Photo by Ren Gillard

A Dill in Every Soup

I LOVE TO look at dill. I love to handle it, chop it. It’s an elegant shape. Its featheriness is touchable; I brush it on my cheeks when no one is looking. Its brightness when fresh soothes my eyes. It looks especially lovely beside a newly sliced lemon. Sappho tells Mnasidica to garland her hair with sprays of dill to garner “a glance of the blessed Graces.”

Do I love to eat dill?

I like it. I don’t love it. Maybe because I don’t like anise or fennel, though I do like celery—all three are in dill’s flavor profile. You could say I’m a third of the way in love.

I don’t use it much.

Lately I’ve limited my dill to garnishing salmon or salad or maybe peas with butter. But dill is common in Romanian cuisine, and so, for me, is a taste of home. In the same way, I think of peas with affection. “You always liked peas,” my mother said once, though I’d never declared that liking until after that moment of maternal observation. Now I think: oh yes, I’ve always liked peas.

Dill pickles are very good, and you can also put dill on borscht, potatoes, mushrooms, cucumber salads, or make a dill sauce. I suppose one could make green eggs and ham with dill.

The Serbian proverb “to be a dill in every soup” equates to having a finger in every pie. Could you, would you, eat a dill pie? I would stick my fingers in piles of dill, just for that feathery feeling.

“During the Middle Ages,” WebMD tells me, “people used dill to defend against witchcraft and enchantments.”

Dill is not recommended for pregnant women, as it might induce menstruation.

Dill is the most important ingredient in the Holy Ghost Soup of Santa Maria, Azores, yet other Azores islands do not have dill. In the other Azores islands, the chief herb in Holy Ghost Soup is mint. A very different flavor. I’d never heard of Holy Ghost Soup until looking into dill.

In his New York Times piece “Dill: The Herb That Time Forgot,” Richard Langer writes: “Dill also has a long history as an important medical herb in the Middle East—the Talmud records dill as being subject to tithe—and in India, where both its medicinal and culinary uses are lauded.” Langer provides no further commentary on the tithing of dill (a detail too fine to have come up in my seven years of Hebrew day school), but The Journal of Ethnopharmacology has reported dill’s efficacy in managing uterine cancer in Delhi, when in the form of topical unguent.

In space, Russian cosmonauts used dill to prevent gas. So says Scott Kelly in Endurance: A Year in Space, a Lifetime of Discovery.

I can’t say I’ve ever considered the antiflatulent qualities of dill, but these have been duly noted. “Dill” may come from the Norse or Anglo-Saxon dylle, meaning “dull,” meaning “to dull gassiness.” Another word for antiflatulent qualities is carminative, which sounds so much nicer. Jonathan Swift writes in Strephon and Chloe, “Carminative and Diuretic, Will damp all passion Sympathetic.” Gassiness is passion!

When it comes to dill, there is a lot to read about, like its curative powers in carbon tetrachloride–induced liver damage in rats. We can skip that literature. I prefer this little herbal remedy, from Spenser’s Faerie Queene:

 

. . . th’ aged Nurse her calling

to her bowre

Had gathered Rew, and Savine,

and the flowre

of Camphora, and Calamint,

and Dill.

All which she in a earthen Pot

did poure

And to the brim with Colt

wood did it fille

And many drops of milke and

bloude through it did spill.

 

Following this concoction, bound with a braid of her own hair and a secret spell intoned in a basso profundo, the nurse invites her princess, a “sicke virgin,” to spit in her face several times, in an uneven number. This, scholar Jessica Murphy surmises, is a sixteenth-century cure for “greensickness,” or unfocused female sexual desire, believed to plague pubescent girls, with halted menses being one of the symptoms and earlier digestive disorders possibly being a cause. The primary suggested cure was marriage, then sex. But what if the young woman wishes to remain in control of her own body? The nurse’s recipe matches herbal remedies at the time; dill was believed to ease stomach problems and was abortive.

Garland, garnish, carminative, cure—who knew dill was all these things? It freezes well, my mother says. I’ve a bouquet in the freezer ready for my next soup, my next stuffed cabbage. Or maybe just for my eyes, to soak up its bright color. How beautiful. Or shall I say dill-lightful?

 

Anca L. Szilágyi is the author of the novel Daughters of the Air. Her writing appears in Lilith magazine and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications.

 

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Comments

  1. Neat! I, too, love the smell and feel of dill, though I don’t cook with it much. Thanks for sharing!

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