When I first travelled to Russia, on a summer program in college, I had
very little grasp of practical Russian vocabulary. In school, I’d spent
two years studying the language, but the curriculum had focussed on
grammar, taught through modified excerpts of nineteenth-century
literature. While I could recite a verse of Pushkin and challenge
someone to a duel, I did not yet know how to ask for food at a store or
restaurant. During my first moments in Russia, on a dusty bus from the
Kazan airport, as road signs in Cyrillic whipped by, I remember flipping
through a sheaf of everyday words I’d printed in an increasing panic.
That’s when I learned the word for dill—ukrop—from Leslie, our program
director, whose bright, Midwestern geniality belied the difficult task
she had: largely, convincing underage American college students not to
drink vodka. She laughed, then, that I didn’t know the word. “Ukrop,”
she said. “You’ll see.”

Later that day, I met my host family: Asya, brittle, bottle-blond, and
nervous; her grim, taciturn husband, Seryozha; and Asya’s mother,
Indira, who smoked ultrathin cigarettes, one after another. That
afternoon, we piled into their rusty Soviet-era sedan and headed out of
the city to the family’s dacha—another word to write in my little
black notebook. The whole city was bordered by forest, a mix of rugged
oak and slender birch (in Russia, I would learn, oak trees are a symbol
for men; birches for women). There were lakes, too, some feeding off
tributaries of the Volga River, scattered like coins between the trees.
We began unloading groceries from the trunk as soon as we arrived:
potatoes, meat for shashlyk (barbecue), beer. At dinnertime, we
roasted potatoes over a primitive grill, and I was handed one, singeing
my palm, along with a stalk of dill. “Bite one, then the other,” Asya
said. So I did, and Russia came into focus around me with each grassy,
acidic bite.

I had eaten dill before I visited Russia, of course—it features heavily
in the Ashkenazi cuisine that my religious Jewish family prepared for
the Sabbath and holidays. Kosher dill pickles, fermented in garlicky
herby brine, rather than vinegar—and called kosher because they were
popularized, if not invented, by Jewish immigrants to the U.S. at the
turn of the twentieth century—were staples of Jewish appetizing shops
and delis before they took over supermarket shelves. There was whitefish
salad, with dill and parsley mixed in, a perpetual delight crowded into
the fridge, to be smeared onto bagels and crackers. Forshmak, a
Baltic-style pickled herring beloved of the older crowd, was served at
synagogue, sometimes garnished with a little fresh dill. Every week,
there was dill in the pouch of cheesecloth lowered into our chicken
soup.

But, as with so many things—weather, curse words, wild dogs—the old
country upped the ante. It would be difficult to overstate the ubiquity
of dill in Russian cooking. The root of ukrop comes from the
verb kropit’—to sprinkle—and, sure enough, it’s sprinkled everywhere,
with slightly crazed abandon. In Russia, I ate lard laced with dill on
black bread, dill entwined in the crevices between potato dumplings. I
ate at Soviet-era stolovayas—gray little cafeterias, with cabbage
shchi and fish cakes, garnished with shaggy dill stalks. The way I
grew into dill was a bit like growing into Russia itself; the
fundamental strangeness of the place lessened with each taste of the
odorous, astringent herb. I grew to love the most unlikely dishes,
like pechenkovy tortik—a kind of mille-feuille of liver crêpes, topped
with crumbled egg yolk and the familiar green frills. I took the
overnight train to Kiev, ate a meat pastry from a street stand, and
curled up in sweaty agony for days afterward. A doctor who served the
Jewish community came to my house and gave me Georgian mineral water and
activated charcoal. Eventually, I felt well enough to greedily slurp
down solyanka—slick red soup with cold cuts, olives, and dill.

Dill is a hardy plant, suitable for the inhospitable Russian clime—not
for nothing is it called “dill weed”—and will cast up a riot of fronds
in the humblest kitchen garden, where it emits a sweet, herbaceous
smell. (The experimental Silver Age poet Vladimir Ivanovich Narbut wrote
of the hound Cerberus, in despair, burying his face in the plant,
“dragging honey from the dill.”) When I moved to Ukraine, in 2012, I
lived on the outskirts of Kiev, in a dingy post-Soviet apartment bloc
across the Dnieper River from the center of town, but just a quick walk
from the train station. An underpass leading from the apartment building
to the metro served as a place for merchants to sell their wares. In the
warm months, old women sold mushrooms and gooseberries; in the winter,
when commuters lingered underground and braced themselves to walk into
the chill, the venders added handfuls of quail eggs, sold loose, and
dried dill flowers spread like yellow lace in front of them.

In Ukraine, I often felt as if I were walking through legends made real.
I visited the grave of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the progenitor of Hasidism,
and the shrine of Rabbi Nachman, in Uman. In Odessa, I walked where the
great Hebrew poets had walked, under the catalpa trees. When I visited
my grandfather’s remote village, in the far west of the country, the old
women there showed me the shuttered building that had once been a
synagogue, and the pitted path toward it that my grandfather had taken
in his youth. They showed me the woods where the Nazis shot the Jews,
and they gave me apples. For the long, rutted road back, I bought a
goose-meat loaf shot through with dill, and too much salt.

In Russia today, dill has been sprinkled far beyond the bounds of
traditional cuisine, and has made its way into increasingly unlikely
places. It has become a potato-chip flavor, a hamburger topping, a
garnish for pizza. So profligate is its use that Shaun Walker, the
herb-aggrieved
Moscow correspondent for the Guardian, maintains a Facebook group
called “DillWatch” to monitor “inappropriate” Russian deployments of
the
herb
—in
sushi, fajitas, even meringues. One Facebook user revealed that his
movie-theater popcorn had come with a packet of dill seasoning; another
posted a picture of a lemon, inexplicably served in a green, hairy coat.
Dill has even played its own small, strange role in the ongoing conflict
between Ukraine and Russia. In response to pro-Russian separatists using
ukrop” as a slur for Ukrainians, a Ukrainian paramilitary group
adopted it as a name, going into battle with green patches depicting
dill in full flower sewn onto their fatigues.

I have been living back in New York for several years now, but with a
new attunement to the echoes of Eastern European culture in my American
Jewish milieu—the Hasidic sects named for Ukrainian towns, the city
streets along which my émigré forebears once dragged their pickle
barrels. The connections are nowhere more readily apparent than at the
dinner table. This week, the High Holidays begin with Rosh Hashanah,
with its surfeit of culinary symbols: honey for a sweet new year, a fish
head for good luck, carrots because the Yiddish word for the vegetable,
meren, shares a root with the word for “plenty.” Most of these symbols
are linked to hopes for the future, but for me the holiday is also an
occasion to honor a recent part of my past. Preparing the Rosh Hashanah
meal, I’ll drop stalks of dill straight into the chicken soup, letting
it ease out into the golden, marbled broth.

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