“Finding Your Roots” Traces Celebrity Chefs’ Italian, Mexican and Chinese Immigrant Ancestors

“Finding Your Roots” Traces Celebrity Chefs’ Italian, Mexican and Chinese Immigrant Ancestors

Last night's "Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates Jr." on PBS focused on the immigrant ancestors of celebrity chefs of different ethnic—and culinary—backgrounds: Tom Colicchio (Italian), Aarón Sánchez (Mexican) and Ming Tsai (Chinese). I don't have family heritage in these places, but I think this already interesting show...

Last night’s “Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates Jr.” on PBS focused on the immigrant ancestors of celebrity chefs of different ethnic—and culinary—backgrounds: Tom Colicchio (Italian), Aarón Sánchez (Mexican) and Ming Tsai (Chinese).

I don’t have family heritage in these places, but I think this already interesting show would be even more interesting if you’re researching in any of these areas.

I appreciated how this show detailed various motivations for immigrants to leave their homelands, and explained how some would travel back and forth between home and the United States before finally settling here. This was quite common, especially for men, who would come to earn money to take to their families back home. More than half of all Italian immigrants in the early 20th century, Gates said, were “birds of passage.”

Here are some highlights of this episode:

  • Tom Colicchio‘s great-great-grandfather traveled to America in 1901, returned to Italy, then came back in 1906 and went home again in 1911. He was pressed into service in the Italian army in World War I, and finally brought his family to settle in the United States in 1947. The show described the burgeoning population, harsh taxes, crime and an earthquake that propelled Colicchio’s family to leave their picturesque town of Vallarta.
  • Aarón Sánchez‘s great-great-grandfather was a prominent rancher in Mexico who lost everything he had and fled to the United States during the Mexican Revolution. He later was able to get his cattle back. Sánchez’s third-great-grandfather, born in Spain in 1822, was the military commander Hilario Gabilondo. In 1857, Gabilondo ordered the deaths of about 70 filibusters (Americans attempting to seize land in Mexico) in an expedition led by former California state senator Henry Crabb. Read more about filibustering here.

The show’s researchers traced Sanchez’s ancestors in Spain back to his sixth-great-grandfather in the early 1700s. A DNA test revealed Sanchez has nearly 25 percent American Indian ancestry (the equivalent of having an Indian grandparent) and 3.7 percent African-American ancestry.

  • Ming Tsai‘s grandfather was a comptroller of a university in China when Japan invaded before World War II. He was sent to a prison in Japan, where he was tortured and contracted typhus; he nearly died. He was able to return to his work after the war, but the Cultural Revolution, during which millions of intellectuals and “bourgeois” were persecuted and killed, forced him to flee.

Many historical relics were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, including steles, or carved stone tablets recording families. The Ming family stele was the only one remaining in their town. It led researchers records at the Shanghai public library (probably jiapu, or books recording paternal family lineage) that allowed them to trace his ancestry all the way back to his 116th-great-grandfather in the 27th century BC.

In trying to find out more about steles, I came across the House of Chinn website, about Chinese genealogy research and the author’s own family. You might find it helpful if you’re researching ancestors in China. You also can search a surname index to jiapu on subscription website Ancestry.com.

Each chef’s cuisine is inspired by the foods of his ancestors; each recalled delicious meals with parents and grandparents. As the holidays approach, it’s good to remember that food is a great way to introduce family members to their ancestors. You might even say that the way to a nongenealogist’s heart is through his or her stomach.

You can watch this episode of “Finding Your Roots” online, at the show’s website.

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