120,000 men joined the fight from Alabama. Thomas fought on the front lines for two of the war’s four years.
At the Battle of Noonday Creek, about a year before the end of the Civil War, Thomas was charging the Union Army in Georgia, (sound design starts) and he said, “Five bullets cut through my clothes without even grazing my skin, and I had about decided I would just go straddle the Yankee cannon.” And at that moment, a mini-ball, as they called bullets back then, hit him in the right leg and sent him tumbling to the ground. His buddies had to go drag him out of the line of fire. And all the while, he’s yelling, “Make it hot!” which we think is slang for, “Get your asses in gear.”
Now Ted, since food is such a big part of your life, as we traced your family history, we couldn’t help but wonder about your ancestors’ meals…. what they would’ve cooked, or eaten, and drank. And when we dug into Thomas’ life, we found a story of real ingenuity. And, it’s organic.
Right at the start of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln announced a naval blockade. All ports in the American South were essentially shut down. Nothing could get in or out. And the one thing confederate soldiers missed almost more than anything else. More than bullets… more than rifles… was coffee.
Ted: I was gonna guess whiskey.
Ted: They couldn’t get coffee. Well, wow.
And it was clear the soldiers couldn’t just skip a cup and get on with their day. A warm, bitter drink did a huge amount for morale. In fact, at Antietam, there’s this monument to William McKinley, and it commemorates the moment that he braved enemy gunfire to bring his fellow Union soldiers a hot round of coffee.
Ted: So I would, I imagine that the scarcity of coffee f-, drove them to make, to come up with coffee substitutes.
Exactly. Soldiers, like your great-great-grandfather Thomas, came up with other things that you could dry out, grind up, and pour water over to get a hot, coffee-like beverage. And there were lots of these substitutes, peas, cotton seeds, parched corn, some people literally used tree bark. And one of the most popular recipes was for okra coffee.
(Actor) Mr. Archer Griffith of Alabama gives us the following directions for preparing okra seed as a substitute for coffee.
This recipe is from the Southern Banner of Athens, Georgia, February 11th, 1863.
(Actor) He expresses himself as highly pleased with the beverage. Parch over a good fire and stir well until it is dark brown. Then take off the fire. Put the same quantity of seed in the coffee pot as you would coffee, boil well, and settle as coffee.
Ted: Doesn’t really sound that appetizing.
AJ: Well we’ve got good news for you. You are (laughs) gonna be able to know firsthand whether this is a good-
Ted: Oh wow.
Ted: Okay, cool.
AJ: So uh, yeah, we went ahead and decided to make some Confederate coffee of our own.
AJ: I am going to pour us the Confederate coffee. We have okra grounds.
Ted: Smells terrible.
Ted: It really s-, it really does smell terrible. (laughs)
AJ: (laughs) Look at that.
Ted: okay here we go. (sips)
Ted: It tastes a lot better than it smells.
AJ: Well you’re very brave for drinking it not just once, but several sips.
Ted: Well it’s really not half bad.
AJ: Look at that. We got the thumbs up from Ted Allen for substitute coffee.
Ted: I mean I’m… I’m calling it plausible. I’m not calling it delicious.
AJ: Okay, thumbs slightly up, sideways.
Ted: It’s better … It’s much … It’s not bad. It’s much, much better than I would have thought.
AJ: So you are ready to open this Brooklyn artisanal café of okra coffee.
Ted: A.J., we are, you and I are both one idea away from never having to work again.
Ted: This could be it.
Alright, Ted. Now that you’re hydrated, we’re moving on to our next story, your next relative, and a couple steps closer to your mystery relative, who is waiting patiently to meet you.
Our next stop on your family chain is just two generations back from Thomas, about 50 years earlier… 1800 or so. That’s when Thomas’s grandfather, your fourth great-grandfather, settled down in Alabama. Thomas Andrews was his name, and Thomas the elder was a farmer. He farmed sugarcane, corn, cotton, and… he was a slave owner.
Is this something your family talked about when you were growing up?
Ted: I had never- No one had ever told me anyone in my family had been a slaveholder. I mean the number one question I have is Is there any information about the slaves? do we know any information about the slaves? Do we know who those folks are?
AJ: Very little. We know there were six families. we know that they lived on shacks on the property. We know that the foreman was a slave named Ned. They called him Crosseyed Ned. And that’s pretty much the extent.
Ted: Crosseyed Ned… I guess I never really connected myself that much to it, to slavery, to that legacy of discrimination. Learning that we had slaveholders in our past makes you question. And I’m a descendant of people who grew up in the Confederacy. A corrupt, bankrupt, oppressive, horrifying, brutal institution that tore our country in half. And to think my ancestors played a part in that is painful.
We don’t know much about the people your ancestors enslaved. But we do know that enslaved people influenced southern culture in lots of ways. And we called up historian Jessica B. Harris to talk about one of them..… how enslaved Africans changed American kitchens…
Harris: Well who was cooking? The African hand in the pot of the South is what makes Southern food distinctive.
Harris is a food historian and one of the foremost experts on Southern cooking. She actually helped design the restaurant at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in DC.
She’s also a huge fan of one of the ingredients we’ve been talking about today.
Harris: I like okra just about any way you can make it. I like it, you know, just steamed okra. I eat okra pods if they’re really small and delicate. I eat them raw.
So you see, the history of Southern cooking is wrapped up in the history of slavery. Okra, the ingredient in that coffee you’re drinking, it’s a big part of that history. Harris says it’s a vegetable that actually made its way to the U.S. from Africa during the slave trade.
AJ: Was it the slaves who brought it over, do you know, or was it the, the people-
Harris: Slaves didn’t get a chance to pack. Let’s start there, because if you had a chance to pack, you’d get the heck out of dodge. (laughs)
AJ: Nowadays, okra and gumbo are inextricably linked with Southern cooking, but it all started with the enslaved cooks preparing food for their white captors, and it wasn’t just okra that came into Southern cooking this way.
Harris: The enslaved cooks left all sorts of techniques behind, frying in deep oil, one of those techniques that is really well done in the South. I think (laughs) nobody really needs to ask where the Colonel got his recipe.
Harris: Black-eyed peas I think people might suspect came from the African continent, but watermelon, I think that’s m-, unexpected when it is such a part of, generally speaking, an American summer that most people don’t think of it as something that came from the African continent.
By the early 1800s, all sorts of dishes created by enslaved chefs started making their way into white family cookbooks, and the recipes started spreading throughout the South.
Ted: And persist to this day all over the country. It’s, it’s remarkable how, how that became what is now considered Southern cooking.
Right, and with all of this, you can’t help but think of those Confederate soldiers using okra to make their coffee.
AJ: So what do you make of the fact that the enslavers were using the products of the
enslaved’s homeland, ultimately to fight to maintain slavery?
Harris: That’s called America. There are Southerners today who eat fried okra and love fried okra and have no idea of its origins. And we don’t, we don’t tell our full stories. And we never have.
All right, we’re gonna take a quick break, and when we come back we will meet Ted’s next relative, a colonial beekeeper.
AJ: And we keep getting closer to meeting our mystery cousin, they are in the building.
Ted: Oh no!
AJ: Yes, we’re keeping them hidden away.
Ted: Oh my gosh.
But not for much longer… after these words from our sponsors.
Welcome back to Twice Removed. We’re tracing the family history of Ted Allen, host of Chopped on the Food Network. We’re on our way to Ted’s mystery cousin, and we’ve made it back to his fourth great-grandfather, Thomas Andrews.
Okay, Ted. For our next story we are taking you back to the moment your family arrives in America.
So on that map in front of you, Ted. From Thomas Andrews, your fourth great-grandfather, we’ll go down one step to his daughter, over to her husband, and back six generations… 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6… and we wind up at George and Sarah Sutton, who immigrated to the United States in the 1600’s…
AJ: From England!
Ted: From England.
AJ: That is correct, George was actually born in Sandwich, so we’re keeping with the food theme here Ted.
Ted: Come on, I love sandwiches!
AJ: There you go.
Ted: I just had one.
AJ: It’s genetic.
AJ:It’s gotta be.
AJ: Now he was pretty poor, so to pay his way, he acted as a servant for another person making the trip, a man named Nathaniel Tilden. We have the record of that ship right here.
AJ: They made the trek across the Atlantic, which likely took about six weeks. That was a hard schlep.
Ted: I bet, although if George was a servant to someone affluent, at least George was p-, I presume, spending some of his time in their quarters, which was probably relatively nice, right?
AJ: I don’t even, I don’t think there was a first-class.
Ted: Okay, so, and-
AJ: I mean, they might’ve been slightly better, but you are on there, you are, it’s cramped, you are seasick, you are eating hardtack, which is like really bad matzo.
So they made the trek across the Atlantic and they landed in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in April of 1634. Settling down in the town of Scituate. Now as I’m sure you can imagine, Ted, six weeks on a ship, emotions running high, you know that there are at least a couple of shipboard romances. Think Titanic but with less frozen death. And it seems like your ninth great-grandfather, George, was a part of one of those romances. With one of the boss’s daughters, Sarah.
Ted: Aha! And how did dad feel about that I wonder.
AJ: It doesn’t say.
Ted: It doesn’t say, but you could just guess. (laughs)
AJ: So two years later they get married and start a family, your family.
Now, besides a sweet love story, two things of note in this part of your tree. First, Sarah’s father, Nathaniel, when he died, he left 10 swarms of bees in his will. It’s one of the earliest record we have of beekeeping in the colonies.
Ted: Come on! That would be pretty amazing. I mean, I have beehives on my roof right now.
AJ: You do?
Ted: Yeah, they’re vacant because we failed. (laughs) We kept them going for several years. But that’s fascinating to me to hear.
I know, I love the possibility that your bees were descendants of your 10th great-grandfather’s bees.
So the beekeeping was one highlight. The second item of note is that though they landed in New England, your family did eventually move south. George and Sarah left Massachusetts because of religious persecution. They were Quakers, but Massachusetts was extremely intolerant of Quakers. So your family, George and Sarah, migrated south to North Carolina, a newer colony, much more open to non-Puritan religions. It’s surprising, given that the story we often hear is that the immigrants came to America to practice religious freedom, and here they were being persecuted in America.
Ted: Past is prologue, isn’t it?
Ted: You know, when we started this, I said how interesting it would be just to know what little town from whence we came, uh, you could go visit that place and feel something, but to learn that we had Quakers, to learn that we had Northerners, to learn that those people had to flee to a different part, is really rich, it’s really, really fascinating.
For our next few stories Ted, we’re crossing the Atlantic… We’re retracing the path your ancestors took, back to England… our first stop… the fifteen hundreds. We’re about 17 steps away from you on our chain here… that’s where we meet your ancestor… Rowland Hayward.
He’s your second cousin 13 times removed. He was a merchant, an adventurer, and by many accounts.
Carole: Oh he is an amazing man.
That was Carole Levin. She’s the director of the Medieval and Renaissance Program at the University of Nebraska Lincoln. And she’s a huge fan of Elizabethan history. And Rowland Hayward makes a very interesting cameo in her work.
Rowland was living in England in the mid-1500s, and this is right when London is beginning to expand as a global and economic cultural center. There are 80,000 people in the city, it’s full of merchants, full of beggars, they’re shouting as you walk by. Also, it smells terrible. The River Thames is basically the city’s collective outhouse.
He was widely known in the textile industry. He dealt in silk and fabric exports. But that’s not all.
Carole: In 1570, he became Lord Mayor of London himself.
Ted: Come on!
Carole: He was known as one of the great Lord Mayors of Elizabethan London.
Ted: Holy cow! (laughs) So it wasn’t all just roustabouts … (laughs)
AJ: You got your lord!
Ted: The Lord Mayor of London. To think that we would’ve had somebody who was actually respectable …
Ted: … in Elizabethan E- England is fantastic to me.
AJ: You are the-
Ted: The Lord Mayor of London!
AJ: You are a descendant of lords.
Now because of his position, Rowland Hayward was actually invited to one of the most exclusive meals in the history of Western civilization. In the year 1559, Sir Rowland Hayward attended the coronation feast of none other than Queen Elizabeth the First.
As you probably know, Queen Elizabeth is one of the most significant monarchs in history. Famously the redheaded virgin queen. She ruled for about 45 years. And her coronation feast was about as grand an event as you can imagine.
AJ: It would have been in a great hall. Lit by candlelight. Giant tables fill the room. And sitting at one of those tables? Your ancestor, Rowland Hayward.
Carole: That was a great honor for him as quite a young man. He’d be wearing a beautiful doublet, hose, which are kind of like tights, probably a cloak.
And out comes the food, serving after serving of food.
Stuart: The first wave of the meal, you start off with 16 major dishes. So this could be something like a kid with a pudding in the belly or a goose or whatever. And at the period you might’ve been able to get a hold of swan, but nowadays the Queen owns them all so we’re not allowed to attack those. (laughs)
This is Stuart Peachey. He’s a living historian on a farm in England, which means he gets paid to farm, cook, and eat like they would in the Elizabethan era. Now Stuart says we don’t have the complete menu from the coronation, but we actually do have a pretty good idea of what a typical wealthy person’s feast would have looked like in the mid-1500s. It started with 16 major dishes.
Stuart: And you have 16 minor dishes alongside that, so little fried dishes, things like side salads, so 32 dishes in the first wave.
AJ: That’s insane.
Stuart: Hang on, hang on, we’re not there yet. You then have either two or three waves. So you’re looking at 96 dishes.
AJ: 96 dishes?
Stuart: Oh no no no, we haven’t finished yet. That’s for the feast. Now when you finish the feast, you go either to a different building or to a different room and you start the banquet. Um, and then it might easily be just for a, a small-scale one like this, say another 48, 50 dishes, so something like 150 dishes.
AJ: That is pathological.
Now one of the most interesting parts of the coronation banquet would’ve been the dessert. Are you familiar with sugarworks?
Ted: I’m not.
Well sugarworks are these elaborate sculptures made of sugar or marzipan. They would flatten it and then they would sculpt it. So we had to see if we could recreate one of these sugarworks, and luckily we found a bakery here in New York to help us out. So, why don’t we go ahead and bring it in.
Ted: Wow. A swan.
AJ: This is a swan made completely of sugar.
Ted: That is beauti- … You can get anything in this town. (laughs) So this is a s-, a, a beautiful, translucent, white swan, about eight inches tall, the feathers look to have been s-, individually made and then stuck on, or maybe they were carved. It’s quite elegant.
So this is a near replica of a dish that your ancestor Roland Hayward would’ve eaten at the coronation, and there would’ve been lots of sugarworks like this. I feel a little guilty because it’s such a beautiful sculpture, but I, I do think we have to try it. We have to break off part of the swan.
Ted: The tips of the wings will co-, probably … Oh, it’s actually …
AJ: You don’t want to, uh, behead. You don’t want to have a-
Ted: Well we could. We could. I mean it’s, so it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s just, it’s, it’s sugar that’s been molten and then sort of carved?
AJ: Oh, I just ripped off the whole wing.
Ted: You ripped the whole wing off.
AJ: Um …
Ted: Could use a little bit of acidity. A little bit of citric acid …
Ted: … would be, would be nice, a little orange or something. But it’s real-, it’s so beautiful, and you can just imagine in a, a great hall filled with these fantastic sculptures.
AJ: It is amazing.
Our next stop, is just a pit stop, really. We’re gonna go back in time 100 years. Pretty far back, but I think you’ll be able to relate to this one. We’re gonna go about 20 steps on our chain, to your next ancestor… a man named Robert Drury. Born in 1454 in Suffolk, England. Does that name ring a bell to you, Ted? Robert Drury?
Ted: Not at all.
I’m nearly positive you’ve heard the name before. Take a listen to this.
Brittany: (singing – ‘Do you know the muffin man, the muffin man, the muffin man. Do you know the muffin man who lives on drury lane?)
Ted: I’ve heard that.
So Robert Drury is the namesake of Drury Lane, the same Drury Lane made famous by the children’s rhyme “Do You Know the Muffin Man.” So Ted Allen, you are related to Mr. Drury Lane himself. You two share a 15th great-grandmother.
Ted: That’s spectacular. And was he actually himself the muffin man or did he-
AJ: He was not the muffin man.
Ted: He was not the muffin man.
AJ: But he was very integral to the muffin man’s existence.
We did some research to figure out exactly why the muffin man lived on Drury Lane and what it would’ve been like.
Robert Drury was this wealthy man. He was Speaker of the House in London’s Parliament. And he built this enormous mansion on an old road back at the end of the 15th century.
And this road was named Drury Lane, after him. Now when he first built the home, the road was pretty quiet, but over time as the house was passed down through the generations, Drury Lane became something much more sinister than that children’s rhyme….Because three hundred years later, the house had been turned into a pub, and Drury Lane had become one of the sleaziest streets in London.
Actor: In our way the coach drove through a lane by Drury Lane, where an abundance of loose women stood at the doors.
AJ: Well that was (laughs) from-
Ted: That, that’s the kind of legacy I was looking for. (laughs)
(laughs) That, I believe, that was from a member of Parliament. That was Samuel Pepys writing in his famous diary.
Actor: Which, God forgive me, did put evil thoughts in me, but proceeded no further.
Blessed be God.
Ted: Yeah right.
You don’t trust Samuel. Now, there were said to have been more than 107 pleasure houses on Drury Lane. And there’s this famous set of paintings by Hogarth called A Harlot’s Progress, which is like this old-time comic strip, and it shows a young woman moving to London, becoming a prostitute, going to prison, and dying of syphilis, all on Drury Lane.
Ted: Well that went well.
(laughs) SO, The muffin man in the song is probably referencing a street vendor. At the time, English muffins were the equivalent of halal meat or the hot dogs you might get on the street here in New York …
Ted: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
They were cheap food, just, meant to fill up your belly.
Ted: That’s cool.
Drury Lane MUSIC
Okay so Ted… we have made it… our last story before you get to meet your mystery relative…
Ted: I can’t wait!
So, while Drury Lane was a hotbed of vice and corruption… at the same time … on a different street in London, Holles Street … your next ancestor was born. Now Ted, I know you’re very concerned about being related to roustabouts… but actually… there are some very fancy people in your family. You’ve got members of Parliament. You got a Lord Mayor of London. And now, 15 steps away from Robert Drury, you’ve got one of the great Romantics of all time, Lord Byron.
Ted: You’ve gotta be kidding me.
AJ: No, another lord.
Ted: The Byron?
AJ: The Byron.
Ted: The poet Byron?
AJ: Yes, another writer like yourself.
Ted: I don’t know that I would compare myself, my writing to that of Byron, but um, I, I do write.
AJ: (laughs) You both are in the same general area. So Lord Byron is your 12th cousin four times removed.
Louise: And Lord Byron was born into the british aristocracy, born in 1788, died in 1824. pale and beautiful. He was a terribly clever young man.
This is Louise Foxcroft. She is a Fellow at Magdalen College in Cambridge and author of Calories and Corsets, a book about the history of eating habits. Lord Byron was most famous as a poet known throughout the Western world. He wrote poems like “She Walks In Beauty,” and perhaps most notably, “Don Juan.”
Actor: Man, being reasonable, must get drunk. The best of life is but intoxication, glory, the grape, love, gold. In these are sunk the hopes of all men and of every nation.
Louise: Yeah, he was, he was one of the original bad boys. I, I mean his reputation was infamous. Uh, his life was full of scandal, and he did relish that and played up to it, and in fact he would escape to Europe whenever a scandal got too great, you know, an affair with a married woman, he had various children all over the place.
He was this turn of the century celebrity, and in that right, he was also a bit of a celebrity pioneer.
Louise: Well, I would argue that Byron was the first celebrity dieter.
Now Lord Byron is mostly remembered as this slight, beautiful man, but like the best of us, he actually had a lot of demons lurking in the pantry.
Louise: Contemporaries said of him that he had a morbid propensity to, to fatten. Um, as T.S. Eliot said, he’s g-, he had quite a pudgy face. And as George Elliot, um, recorded him as having the horror of fat. So he obviously did put on weight very, very easily.
AJ: What was Lord Byron’s diet? What did he eat? What did he eat on an average day?
Louise: One of his favorite diets was just, uh, wine and water with biscuits, and then something else he would eat would be potatoes flattened, by which I assume he means mashed, um, soaked in vinegar.
Now, what’s most astonishing about this fixation on his weight, it’s not just speculation. We actually have a record of what Lord Byron weighed at different points in his life. As you know, there were no bathroom scales, but, if someone wanted to learn badly enough what they weighed, there were methods.
Louise: The wine merchants in St. James in London, Berry Brothers and Rudd, they had hanging scales there, and lots of the dandies of the day would go there and weigh themselves. And Berry Brothers and Rudd kept, um, a record book, so you can still see the record of Byron’s weight zipping up and down, you know, as he was dieting.
We know that he weighed himself first in 1806 when he was 18, and he weighed at 13-stone 12 pounds at that point, which is borderline obese. By 1811 he was back under nine-stone, so that’s a five-stone loss.
Oh and we did the calculations and that’s about a 70 pound weight loss… so, pretty serious.
Louise: Yeah. The whole medical profession were up in arms because a lot of young people were following him by eating white rice and drinking vinegar, in order to get that sort of romantic, you know, pale, ethereal, poetic, consumptive-looking appearance…
it transpires that in 1822, he’d starved himself into such a very poor state of health, um, that he was really suffering, even though he knew and he wrote that obsessive dieting was the cause of more than half our maladies.
Foxcroft said that Bryon’s anxieties about his weight were tied up in the very words he was writing. Byron felt that in order to write beautiful things, he himself needed to feel beautiful.
Ted: I can’t wait to tell the rest of my family that we have Lord Byron in our, in our ancestry.
AJ: He is your blood relative.
AJ: 12th cousin, four times removed.
Ted: 12th cousin, four times removed. Amazing.
AJ: So there, it’s in the genes.
So we’ve done it. We have made it. We have been through 80 relatives, and we have arrived at your the final stop. So Are you ready to meet your distant cousin?
Ted: I guess as ready as I’ll ever be, yeah, sure.
AJ: Okay, let’s do it. Right after these words from our sponsors.
Ted: We do that on Chopped too.
Ted: I know what you’re doing.
AJ: It’s a cliffhanger.
AJ: Keep them coming back!
Welcome back to Twice Removed. We have done it! We have made it to the end of Ted Allen’s family chain. We’ve heard about your southern roots and the confederacy, we’ve heard about banquets, and muffins and diets. And we are ready to meet Ted Allen’s mystery cousin. Ted, are you ready for real this time?
AJ: And your mystery relative is..
Ted: Here it is, the verdict.
(sound of door opening)
Ted: Come on, you’re good at this!
Ted: I’ve read your work.
AJ: Ok, so mystery relative, can you go ahead and introduce yourself
Alex: I’m Alex Prud’homme.
AJ: what do you do for a living, Alex?
Alex: Uh, I’m a journalist. But i’m actually better known as the coauthor of Julia Child’s memoir it’s called My Life in France.
And how did you get that gig writing with Julia Child?
Alex: Julia was my great-aunt.
AJ: So you are a relative of Julia Child, which means, Ted, you are a relative of Julia Child.
Ted: (Laughs) It’s amazing.
AJ: You guys are officially 17th cousins by blood. Now did you, Ted, ever meet Julia Child?
Ted: I never did. Nope, I missed it.
Alex: Ah, que domage!
Ted: I, um-
Alex: You guys would’ve loved each other. (laughs)
Ted: Well I, well thank you. That’s kind of you to say. I hope so. I certainly loved her, uh, wit and her sort of impishness and how much she loved to have a glass of wine going while she was cooking. And I think that everything to do with the way I love to cook and the way I think most people do. It’s celebrating. It’s having fun. It’s playing music and …
Ted: And it’s not about being fussy and pretentious.
AJ: Speaking of which, we do have our final dish, courtesy of Alex. We asked him if he had a suggestion for a desert, and he has Julia Child’s, this is apple tartine, is, what is it?
Alex: Uh, it’s a tarte tatin.
Ted: A tarte tatin! Lovely.
Alex: Which is a beautiful, caramelized apple dessert. It’s, uh, sliced apples, uh, that are on a pastry base. Now Julia was a little bit obsessed with this dish, and this is why I picked this, because she made four different recipes for this. But if you go back and look at some of her old shows, it shows her making the tarte tatin. There’s a classic one, it’s from 1971, it’s from the Season Two of The French Chef.
Video: Welcome to The French Chef. I’m Julia Child. Today we’re gonna do a very famous apple dessert called la tarte tatin. There it is, and I’m gonna hide it from view until we get farther along with it…
Alex: She, uh, makes the dessert and she, um, she pulls the pan out of the oven and she flips the pan over to, uh, present the apple dish. Out comes what really looks like burnt applesauce. It’s a mess. (laughs)
Video: “that’s too bad”
Alex: And you can see in her face, she’s kind of obsessing.
Video: I’m just gonna watch that. When you’re doing this yourself, there’s an experiment you should do, both mushy apples and other apples. I think that actually makes a more interesting dessert.
Alex: She tries to make the best of it. And as you were saying earlier, the story of food it entails personal narrative, issues of gender, race, class. I mean really food in a way is kind of a shorthand, it’s like an encapsulation. And I- my personal theory is that one reason Julia started to write down recipes and teach them, is that each recipe became a little short story. And there was a story behind each recipe, how she discovered it, how she invented her own approach, her own technique. I think we all have that to a certain extent. For me, the tart tatin, I eat this, it’s delicious, and it brings me back to all sorts of memories.
Ted: It transports you like almost nothing else. I think we need to dig into this thing!
AJ: Alright, let’s do it. How should we- I don’t know, am I the cutter?
Alex: Oh yeah, here we go. Do the honors.
Aj: I should have waited for you Ted. Sorry
Ted: What’s that?
AJ: I should have waited for you. I couldn’t stop myself.
Ted: You’ve got to be careful. I ate a marshmallow once on live television, big mistake. It takes a while to get through one of those.
Dan Savage has helped redefine what it means to be a family in the 21st Century. And given his ancestors, it’s no surprise why. Dan’s family history traces to the 1920s Chicago mob scene, a South Asian autocracy, and to a New York City apartment filled with men trying to save a community. We’ll tell these stories and introduce Dan to a surprise relative.
I’m AJ Jacobs. And this is Twice Removed. The show that proves we are, in fact, one big family.
Right now there are two people here with me, in separate studios. What they do not realize… is… they’re family. They’re related. One of these people… our mystery relative… will be hidden away until the end of the show. But the other…. is right here with me, in the studio… our guest!
Someone I couldn’t be more excited about … a man who has redefined what it means to be family in the 21st Century… which I know are big words, but I mean ‘em. Go ahead and introduce yourself
Dan: My name is Dan Savage, and I am an Irish, catholic, middle-aged gay dude from the North side of Chicago who lucked into a stupid syndicated sex advice column that turned into books and talking-headery and I haven’t had to really work a day of my life since my uh mid-20s.
And you are also… you’re an activist — you started the It Gets Better Project, to help support gay teens around the world.
Dan: That’s right.
So, Dan. Here’s how Twice Removed works. We’ve spent the last several months doing research, talking to distant relatives and historians… finding people who are related to you.
Dan: Whether they like it or not
AJ: A lot of them are dead so they can’t.
Dan: Well that’s convenient
Exactly. Now, Here… Here’s a chart, and on the far left side, that’s you, that’s Dan Savage, right there… And on the far right side, is your mystery relative… so, you can see their name is covered up….
Because it’s a mystery. And in between the two of you are forty-one family members, all connected by blood or marriage.
We’re going to make our way straight through this chain of relatives, one relative to the next… to the next, to the next… all the way to number forty one… that’s your mystery relative.
Along the way, we’re gonna stop at four of the most interesting people… and we’ll tell their stories.
Among them… a cousin who challenged an authoritarian regime. And a pair of relatives caught up in a presidential sex scandal.
AJ: Yeah, things get spicy
Dan: A current one or a past one?
AJ: I, uh, I will reveal that in due time.
Now… the very last person on this branch? Person number 41? That’s your mystery relative, who is in the next room over, listening in right now. You have any guesses who it might be?
Dan: Uh, No, none.
I’ve got the mystery relative in my headphones, so just one second, Dan, we’ll get back to ya… Hey mystery relative, I’m talking to you now. Dan cannot hear you, the rest of us can. How are you feeling? Anything you’d like to say? Remember, Dan cannot hear you… just me and the rest of the world…
Mystery Relative: Hi. I’m alright, how are you doing?
AJ: I’m doing okay. Are you OK? Are you nervous, you comfortable?
Mystery Relative: Yup. Everything’s fine. (laughs)
AJ: They giving you snacks over there?
Mystery Relative: Um. I’ve got water.
AJ: (to dan) He’s doing ok. He’s got water.
OK, we’ll talk you later. Don’t go away!
Now at the end of the hour, we’ll bring the mystery guest … into the studio for a family reunion unlike any other: two people coming face-to-face with all the ways they’re connected. Hopefully you two will be filled with delight… though it could be abject horror. You never know. It’s family.
OK, Dan Before we hear about your distant family, I want to start with the family you live with now. Your husband Terry and your son, DJ.
AJ: Can you tell me about how you met Terry?
Dan: (laughs) Well, you know, I talk at a lot of colleges and often some gay kid will get up and say that he wants what I have, he wants marriage, and family, and children, and a dog. And wants everything that I have. But he can’t find it because he hates the bar scene and doesn’t drink or do drugs and doesn’t hook up. Then he’ll ask, how did I get it? How did I get the husband and the kid and a white pickett fence? And I’ll look at him and say, well I was at a gay bar, and I was drunk and I met this guy who was really high, and we had a one-night stand. We totally hooked up. So you may want to revisit your strategy around finding a husband.
AJ: Well speaking of that, tell me how it all went down. Did you approach Terry?
Dan: Terry was on the dance floor and looking amazing, ‘cause he looks amazing. At this bar, Rebar in Seattle. And I was standing at coat check because I do not dance. And I kept pointing him out to this drag queen, named Ginger Vytus, who worked the coat check. And I kept pointing him out and kept saying “look at the guy, he’s so beautiful, oh my god he’s so beautiful.” And he walked over to the coat check to get something out of his coat, ecstasy, and Ginger nudged me and in a loud enough voice for Terry to hear said, “you’ve been telling me all night how hot he is, why don’t you tell him?” And if she hadn’t said that, I never would have spoken to him. He went off to dance with his friends, came up and talked to me, we had a beer, ended up making out in a bathroom of the bar. He came back to my place, we had a one-night stand. And in the morning he jumped in the shower and I literally had to go get his wallet out of his pants pocket to look at his driver’s license because I couldn’t remember his name.
[Laughs] So Dan, you’ve written quite a bit about your family in your books. You wrote about your mom. About your grandma. And seems to me you are a bit nostalgic. You you like this family history stuff.
Dan: I do and I like having things around me that remind me of of my history. I have my great grandparents hymnals and they’re just sitting on the our shelf, in our house, kind of prominently. I see them there every once in a while and I think about my great grandparents. And I have the dining room furniture that was in my grandparents apartment when I was growing up, and belonged to my great grandparents. There the it’s the dining room set from my grandfather’s childhood home. It’s not very glamorous. It’s like working class, Southside Chicago German furniture – and it’s big and heavy. But if I had a different dining room table it wouldn’t be the dining room table that my grandfather sat at with on Christmas eve with his parents, and that my mom sat at with her parents, that I sat at with my parents, and that my son has sat at at with his parents. How would you throw that table away?
AJ: Right. When you think of family, what what’s the definition for you?
Dan: Your people. The uh the people you came from and grew up around and were surrounded by. Genes and genetics gather people around you for good or ill. But then there’s a choice that goes into assembling family when you’re an adult. Armistead Maupin who wrote the Tales Of The City books, talks about there’s your biological family and then there’s your logical family. Hopefully there’s a lot of overlap there. It’s wonderful when someone’s biological family is also their logical family. But for a lot of people that’s not true and for a lot of queer people that’s particularly not the case. I’m lucky that my biological family is also a part of my logical family.
Well, Dan, today we’re going to explore that biological family of yours… and maybe even try to find some logic in it. These are your people, Dan. they share more in common with you than just a distant ancestor… Because like you, they push the boundaries. They break the rules.
So. Are you ready?
Dan: I’m nervous and excited
That is great. That’s the exact combination of emotions we want. Nervous and excited.
So. Our first stop today is taking us just a few generations back. So, take a look at the family map. And if we start with the ‘you are here’ circle –that’s you, that’s Dan Savage.
Dan: I see that
And we hop back past your mom, past your grandpa, and we land on your great grandfather — Walter Schneider. And he’s one of your first relatives to be born here in the United States.
I want to show you something to start off, Dan. Take a look at this article I have right here… it’s from the October 28th… 1865 edition of the New York Times. The headline: “Marine Intelligence.” And it’s a list of boats… Boats that arrived in New York the day before… And about a quarter of the way down the list… is a boat from Bremen, Germany. The SS Johann Kepler. And that… is your family’s first appearance in American mainstream media.
Dan: Oh My god.
Your great, great, great grandparents and their children spent 52 days at sea on that boat. They’d left this little farming village in Southern Germany called Gernsheim and they’re hoping for a different kind of life.
Now those kids who came over, they had kids of their own as people do. And at least two of them did find a very different kind of life… deep in the criminal underworld — running with some of the most notorious characters in 1920s Chicago.
Dan: Oh My god.
(Laughs) So that’s our first story today Dan… three steps away on our long branch of relatives here… your great grandfather Walter Schneider and his brother George. Walter and George… brothers in crime.
This is an article from the Chicago Tribune, back in 1902. It’s a list of new businesses incorporated in the city the previous day. And on that list… There’s a business called… The Corker Club. It’s a saloon and cigar shop. One of its owners… George F. Schneider. That’s Your great grandfather Walter’s brother. The two of them, they ran the joint together.
But that’s just the start of it, Dan. You see… just a few years later… Chicago Police listed this saloon as literally one of the shadiest places in the city — that’s the word they used — “shady.” There were fights. There was alleged arson. Even attempted murder.
And juiciest of all… we discovered that the Corker Club was at the center of one of the largest illegal gambling syndicates in the United States.
Dan: I’m so proud
AJ: (Laughs) We thought you would be.
Trimble: There was roulette, pharaoh, dice and poker games.
This is Gene Trimble. Gene was a professional gambler for 20 years, later in life he got into history and became an expert on places like the Corker Club.
With games like poker and roulette, the Corker was sort of your classic underground gambling joint. But… there was a main attraction… horse racing.
For a club like Corker… horse races meant big money. Take just one race on any given day…
Trimble: The big payoff might have been three or four or five hundred which was huge in those days compared to today. But they would hold 70% off the top for themselves.
AJ: 70%, that’s a pretty good business!
So they were good capitalists your great grandparents. But there was a catch.
Trimble: Schneider owned it. Every week they’d pay off the gang for protection, you know what I mean?
So that protection money was going to a guy named Mont Tennes… And Dan, this is where your family’s story intersects with Chicago’s notorious criminal underground.
Mont Tennes was an underworld kingpin. He cornered the market on illegal gambling in Chicago… He was known for bombing his rival’s stores to put them out of business. So he was hardcore.
Now we know all this because in 1911, the federal government opens an investigation into Tennes’s wire service. Fourteen different people are named as part of his syndicate, including one of your family members. George Schneider.
Dan: (Laughs) Oh my god, that’s hilarious. My grandfather, Ed Schneider was a good Catholic, a member of the Knights of Columbus – I couldn’t have imagined that his father was involved in organized crime. That flabbergasts me because they were so…. proper.
That just in one generation removed, somehow the criminal connections and any sort of grit was wiped away.
Now, the federal investigation ultimately did not shut down Tennes’ wire service or the Corker Club. So the club continued to operate, well into the 1920s.
Now, we wanted to get a first hand look at the Corker Club.
So we flew to Chicago to see what we could find
PLANE: Ladies and gentlemen welcome to Chicago, where the local time is 638….
AJ: I love your face..i, uh, i, uh I love that you (laughs)
Dan: I love that you guys don’t just dig around in archives a little bit and go on Ancestry.com – you guys got on airplanes and went places
AJ: we’re hardcore here at Twice removed, that’s right
We enlisted the help of this guy…
Jolet: Alright. You guys want to take the interstate or you want to roll down south Street?
His name is Brian Jolet. He’s a historian who specializes in prohibition. He’s built a map of underground joints that popped up in Chicago in the 20s… Little distilleries in the backs of homes…. secret trading posts… tons of little dots cover this map…
Jolet: All these addresses are places I’ve located in in court records or newspapers…
Jolet was kind enough to take us to the location of your great-grandfather’s saloon.
So we passed by the site of the old Comiskey Park… we passed by one of the first clubs where blacks and whites mingled together freely in the city… We were just a few blocks from the saloon… I could almost smell the whiskey in the air… And then…
AJ: This is it! [PAUSE] This is the historic corner where Dan’s great-grandpa had a saloon. And it is… A huge [PAUSE] disappointment.
Dan: haha. What did you find there?
AJ: Anticlimax beyond anticlimax. Just kidding it’s great. It’s a uh empty lot. And it’s uh, I’m sure there’s… Hey Look! That looks like an empty beer can. A natty ice brand of beer… so it all comes full circle.
So, as you heard when we went to visit, nothing left of the Corker Club. Totally demolished a few years ago. But, Gene Trimble, the professional gambler… he was able to salvage a little something. You see, Gene, like you, Dan, he’s a bit of collector. And his specialty is old poker chips from saloons and defunct casinos.
And one day, a few years ago, Gene’s friend came across a set of these sleek, 1920s looking chips with two Cs on them. Red and white. He’d never seen these before.
Trimble: So these things come on ebay and the guy selling them has no clue what they are. Calls them old poker chips.
And so Gene goes through the archive of the company that makes these chips…
Trimble: Well, I pull the record and there it is, it says Corker Club right on the record.
Trimble: Is he there, the grandson?
AJ: No we’re taping this now and we’re going to play it for him when he comes in.
Trimble: I want his address. I wanna send him one of those corker club chips. I thought he’d like to have one.
Dan: I would die…. I would die to have one of those chips
Well we did not give him your address, but he did send it to us… And we actually, in my back pocket I have for you… a bona-fide gambling chip from the Corker Club — the joint operated by your great grandpa and his brother.
Dan: Oh my god… It looks like the first draft of the Chicago Cubs logo or the Chicago Bears logo. Oh my God it’s amazing… I’m gonna cry oh my god– this is like– I’m all about things. I think objects have… not quite souls, but objects have this permanence. You know we talk about things like they’re the ephemera in our lives when we’re the ephemera in theirs. That this is still here, Walter and George are gone, Ed Schneider’s gone, my mother’s gone, anybody with any connection to actually using this at the time that the club was in operation, they’re all gone. And this is somehow still here. I have a photograph of my great grandparents in my dining room, uh, uh, Walter Schneider and his wife, and uh, I’m gonna put this right beside it. I’m gonna cry, oh my god, you guys, I didn’t. I like rushed here from work, not expecting to uh, get suckerpunched. Anyway, thank you.
AJ: Of course.
Dan: we could end here and I would be ecstatic and happy but you also have a human being that you’re giving me today? That’s above and beyond the call!
AJ: Yah. You need a minute? You ok?
Dan: Go ahead. I’m gonna need like 30 minutes.
So. You’ve got this Corker club chip now. And I’m wondering what’s an item that you would like to leave behind of yours to your great grandkids?
Dan: Omg I have no idea. Um. I have this affection for odd things and orphan objects that no one else would love one of my prized possessions is a dental bridge that I found in East Berlin after a protest against the communist government and I found them on the paving stones in a little pool of blood and uh I picked it up and put it in my pocket and took it back to west berlin with me that day after the demonstrations and I have it in my desk as a reminder of sometimes you gotta fight, sometimes you gotta go into the streets and take a risk and its tremendously emotionally significant to me like whoever was out there and got cracked in the face and had their bridge knocked out… And i’m definitely gonna leave that behind.
Well it’s interesting you bring up the idea that sometimes you have to fight for what you believe in, because that’s very relevant to our next story. Which is about a cousin who stands up to an authoritarian regime, with a detergent bottle. [DAN LAUGH] But first… a quick break.
Dan: I’m going to text a picture of this to my brother right now. He’s going to shit himself.
Welcome back to Twice Removed, the show that proves we are, in fact, one big family.
We’re continuing on our path through Dan Savage’s family tree. We’re on our way through a chain of 41 people, related through blood, through marriage… and it’s all leading us to Dan’s mystery relative. Any clues who it might be yet, Dan?
Dan: Martha Stewart?
AJ: Could be. Alright I don’t want to ruin anything..
AJ: You saw all the security outside right?
Dan: I did. I wondered what that line of cadillacs was for.
And mystery relative, let me just check in with you. You ok? They treating you good?
Mystery Relative: Oh wonderfully, and um this is quite hilarious actually. (Laughs)
AJ: He says it’s quite hilarious actually (laughs) he likes the anticipation… OK, we’ll get back to you, stay tight.
Mystery Relative: We’re here…
OK, so, let’s get back to our family tree and see if we can get a little closer to bringing you two together.
Now, we just heard about Walter Schneider, the saloon owner. He was four steps up the chain from where it starts with you. Now If you follow along on our chain, Dan, we’re going one-two-three steps away from Walter now, two generations down to the 1960s. That’s when our next relative was growing up… just a few miles from you, Dan. She’s your 1st cousin once removed… your grandma and her mom were sisters. So, pretty close. Her name is Jane Steinfels Hussein.
Now, before the break, Dan, you were talking about that dental bridge that you found in Berlin — about how sometimes you have to fight for what you believe… I think it’s safe to say… Jane would agree.
Jane: Sometimes I feel there are some things I will not accept and that there is some shit I will not eat and I have to get out on the street and and say that and even if my being on the street is not going to change this, it’s important for my own self respect that I make this statement that I, I am not going along with this voluntarily.
Dan: She’s definitely a relative of mine.
AJ: (Laughs) There is some stuff you will not eat.
Dan: That is right, that is an expression that I use all the time.
AJ: I love it.
Alright so Jane has spent her entire life working for social justice. As a kid, she marched to help integrate schools in Chicago. In college, she marched against the Vietnam war and in support of the Civil Rights movement. She even went — this is my favorite — she went to protest on her wedding day. And she was still wearing her dress, and she had the bouquet and everything. So she’s hardcore.
We want to focus on just one of Jane’s protests… It was a particularly dangerous protest… And it was on the other side of the world.
When Jane was in college, she fell in love with and married a grad student named Faheem Hussain. Faheem passed away a few years ago, so you’re not going to hear from him in this story.
But Faheem, he was a gregarious guy. Big laugh. Big beard. And he was from Pakistan. Islamabad. And, after school, he wanted to move back home. Jane was a few months pregnant, but she was feeling disenchanted with life in the US… so she figured… why not try Pakistan? So, in 1968, she got on a plane.
Jane: Of course it was a big adjustment to to learn the language. To learn how to shop. To learn how to cook. I had no idea what it would be like raising a child in Pakistan. I hadn’t the faintest idea.
Moving to a new country with new customs and a new language… that can be really isolating. Most of Jane’s family was back in Chicago. So she and Faheem improvised. They built up their own little logical family… people who shared their ideas. People like this guy.
Pervez: I wanted to go and make revolution in Pakistan.
This is Pervez Hoodbhoy. He’s a professor of physics and sociology in Pakistan.
Pervez: I was uh convinced that this was an extremely unjust society that I had been brought up in. And so I wanted now to change everything.
Pervez and Faheem worked together at Islamabad University. They were peas in a pod… 1960s intellectuals, just out of grad school. They were all activists… socialists, really.
Together, they were hoping to change Pakistan. Pervez volunteered as a teacher and a paramedic in a small village… Jane organized demonstrations for women’s rights. That was one thing she was really passionate about.
Pervez: Jane was an amazing person. She was very firm. Knew exactly what needed to be done. Over time she became essentially the leader of the group that uh we worked in.
But then 1978 rolls around … Jane and Faheem now have a second child… a daughter. And there’s a government coup. A new dictator comes into power. His name is Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. He institutes martial law, shuts down the country’s major newspaper. And he begins to target activists like your cousin Jane. Homes are raided. People disappear. One member of Jane’s group, a guy named Nayyar, remembers just how scary that time was.
Nayyar: All of us were afraid. You know, when when these friends were arrested, I was with them at the police station all day and all night. And in this time, my wife cleaned the house and burned all the material that could incriminate me. She literally burned it all. Very very very clever of her.
For people like Jane, and Pervez, and Nayyar… whose whole way of life was about fighting government oppression… Rather than be silenced, this is the moment they double down.
They found out an official from the U.S. Department of State was coming to tour Islamabad. And the group thought he was the perfect target for their message. They could write pro-democracy, anti-imperialist slogans on the walls throughout the city.
Jane: We knew pretty much the route he would be on.
Pervez: It had to be done very fast before anybody got any inkling because now Islamabad was becoming more and more policed. Even if it was midnight you would have um spies and they’d be following every car.
And so Pervez invented an ingenious little device to help them cover more ground…
Pervez: It was a detergent bottle. At the end of which was a shaving brush. So that when you squeezed the detergent bottle, out would come the paint.
Nayyar: But the thing was that we were clever. We had used oil with it, mobile oil.
Jane: With the motor oil, you could whitewash the slogan and the slogan would still come through. It wasn’t so easy to get rid of.
Jane: So we were papering the whole city with this, and we waited until just before dawn to go to the police headquarters. I was at the wheel of the van, and we all had whistles, so that if somebody would approach – someone would whistle, and everybody would be able to jump in the van and, and get away.
And an escape plan was extra important. Because as the political stakes were getting higher, so were the personal ones… it wasn’t just cans of paint and posters in the back of that car…
Jane: My daughter was sound asleep on the seat in the back…. And I did sit there thinking you know, is this responsible parenthood? Having my little daughter innocently sleeping in the back of this van when the punishment for spreading hatred against the armed forces can be death.
Now, ultimately… the plan worked just like they hoped. They got home safe. But Jane, Pervez, and Nayyar had taken a huge risk. And it caught the attention of authorities.
Secret police started following their every move, and arresting people they knew. Some of their friends were tortured. To the point that one of them gave up Pervez as the inventor of the graffiti device… so Pervez had to stay out of the country for a while.
Eventually, Jane moved back to the United States.
And those who stuck around, like Nayyar, they did see revolutionary ideas take over Pakistan… just not the revolutionary ideas they’d been hoping for. They’d been fighting for progress… and from their point of view, the country actually slid backwards…
Nayyar: The sad thing is, the society has gone completely the other way than what we thought it should be. The new young people have very different political ideas. They are more attracted to terrorism. They are more attracted to religious fundamentalism. And all that we did has completely gone in vain. We didn’t do enough. We should have done more.
Jane sees it differently. To her, the effects of their work, they may not be obvious, but they reverberate through.
Jane: when I went back to Pakistan in the spring of 1991 -there was an old man – a cobbler, sitting on a handcart with his leather and his tools. And he started yelling at us and he started shouting [“Amriki samarage, morda baad!”?] Which means “Death to American imperialism!” He started getting more and more excited and screaming more and more loudly, and we got really worried. And then he laughed (pause) and he said, “I remember YOU. You’re the girl who spoke at the demonstration against the invasion of Cambodia.” So that old man 20 years later, remembered me and remembered my speech.
Jane: It made me feel very good that, you know you protest or you write something and it seems like a flash in the pan. But sometimes people do remember. And, and then you feel that, that it does have some worth.
So that’s your 1st cousin, once removed.
Dan: Who has a potty mouth like me and likes to give speeches sometimes, which I have done. I have been arrested in the U.S. Capitol. I have marched on the White House. I have handcuffed myself to the doors of a, a Department of Corrections in Wisconsin. I don’t know if I’ve ever gone to a protest where the risk was as extreme as the risk that Jane, uh, was running, and I admire that, tremendously.
Dan: You know, somebody’s got to stand up. Somebody’s got to say something, an and you know not everybody is in a position where they can and so those who can really ought to.
Alright… Dan our next story is all about family… and what makes someone part of a family. Is it genetics? Is it marriage? Is it public opinion?
Dan: Wow where is this going? (Laughs)
We have to travel a little further out on the branches of your family tree for this one… we’re going to go one step over to Jane’s sister and husband in law, and then 7 generations back to the 1700s, jog through a couple of marriages, some births, and finally get back to the 1890s… To your next relative, a remarkable woman named Nan Britton.
Our producer Eric Mennel has been looking into her story.
Eric: Hello, Dan.
So I’m going to put you on the spot: who’s your favorite US president?
Dan: I really have tremendous admiration particularly in the waning days of the Obama administration for Barack Obama. I think he’s a much better president than we deserved.
I was kind of counting on you saying Warren G. Harding.
Dan: (Laugh) No no, not Warren G Harding. Unfortunately.
Well… that’s who my story’s about so we’ll have to settle, if that’s okay.
Dan: Warren G Harding’s my second favorite.
(Laughs) Okay well just as sort of a refresher, Warren Harding was a republican Senator from a small town in Ohio. And in 1920 he was elected president. His campaign theme was returning America to normalcy. We had just come out of World War One, and he was determined to get the country back on track.
But, two years into his presidency, Warren Harding suffered a brain hemorrhage and died.
And history does not remember Warren Harding fondly. His administration was implicated in the Teapot Dome scandal – sort of this textbook bribery for government contracts scandal. And many of his associates were very corrupt — they took bribes from bootleggers and such.
Dan: Probably even my grandfather (laughs)
Eric: Very possibly
But nowadays, Warren G. Harding is frequently listed as one of the worst presidents in American history.
But you gotta figure, uh, having a President in the family is still a big deal. Even if he isn’t Mount Rushmore material.
So I called up someone who would know…
Eric: Hi, is this Peter?
Eric: Hey Peter, it’s Eric. How are you doing?
Peter: Hi Derek. Wait a minute, my dog is starting to make a horrible sound. Why don’t you go outside and leave me alone, huh?
This is Peter Harding — grand nephew of Warren G. Harding. His grandfather was Warren’s brother. And since Warren and his wife never had any kids of their own, that makes Peter one of the president’s closest living relatives. Which wasn’t always to his benefit.
Peter: When I took history in the 9th grade, and we got to teapot dome scandal, my arch rival, Bob Heffner, coming up to me after history class and going teapot dome! Teapot dome! And I thought this is embarrassing.
Eric: [laughter] I’m sorry to laugh at your…
Peter: No no, it’s funny in a way.
Eric: It’s a funny thing to pick on someone about. Their grandfather’s political scandal
Peter: I know! But it was not a super positive thing to be related to harding because he was part of scandalous republican administration.
Now Dan what Peter didn’t realize was just how scandalous this whole thing was. The real dirt was hidden away … on his father’s bookshelf.
Peter: He had this library down in the basement. And it was kind of his little Man Cave. And among the books that he had in his man cave was The President’s Daughter.
Peter: And I asked him what that was. And he said oh that’s a, you know that’s a whole bunch of lies. And uh and there’s no truth to this book. And I said, well then why do we have it? And he said we need to know what the opposition was saying. And it made me very curious
Peter: So I remember in junior high school one time going down and taking the book out and looking at it, and pulling it out, opening it up, reading a few lines of it and then feeling like I really shouldn’t be doing this and putting it back. This was serious business with Warren G. Harding and my dad. I knew that that was somehow sacred to him and that I just dare not go too close to it or I might get into trouble.
So Peter put the book away. It sat on the shelf until his father died… it got packed into a box. Moved from house to house… Pushed around a couple of basement floors… Until 50 years later the book found its way back into the hands of one Peter Harding. And this time… he couldn’t help himself.
Peter: So I found the book, and i thought, you know what, I’m going to read the damn thing now because my dad is gone and everybody is gone that would care about it, and I’m curious.
Nan: I was born in Claridon, Ohio, a very small village about ten miles east of Marion…
That’s the first line of The President’s Daughter, written by Nan Britton. That’s your distant relative, Dan. Um, the book is a memoir. It’s about a love affair with President Warren G Harding and it started in a Manhattan hotel when she was 22 years old and the then Senator, Harding, was in his fifties.
Nan: We had scarcely closed the door behind us when we shared our first kiss… I shall never, never forget how Mr. Harding kept saying, after each kiss, “God!… God, Nan!” … And as I kissed him back, I thought that he surpassed even my gladdest dreams of him.
Shortly after Harding became president, Britton went to visit him, in the White House…
Nan: He greeted me cordially… Mr. Harding said to me that people seemed to have eyes in the sides of their heads down there… he introduced me to the one space where he thought we might share kisses in safety… a small closet… evidently a place for hats and coats. We repaired there many times in the course of my visits to the White House, and in the darkness of a space not more than five feet square… the President of the United States and his adoring sweetheart made love.
Peter: And when you read the book it’s a journal of a of a young woman’s experience. I got it right away that nobody could make up that kind of shit. She was telling the truth. I got it from reading the book.
Now the more he read, the more it bugged Peter that his family had tried to keep Nan Britton hidden. To him, Nan Britton was family. And he wanted to find out more.
So he started making some phone calls, and he heard about a possible grandchild of Nan’s… last name was Bleasing… out in Oregon.
Peter: I just called him up on the phone and left a message and said I was Peter Harding I was related to President harding and that I wanted to make contact with their family
Jim: So I grabbed the number right away and I called him and, he said it was Peter Harding, I’ve been trying to find you. I said I been trying to find you forever.
This is Jim Bleasing. He’s Nan Britton’s grandson.
Jim: Some people call me handsome but I go by Jim. (laughs)
When Handsome was growing up, he knew all about this book. Because it wasn’t a secret around his household. His grandmother, Nan, talked about Warren Harding all the time.
Jim: Oh she was in love with him. She was so in love with him. That’s all she talked about was him. Even when he was gone even when we were grown up, she would get the biggest smile on her face whenever she talked about him. She loved him to death, I mean she loved him til the day she died.
Now, the President’s Daughter shot to the top of the bestsellers list. But it did ruffle a lot of feathers. There were even censors who tried in vain to stop it from being printed.
Jim: I remember her saying she’d walk in the stores and They’d keep it behind the counter, they didn’t want people to see it. Come on. There’s nothing in that book bad. Did you see anything in there that was bad?
Eric: There was nothing that racy.
Jim: No, not at all. I mean it’s like we were watching deep throat. The way they talked about it.
Eric: If there are 50 shades of gray, 2 or 3 shades of gray.
Jim: If even that. I know, it’s nothing.
It wasn’t just the sex scenes that were scandalous. It was Nan Britton’s claim… right there in the book’s title… that President Warren G. Harding had gotten her pregnant. That she had delivered the child. And that the child was now in the world, without a father. Her name was Elizabeth. And she was Jim Blaesing’s mom. Which means… Handsome Jim, is Warren G. Harding’s Grandson.
Normally, being related to a President comes with all sorts of side benefits. People respect you a little more… you have a go-to topic for your college admissions essay… you get considered for jobs you probably don’t deserve…. But when you’re relationship to the president isn’t recognized… when the world wants to look the other way… the attention you get is very different.
Take the 1960 Presidential election. On one side of the country you have Peter Harding, a student at Yale. On the other coast, Jim Blaesing is still in grade school. Here’s Peter.
Peter: When I was a freshman at yale I got a call from a dean at Yale and he said somebody at the New Haven, whatever it is, courier the paper there wants to talk to you and I thought, what on earth about? And i went to this meeting at the paper with two other people. And one was Robert Taft, who was in the class ahead of me and the other was a relative Rutherford B Hayes, it was like 3 boys related to presidents, and they asked us who was going to win the election. So Yale was very aware I was in a presidential family and used it.
Meanwhile Jim Bleasing was in California. And, because of the election, the press was looking for some old dirt to dig up on the Republican party. By then, Nan Britton had become the go-to for that sort of thing.
Jim: I came home school with a bunch of my buddies. And the front yard was covered with TV cameras and the front door of my house was just cracked open a little bit. And my mom had her face right in the middle of it and saying I don’t want to talk, I don’t want to talk. And guys were running up to me and offering me money for a picture of my mom and everything. And they were calling her names on the outside of the TV and I’d hear them talking – and you know, at that age, they talk about your mom you’re going to knock them down. And so, I ended up taking, a couple of my buddies took me around to the back door. And that went on for weeks, and we’d get calls on the phone and I knew what was going on. My dad would pick up the phone, hello, hello, and then he’d sit and listne for a moment and then slam the phone down. This is why we have no pictures of my mom. Is that, whenever the camera comes out at a family function she disappears. Because she was hiding from the camera all the time and always hiding from people, you know.
Dan: That’s so sad..
Eric: yeah it sounds like it was a lot harder on Jim’s mom then it was on Jim’s grandma
So after so many years Jim and Peter decided that the best way to put the controversy to bed was a DNA test.
DNA can tell two people if they share a common ancestor… and how far back that is, roughly. So Jim and Peter spit in some tubes and sent them off to get tested. And they waited. 1 week. 2 weeks. Eventually, the results came back.
It was a 99% certainty for second cousins. After almost 90 years, Nan Britton’s story could no longer be denied. Which made Jim and his family the closest living relatives to the president.
This was a big deal. And it called for an old-fashioned family reunion. The Bleasings and the Hardings. They came together in a park. And Jim had a great time.
Jim: All of these guys – we got along with them like we’d known them all our life. I mean, we connected with them so well. This whole family. My mom would have had sisters brothers, everything, you know what I mean? Cousins, I mean you know. And, It’s like come on she lost out on all of that. She lost out on, like Peter says, she lost out on everything. The schooling, the family to go to from you know place to place. And everything you know.
Because the world refused to accept her, Nan did miss out on a lot. But she had her believers too. Jim wanted to prove that to me when I went out to visit him.
Jim: She would send me stuff all the time. To keep.
Jim goes to a closet near his kitchen.
Jim: So I’m gonna hit you with one thing right off the bat.
And he pulls out a box with a bunch of photos and papers in it. There’s a big yellow envelope, filled with bubble wrap. He unfolds the bubble wrap and he pulls out a little piece of fabric.
Jim: See this piece material.
Eric: It’s a piece of cloth with flowers on it.
Jim: You know what this is? 200 years old, Martha Washington’s wedding dress.
Eric: No it’s not. Whaaat? No way.
Jim: Yep. Martha Freaking Washington’s wedding dress.
Eric: That’s amazing.
Jim: Look at the back, look at the quality of the material. It’s still… Look at what kind of shape it’s in.
Jim: So you need to read the letter. I’m not lying to you. I’m going to let you read the letter.
Eric: Yeah yeah, I’m going to admit, I’m skeptical. But I wanna, but I wanna, to be convinced.
Jim: This is Martha Washington’s wedding dress. When I opened this, my hand was shaking. This is Martha freakin’ Washington’s wedding dress.This is unbelievable, here’s the envelope, and when you read this letter you are going to shit.
Eric: I am prepared to shit.
Jim: Ok, well get ready cause you will…and I, this is, yeah hold on a second this isn’t it. I’m a little concerned right now. The letter is gone.
Eric: Oh no.
Jim: wow, I’m freaking out right now…
The letter says that the fabric was a gift. It came from a millionaire who had read Britton’s book and was convinced by her claims. Jim had sent the fabric to be appraised, and when it came back, the original letter was missing.
Jim: I’m telling you, that is Martha Washington’s piece of dress.
For me, it’s easy to see why Jim is concerned. You know, he’s got a digital copy of the letter, but, with this kind of stuff, it’s all about authenticity. For the better part of a century, his life, his mother’s life, his grandmother’s life have all been called into question by historians… even today they’re not really featured in the main Harding museum in Ohio at all. I mean they’ll answer questions if you have them, but it’s certainly not a focal point of the museum.
Dan: That’s hugely disrespectful. And it’s grounded in prejudices and stigma around infidelity and children born out of wedlock. Embrace this family history in the same way that the Jefferson family association has embraced the descendants of Sally Hemings…
Eric: Right, and I did call the harding home and they said that they’re planning an expansion by 2020, and as part of that they hope to feature some more information about Nan and The President’s Daughter.
All right, Dan. We have one more stop before we get to your mystery relative.
By the way, hey, Mystery Relative — are you alright? You getting antsy? …
Mystery Relative: No, not yet.
AJ: Not yet, okay, we only have one more, and remember these are your relatives too.
Mystery Relative: Apparently (laughs)
AJ: Okay, he’s having a good time.
Now, Dan, looking at this map of your family, if we start from Nan Britton right here… We go back 7 generations into the past, … We zip forward in time… seven births, one marriage later…. We get to 1942, the birth of a guy named Paul. Paul is no longer with us, but his three nieces are. Their names are Doreen, Corinne and Jina.
And when they talk about their uncle Paul, there’s one word they always use.
Doreen: Uncle paul was very very private.
Jina: I think he was very private
Corinne: He just wasn’t Mr. Expressive. He was…very private.
Paul grew up in Oregon… He was the youngest of five kids… He was a star on his high school football team… served in Vietnam as a green beret… and when he got out of the military, he moved to New York and got a job in finance. So, we’re talking An all-american guy with a traditional, buttoned up job.
At least that’s how Paul seemed from across the country, to his three young nieces back in Oregon. But then they started visiting Uncle Paul. In 1979, Corinne… the middle niece… She visited New York with a friend and discovered that Uncle Paul had gotten a little more… casual.
Corinne: When we went out it was in the summer and he would wear levis uh cowboy boots um muscle t-shirt with a Hawaiian shirt over the top of it unbuttoned.
One night, Corrine asked Paul if he’d take her and her friend out to a club… Studio 54. He agreed, and around midnight they walk over and get in line.
Corinne: They had the big red rope. You had lots of people around big line. And we were dressed like we were 18 years old from Portland, Oregon in our little wooden sandals and, uh you know long skirts and vests. And and people are you know extreme like the woman dressed as a cat on her hands and knees with a leash being walked around by someone. And everything else. Things I hadn’t seen.
Corinne: You know, I hate to say maybe he lived 2 different lives, but he just kept that part of his life private. He had, a big family that wasn’t his family.
Jina: He almost lived two worlds. Two very separate worlds.
This is Jina, the youngest of the three sisters. By the time she visited Uncle Paul, he had come out as gay to his family. But Paul was still a mystery in a lot of ways.
When Jina was in New York, Paul would hold these big meetings. They looked serious.
Jina: Well, all I remember is wow my uncle Paul had a lot of gorgeous men coming into his apartment! I knew it wasn’t tupperware or anything, but had no idea what the meeting was about.
Lawrence: Right away they were calling it the gay cancer.
This is Dr Lawrence Mass, he wrote what’s considered to be the first feature article on the disease that would become known as AIDS.
Lawrence: There was this deafening silence out there. The alarm was building, people were dying, nobody knew what was happening, and it wasn’t really being covered anywhere adequately. So Paul realized the seriousness and agreed to call people together.
So Dan, those meetings Jina remembered… they were the first meetings of the very first volunteer-run AIDS organization in the country.
Dan: That would become Gay Men’s Health Crisis.
Exactly. And your relative, Paul…. Paul Popham, was the founding president of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis.
For Paul… social activism was a real departure. He’d always been this private person. Here are Paul’s nieces Jina and Doreen again.
Jina: He just thought I can’t be silent and you know, all these people are getting sick and dying around us and we need to do something and I think he felt like not enough was being done.
Doreen: then AIDS comes along and just throws this huge major life-changing thing for him, to have to start being, you know, interactive, being out there, being verbal, being vocal.
Paul led the Gay Mens Health Crisis and raised tens of thousands of dollars for AIDS research… They started a hotline, they provided counseling, and legal support for people who were positive… The organization is still active today.
Paul himself was diagnosed with AIDS in 1985. [start testimony tape underneath] The next year he testified before congress…
Congressman: Mr. Popham will you please proceed… The microphones incidentally are not particularly sensitive. So if you bring them very close to your mouth I think that we’ll here you better.
Paul: I think I come to this we a unique experience of having been involved in AIDS since the very beginning.
At a hearing about developing drugs to combat AIDS. The room is filled with dozens of congress people… doctors, pharmaceutical reps… And there’s Paul. He’s thin, his suit hangs loose … The disease has taken its toll on him. In front of him is a handwritten placard. It says Mr. Popham.
Paul: … So today we still feel that the government is not acting in the best interests of the country from a public health point of view….
Jina: I’m proud of what he did.
This is his youngest niece, Jina again.
Jina: I don’t know that I ever told him that I was really proud of him coming out even though that was not easy for him and to talk about what was going on and, and just trying to educate people. I think that’s pretty amazing when you’re private and not comfortable with that.
Paul: Thank you.
Congressman: Thank you very much Mr. Popham.
Paul passed away a year later… at age 45… but, his legacy lives on…
Dan: I’m staggered to know that I have any connection to the group that met in that room which included Larry Kramer, um, and and other heroes of the movement to save the lives of so many millions of not just gay men, but millions of men and women all over the planet. Uh, I – I’m a little speechless.
AJ: Do you remember when you first heard about … How old were you in the the mid 80’s when you first heard about the AIDS crisis, Gay Men’s Health Crisis?
Dan: I’m 52 years old, and I came out, started coming out to a couple of friends and then family when I was still in high school, which is rare for a gay man in my generation. Most gay men my age were still coming out in or after college, uh, so I was in gay bars in 1980, 1981, I was in gay bars, I had gay friends. I had boyfriends. When people began to talk about gay cancer and then GRID and then AIDS and you know, I was standing there as the water rose, or the blood rose, until it covered, uh, you know until people were struggling to uh, to breathe and so many people uh died. You know the deal that the culture made with gay people forever, was we will tolerate your existence as long as you are invisible. As long as you aren’t public. As long as we don’t have to know you exist, or acknowledge your existence. Certainly not acknowledge your pain, not acknowledge your loves, not acknowledge your families. So many men were suddenly sick and dying and realizing in that moment that the deal that had been offered to us, “We will tolerate your existence if you are invisible,” was not worth the price that that, that we had to pay socially, or emotionally, and in a health crisis, medically. And men like Paul and other men like him who had navigated their lives by these rules suddenly began tearing those rules up and coming out and speaking out and you know, I’m fifty-two years old and legally married and HIV negative uh still, and navigated dating, and love and sex all through the 80’s and 90’s, because of, because because of people like Paul.
Dan: Everyone in the room I have counted as a hero of mine and I’m just a little uh, honored to feel that there is some family connection, however distant it might be. Like looking at that chart, it’s pretty far away, um. Yeah, but you can see the connection between him, Nan Britton and Jane and me and people tearing up the deals that they had been given, uh as crappy as they were and telling the truth in public uh as difficult as that might be.
So, Dan! We have made it… We have traveled through your family tree, past 41 relatives, but we are back in the present. And we are ready to meet your mystery relative. Are you ready?
Dan: I, I hope I don’t cry some more, I feel like such a weepy slop today.
Dan: People who just read me who think I’m tough as nails and mean and funny are gonna be very disappointed when they hear how easily I dissolve into tears.
(Laughs) Well we cannot guarantee one way or the other, whether it will cause tears of joy or uh, something else, but we are ready. We are going to bring him in. Right after these words from our sponsors.
Alright, everybody! Welcome back to Twice Removed. We have spent this episode exploring the family of Dan Savage. We have traveled through space, through time, we’ve gone to prohibition-era Chicago, tothe coat closets of the white house. We’ve met relatives who stood up to imperialism and who marched on behalf of gay rights. And now… here we are. We are ready to meet your mystery relative. Dan… are you ready?
Dan: I am as ready as I’ll ever be.
From Paul Popham we go up our chain three generations… there are eight marriages, couple of births, and that brings us to our mystery relative… Mystery relative… come on in!
Mystery Relative: Sorry I’m not Martha Stewart! (Laughs.)
Dan: Well thank God we never got it on, it would have been incest!
Mystery relative: Hi
Dan: You are not who I expected. I just busted your headphones.
AJ: now mystery relative, since our listeners cannot see you, can you go ahead and introduce yourself?
Mystery relative: I’m Eugene. I’m Ginger Vytus.
Listeners will remember from the beginning of the show… you were the drag queen who introduced Dan to his now husband Terry at the bar.
Dan: Ginger Vytus and I go back twenty –
Eugene: twenty three years.
Dan: You’re the reason I’m married to Terry twenty two years later.
Eugene: Uh, well. I guess. (laughs)
Dan: Which, isn’t always a great thing. Sometimes I curse your name but mostly I bless your name. Um, you’re the reason I’m the parent of the kid that i’m the parent of. And we have, how?
Eugene: I don’t know, I’m really curious actually. I don’t know anymore than you do.
You are just 41 steps away, so practically brothers. Now, I think you guys knew each other before that night in the bar, right? You did theater together — so Eugene can you describe the shirt you’re wearing.
Eugene: My shirt is uh, it says Greek active, queer theater for queer people. We did theater together. Queer recontextualization of classic theater. And then we drank afterwards.
Dan: Greek active. Queer theater for queer people, the other slogan that our company had was my life is drama, make me laugh.
Dan: Because we were sick and dying, and there was so much grim stuff going on in our lives, and we needed the release and the joy of comedy and, and drag. And to transcend the horrors of the HIV AIDS epidemic was really one of the missions of of Greek Active. We were suffering and we weren’t going to do AIDS dramas because we were living AIDS dramas at the time.
Eugene: For me, it was just about being out. About being visible, it was about the fact that, I mean Ru Paul had a song that was played at the night clubs it was a big deal.
Dan: It was part of the collapse of the old deal
Dan: It was part of the collapse of you can exist as long as you’re invisible
Dan: And Greek Active and the club scene and drag and all of that was a part of not just being visible but being unavoidable. Being unmistakable. And being out in a way that you weren’t just saying you know, let me exist openly and publicly without killing or harassing me but
Dan: I going to, I’m going to exist in sparkles and I’m going to exist in a way where-
Eugene: And I’m going to walk up to you and talk to you. (laughs)
Dan: If I’m walking on the street, you’re not only going to see a gay person, it’s all you’re going to see. There could be a building on fire and a car crash but I am what you are going to see. I am going to draw the eye.
AJ: Alright. So. For posterity sake, for the record, uh, I’m gonna read to you how you two are officially related. Settle in because it’s it’s …
Dan: We are going to be here for a minute …
Eugene: No, my mother is going to love this, that her name is on this chart.
AJ: Okay, so Eugene, you are Dan’s first cousin once removed’s wife’s first cousin four times removed’s husband’s second great nephew’s wife’s first cousin’s once removed’s wife, first cousin’s once wife’s… great nephew.
AJ: (laughs) It’s so close, right.
Dan: Okay, repeat that Eugene.
Eugene: We are family.
Dan: Yeah, we are family.
Dan: In more ways than we knew.
Eugene: That’s right. (laughs)
AJ: There you go.
A new family history podcast from Gimlet Media. They say we’re one big family. This is the show that proves it. Hosted by A.J. Jacobs. Premieres December 16th.
A.J. Jacobs is the author of several New York Times bestsellers, including The Year of Living Biblically and Drop Dead Healthy. He is the editor at large at Esquire and appears regularly on NPR's "Weekend Edition Saturday." His upcoming book It's All Relative is about family history, which was also the topic of his recent TED talk. He's also your cousin.