Black Nightshade and Bierocks

Connecting to my Volga German ancestors through recipes

Volga German workers at the Portland Cracker Bakery. Photo courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society

In my garden, between my hardy kiwi and peach tree, I grow black nightshade. Also called wonderberry, this edible strain of Solanum nigrum is much like the rest of its family: weedy and shrubby in habit, with ruffly-edged leaves, sparsely covered in fine velvet. Its flowers are white and pendulous, anthers protruding like pert yellow noses; its spherical dull-black berries are sweet like a blueberry, but are only safe to eat when fully ripe. Until then, they contain a high concentration of solanine, a poison that can cause vomiting, stomach cramps, and fever.

I grow this strange plant to feel a connection to my Volga German ancestors, the Arndts. They knew it as Schwartzbeeren and used the berries to fill pies and ravioli-like Maultaschen or served them over plain dumplings with melted butter and cream. They brought these berries with them from Norka, in Russia’s Volga River basin, where they and hundreds of thousands of other ethnic Germans settled between leaving their homeland in southern Germany two and a half centuries ago and emigrating once again 150 years later. Most of these Volga Germans settled in the American Midwest, but hundreds of families came to Portland. My family was among them. 

I grow nightshade because it’s one of the only connections I have to a once-vibrant community that made its mark on Portland’s culinary history. There was Sinner’s smoked sausage, originally sold at John Sinner’s mid-century Fremont Market, now available at New Seasons Market. Steinfeld’s dill pickles, now sold nationwide, were made in Portland for nearly ninety years. There were dozens of neighborhood meat markets and bakeries. But today, the history and culture of Portland’s Volga Germans are almost forgotten. 

 

In Nebraska, Kansas, and the Dakotas, traditional Volga German fare is well-represented, plainly visible in fast-food restaurants and grocery stores. The Volga Germans of America’s breadbasket hold grand Schmeckfests—traditional feasts that bring the entire community together. “Ja, pazhalsta”—“yes” in German and “please” in Russian—reply the elders when asked if they’d like another slice of sweet Kuchen. In Portland, our Wolgadeutsche community is far more dispersed and loose-knit, and its culinary heritage could die with the last elders who observed it.

When the Seven Years’ War ended in 1763, German-born Catherine the Great issued a manifesto to invite those who’d been affected by the war to colonize the Russian steppe, focusing her recruitment on Germany. In 1766, my ancestors left Hesse, Germany, following the rallying cry of their beloved empress, for the Russian colony of Norka, near modern-day Saratov. In all, 104 German colonies were established by the Russian government. 

The German immigrants were promised absolute autonomy throughout the country. They were allowed to keep their religions and High German language, though they picked up some Russian loanwords. They weren’t required to serve in the military or even pay most taxes. Bringing their wheat farming and milling technology with them, along with tobacco, potatoes, and advanced shepherding methods, the immigrants earned their keep by modernizing Russian agriculture. 

The Germans got along fine for about a century, preserving their traditions and Hessian dialects (similar to the German spoken by the Pennsylvania Dutch) in their insular villages until the late nineteenth century. When the Russian government began chipping away at their privileges in the 1870s, the Germans packed up their things once more. The loss of freedom from military service in particular was a deal-breaker for the Mennonites among them. There weren’t many opportunities waiting for them back in Germany, so they headed to the Americas.  

Of those who immigrated to the United States, most moved to the wheat-growing American breadbasket to resume farming. A few bad years of wheat failures and locusts drove some west in search of other work. They took railroad jobs in the Pacific Northwest, where they found lush farmland and a large German-speaking population. 

By the end of the nineteenth century, Portland had emerged as a major wheat-milling and -exporting city of the West, outshining Seattle and even San Francisco. The heavily forested areas surrounding Portland weren’t suited to growing wheat, however, so many German-Russian farmers who came to the Northwest moved to the Palouse prairie of eastern Washington. Those who landed in Portland took urban jobs, working in the city’s many flour mills and steam bakeries. Some opened diners, meat markets, and grocery stores; others took work in the rail yards or began the city’s earliest garbage hauling services. 

When the first Volga Germans arrived in the late 1800s, they settled the Albina area, then a railroad company town that had not yet been annexed into the City of Portland. Land there was affordable, allowing the Volga Germans to build houses near one another and keep the close ties and traditions they’d held for a century in Russia. The onion dome that once sat atop the Hill Block Building at North Russell and Williams—and now tops a gazebo in Dawson Park—helped give Albina the nickname “Little Russia.” 

By the 1950s, the children of Volga German immigrants had grown up in Portland and started families of their own, often marrying outside the community. Many dispersed to suburbs east of Portland. Freeway and urban renewal projects in the Albina neighborhood displaced the German, Polish, and Black business districts. As more of the Wolgadeutsche integrated with the surrounding community, fewer traditions were passed down, including family recipes. 

Along with their language and religious beliefs, Volga Germans maintained their culinary autonomy in Russia, adopting few influences from their neighbors. There are a some exceptions: the Wolgadeutsche word for pancake, Belina, comes from the Russian blini, and the word for watermelon is arbus in both languages. The traditional Bierock, a bread stuffed with cabbage, onions, and ground beef, resembles pierog in etymology and is similar to Russian meat pies, pirozhki. (The alternate name Kraut Kuchen is apparently unique to Portland, but another name, Runza, is commonly used in Kansas and Nebraska, where there’s a chain of fast-food restaurants by the same name.) Dishes like the fried meat pie Fleischkuekle, appear to be influenced by the Kazakhs who also populated the region. 

Among all the groups of Germans who lived in Russia, there were several common types of dishes that reflect an overlap in Russian and German cuisines. There are cucumber and lettuce salads; sour dill pickles, pickled watermelon, and other Russian-style fruit preserves; various meat pies; meat aspics and head cheeses; chicken noodle and dumpling soups; and an abundance of brown bread, cabbage and potatoes, caraway, and dill. These foods are testament to the grit of people living on tough land. “Rye” and “rugged” could almost be etymological cousins.

There are numerous dishes unique to the German-Russians, too. Apples, cherries, and pears are pickled in brine or dried for Schnitzsuppe (dried fruit soup) to eat with fried doughnuts, called Krebbel. The tender flesh of watermelons is pickled or cooked down into treacle to use as a sweetener. There are various berry dumplings like Ebenglace, not quite German nor Russian. Somewhat resembling Russian sour cherry vareniki, they’re stuffed with chopped strawberries, boiled in water, then tossed in melted butter and cream and eaten with sausages as an entrée. 

 

Food traditions and culture tend to be passed down from mothers to daughters, but before me, the last girl born on my Volga German (Arndt) side was my grandfather’s older sister. I ate Bierock only once in my childhood, when my mom attempted to learn the food of her in-laws. I have no idea who taught her how, since my parents and grandparents have passed away. 

When she left Russia, my great-grandmother brought her recipes in her head. When my family arrived in Portland in 1912, she probably did her best to recreate them using local ingredients. But because of hostilities toward Germans during World War I, many first-generation immigrants to Portland made efforts to not just hide their ethnicity, but to shed it completely. My great-grandparents insisted their children speak English even at home, and they stopped reading German newspapers. They learned to prefer packaged, white Franz bread to the sturdy brown rye of their former homeland. In 150 years, my ancestors never became Russian, but they became American in less than one generation.

And so I grew up without the culinary traditions of my father’s people. But like the black nightshade and my family, I am resilient and tenacious. Tenacity drove me to recreate the Bierocks and borscht that should have been my birthright, and although my versions may be less traditional, they are always deeply satisfying. Whenever I make these foods I am sure to remind my young son that this is the food of his people. 

Even if they don’t come from our mothers, traditional foods are an umbilicus. I may not speak the muddled language of the Wolgadeutsche, but I still embrace the ethnochaos of a Bierock. And I grow black nightshade in my Portland garden because it roots me in my family history.   

Comments

19 comments have been posted.

My grandpa and grandma Klein lived on 9th and Fremont next door to church. We lived with them on weekends. They came from Frank russia to hastings Nebraska to Portland. Taught us her recipes. So much to say about her

Gale klein | April 2019 | Oregon

I grew up on NE 10th and Siskiyou! There was an Arndt family who lived on the corner of 8th and Siskiyou! They had a daughter who was a good friend of my sister. This was probably 1955 or so. Both of my grandparents were Volga Germans and I grew up eating a lot of wonderful foods ... I do have the German Cookbook from the Germans from Russia Society! My grandparents lived on 7th and Ivy ... across from Irving Park ... is a very staunch German community. Familiar names ... Herter, Adler, Arndt, Starkel, on and on ... great rememberences

Paul Whalen | March 2019 | From PDX ... Now FL

Very good article, I too experienced some of these foods, but as I came on the scene later on, I was still pretty young when I lost most of my relatives. It's only recently that I'm learning a bit about those that came before me. ❤️

Jenny Sinner | February 2019 |

Such an elegant essay about reclaiming lost traditions. Your writing is superb. My grandmother's grandparents were German, and she had some cookies that she made from a recipe that was handed down. She also made preserves, pickles, jellies, and garnishes, along with some other exotic bottled concoctions. I wish I had asked her for some of her recipes. She died years ago at 104. This is a lovely essay. I enjoyed it so much.

Theresa Griffin Kennedy | February 2019 | Portland, Oregon.

Great article, thank you. My dad (born 1939) talks about growing up in Germantown, Portland... meaning NE 10th & Prescott. I remember his mother, Mary Hein (nee Gerlitz) baking Springerle cookies for Christmas. Both the Hein and Gerlitz families were Volga Germans via Calgary, I believe. Regardless of my personal connection, the article was a great mix of culinary social history and memoir. Thank you.

Matthew Hattie Hein | January 2019 | San Diego, CA

My grandparents also came from Norka, but they came separately. They met in Lincoln, Nebraska, she was waiting tables. She told me she didn’t flirt any more than any 16year old would flirt. My grandfather went to my great grandmother and she wanted to marry her. She was beat for flirting, and when he came back with $200, she was beat because she didn’t want to marry him. “We had a three day wedding celebration, and I never loved him.” She was never bitter. She divorced him in the mid twenties. After they married, they moved to Portland to join my grandmother’s brothers in their garbage business. They lived on 14th and Mason. We still make noodles, Belina, Kraut Kuchen, strawberry dumplings and I’ve tried Russian rye as we called it. It’s a light rye. My grandmother’s maiden name was Schleiger.

Patricia Pfenning | December 2018 | Portland, Oregon

My German Family settled in Fargo, Oklahoma via Dreispitz, Russia. My German Feil aunts made egg noodles and hung them over chairs. With these noodles they made chicken soup with butterballs. Best soup in the world. They also made Bierock. My Mother (German and Scotch) learned to make the Bierock, and she was famous for them. I have the recipe but am not a good cook. This article has inspired me to learn to make Bierock in vegeterian form. And Oddly enough, I now live in The Palouse region of Washington State where there are many German Russians. I was aquaintances with several of them for a while before we discovered this. And we are all artists. My Father was Rhineheart Gottfried Feil.

Barbara L Feil | December 2018 | Pullman, Wa.

Such similar cooking experiences from my Volga German grandparents on both sides. I too make bierocks, kuchen, Greble or is Krepfle correct. My family worked sugar beets in Michigan and also Ft. Collins, CO. Wonderful food heritage. Wish it would continue.

Betty guenther | December 2018 | Michigan

Jeanne Scheneman -- Conrad Arndt was my grandfather's older brother. Please feel free to email me through my website, which is linked here. Ann Schnell Dodd -- Thank you for your interest! Links to my books are on my website. Lisa Hetzler -- I thought that New Seasons was using the Sinners' recipe for the sausage at their N. Williams (Albina) location. Is this no longer the case?

Heather Arndt Anderson | December 2018 | Portland, OR

My grandmother used nightshade fruits to accent her apple pies, have not had them in years. Fast forward to today. ...that pesky weed in my garden turns out to be nightshade. Didn't know that until I couldn't keep up with the weeds and some of them matured. Nightshade is an enemy of soybean farmers around here. If the ripe berries go through the combine, they'll stain the soybeans and they will be discounted when marketed. Grandma called the nightshade blayberries. I'm a wee bit more tolerate of the aggressive weed these days.

Matt | December 2018 | Ashley ND

My grandfather and grandmother are also Wolgadeutsche.. He was also from Norka. He met my grandmother, from another village in Denver. Both families had emigrated there. My grandmother also had a patch of black nightshade in her garden, and would occasionally allow us to eat the berries. Kraut kuchen was what most of their German community called bierocks. We grew up on rye bread and many other of the wonderful foods you wrote about. Wonderful memories!

Marsha Hellquist | December 2018 |

My ancestors came from Norka, but settled in Brush, Colorado, and I also make Kraut Bierock and wonderberry pies. I LOVE the taste of raw wonderberries and have never suffered the consequences. Still need to make Krebbel.

Donna Blum Ward | December 2018 | Newport News, VA

Wie Suss! Du bist nicht allein.

George Peters | December 2018 | Midland

What a fantastic article!! This is so close to my story, I can't believe it! My Grandparents were George and Charlotte Hempel, from Huck. My Grandpa worked for Czar Nicholas, they left in August of 1911. My Mom was only 3 weeks old. Across Russia to France, then the US through Ellis Island. They buried a baby boy in Kings, NY, then left for Kansas where they worked for black dirt farmers. When they had enough money, they went to Colorado where they met up with My Grandmas Brother George. He stayed there, and they moved on North to Canada. They stopped in Calgary, Alberta and worked to get more money saved up, then bought a farm NE of here, around Beiseker. That's where they stopped and settled. In 1945 they sold the farm and moved back to Calgary, to Bridgeland, the neighborhood then known as Germantown. I am very proud and lucky to be a descendant of such strong and wonderful people. i was so lucky to have had them, i learned so much from them, and use it all to this day. All of the foods that you talk about, i make all the time. kraut bruk(bierok), grebel, dumplings, chicken noodle soup, kuchen, headcheese, sour kraut, dill pickles, rye and brown bread, homemade noodles. I have had all of this and more my whole life, and i am truly thankful. Like you said, they wanted nothing more than to fit in, they kept their foods and traditions inside the home, but were very Canadian on the outside. My Moms given name was Anna Marguerita but the only name anyone knew was Margaret. She spoke perfect English even though she never spoke a word of English until grade 1. She gave us all very Canadian first names and made sure we spoke and read perfectly. Reading your story is a breath of fresh air, like going back to my childhood! Thank you so much!! I hope you don't mind, i am going to send it to a friend that has the website.....Germans from Russia, Foodways and Traditions. You should look it up, it's so informational.

janice l shaben | December 2018 | Calgary, Alberta, Canada

I enjoyed Heather's article very much. A few things to note. Sinner's Sausage is no longer sold at New Seasons. My Herder cousins and I get together to make Ebenglace every June. As soon as the Hood Strawberries are ripe. Delicious and utterly fattening, served with sausage- this is a multigenerational event. One of my cousins still makes Rye Bread. The same recipe passed down from Great Grandmother, to Grandmother to Mother. I am Volga German on both sides of my family. My father, John Sinner, was part of the Repp family and my Mother Frances Herder Sinner was part of the Schnell family. We were all raised to enjoy and appreciate so many of these wonderful foods that you mentioned. In fact, I think the first of the year would be a great time to make Kraut Kuchen. Thank you so much for sharing your article and about the plant in your yard.

Lisa Sinner HETZLER | December 2018 | BEAVERTON

My husband's family come in in 1912 from Norma, Russia and settled in Nebraska. Their name was. CONRAD ARNDT. They brought a niece with them her name was Katherine Arndt. Please email me if a possible connection. Thank you.

Jeanne Scheneman | December 2018 |

Thank you for sharing your thoughts & memories...my families all come from Norka, settled in Portland as well...married others with same backgrounds, and many migrated into Vancouver, Wa. and Idaho... we all have a wonderful connection..... I'm new at exploring our history but articles like yours help bring it all home! Thanks again💐

Sandra | December 2018 | San Diego, Ca

Thanks for the memories! I would be interested in your writings/books. Looking forward to hearing from you.

Ann Schnell Dodd | December 2018 | Mesa, Arizona

Heather,Didn't read all your story yet. too long .Did get down to the part where you mention your g.grandmother not wanting her family to speak German or anything pertaining to it...My grandparents came to Portland from Norka,Russia in about 1903.. As far as I know my family always talked german and ate german food and my grandmother had her german paper each month. This is what I know from the 1940s, living with my grandmother and dad. I never heard my father say he couldn't speak german at home. He and his siblings learn English at school. My grandfather and father and uncle and cousins were all garbagemen, and we had a section of germans in our neighborhood along with Greek and Jewish families. I am only 2nd gerneration Oregonian on my dads side and 3rd on my moms. But I did get to join the DAR...drop me a line. thanks. Shirley I remember eating all the foods you mentioned. My mother inlaw later cooked from some of those receipes. We lived on 8th and Siskiyou..My grandparents of course lived in other places before this.

Shirley Spady Hill | December 2018 | Dallas,Oregon

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Black Nightshade and Bierocks

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Croppings: Enrique Chagoya, Reverse Anthropology