is a Portland-based plant ecologist and culinary historian. She is the author of Portland: A Food Biography (2014), Breakfast: A History (2013), and Chillies: A Global History (2016). She is a contributing writer to Render, Roads & Kingdoms, and Narratively.


Twitter: @voodoolily

Tumblr: Portland: A Food Biography

In 1766, my ancestors followed Catherine the Great’s manifesto and emigrated from Hesse, Germany, to a village called Norka, located along the Volga River near modern-day Saratov, Russia. They had been promised autonomy, and they had it for a good long while until they no longer did; eventually, their rights were revoked. Under increasingly hostile pressure from the Russian government, hundreds of thousands of Volga Germans got the hell out of Dodge.

When my people arrived in the United States in 1912, they became American with a startling quickness. A century and a half of life on the Russian steppe hadn’t broken them of their German ethnicity, but by the time World War I was tearing shit up overseas, these odd not-Russians of Little Russia, with their German names and Hessian dialect, were seen as the enemies of America.

In Portland, Oregon, streets with German names were renamed after American war heroes: Frederick became Pershing, Frankfurt became Lafayette. Elsewhere in the US, families were dragged out of their homes at night and forced to kiss the flag. They were forbidden from taking the German-language paper, and churches with German congregations were painted yellow. Families pledged to speak English only. They traded in their rustic rye and schmaltz for store-bought “liberty loaves” and oleo.  

Languages can be relearned, but foods, passed down from mother to daughter without writing things down, are harder to reclaim. Their German foodways evolved only slightly in Russia, resulting in strange amalgamations like the bierock (essentially hamburger and cabbage-filled piroshki) and Zwiebelsuppe mit Haluschky (onion soup with sour cream and Ukrainian-style dumplings). When Volga Germans emigrated out of Russia, they carried their recipes in their heads; now, the first generation of American daughters to learn their mothers’ Old World recipes are in their eighties. Traditional recipes are dying out with them, particularly in families like mine with lots of boys but not very many girls.

In the American Breadbasket, where most descendants of Germans from Russia live today, recipes aren’t so much kept alive and well as they are kept in a vegetative state, on culinary life support. Coming out of the baby-boomer era, “helpful” shortcuts like Rhodes frozen bread dough and canned sauerkraut are the good intentions that pave the road to hell, widening the chasm between traditional foodways and the present day. So I make things the old way, using recipes that would have been known to any eighteenth century home cook even if she never wrote a thing down and probably couldn’t even read.

Although plenty of old German dishes made the journey to Russia, one dish that seems to have stayed in Hesse is Grie Soß (known as Grüne Soß elsewhere), a green sauce that likely came to Hesse from France with the Huguenots in the early eighteenth century. (Incidentally, Catherine the Great’s childhood governess was a Huguenot.) Maybe it was too newfangled and French to be part of the average housewife’s repertoire, but for whatever reason it doesn’t seem to have been incorporated into the German-Russian culinary arsenal. Today, it’s a food of protected geographical indication in Frankfurt, traditionally served in the springtime, and the bierock is the unofficial food of the Wolgadeutsche.

Grie Soße is traditionally made of seven herbs: borage, chervil, salad burnet, cress, chives, and sorrel—countryside wildlings that’ll sooner fill in a crack in the sidewalk than take to a fertile garden plot. Other wild greens can be used as need dictates, such as dandelion leaf or nettle. Lovage, lemon balm, and parsley are accepted additions in Frankfurt, but anathema in Kassel. It’s blended with a neutral oil, a bit of sour cream and/or buttermilk, a little mustard, and chopped hardboiled egg yolk, and then the chopped white is stirred in, somewhat like a sauce gribiche (this may be why some people are tempted to add tarragon or dill, which are also not correct). It’s served with halved boiled eggs, boiled potatoes, and apple wine.

I make this dish in the springtime. I grow these herbs in my garden. I do it because I feel I should.

When I try to reconstruct these foods, it’s not really from memory, since I don’t have memories of these foods and I don’t have elder womenfolk to teach me. Even though my great-grandmother may not have made Grie Soße in Russia, I recognize its importance as a symbol of my heritage. I create these old foods out of tenacity, inherited from and endemic to my people, and a determination to not let American xenophobia and hysteria—the worst facets of the American character—kill my family culture even though these bigoted attitudes have had a 100-year head start.