Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the cookbook author Olia Hercules was working on new springtime recipes and preparing to file her taxes. Hercules lives with her family in North London, but she grew up in Kakhovka, in southern Ukraine, about a two hours’ drive from the Crimean border. In her first cookbook, “Mamushka,” she collected her family’s recipes: emerald-green sorrel broth, garlicky pampushky, potato cakes with goat cheese and blackberry sauce. “When people suggest that I must be used to the cold, I realize how inextricably bound the Western vision of Ukraine is with that of Russia — vast, gray and bleak,” she wrote in the introduction. “Yet the south of Ukraine is only an hour away from Turkey by air. Our winters are mild, our summers long and hot, and our food a cornucopia of color and flavor. ” When she thought of home, she thought of “giant sunflower heads and a pink tomato the size of a small grapefruit.”
Hercules’s parents still live in the Kherson region of Ukraine— “watermelon country,” she calls it in her book — and keep a garden full of tomatoes and prickly cucumbers in the summer. Before the war, her older brother Sasha lived in Kyiv and worked for an e-bike startup. On February 24th, the day of the invasion, she posted a video to Instagram asking people not to panic, “even though it’s utterly terrifying.” She spoke to her parents over the phone. A few days later, she was sitting in a restaurant with her husband when her brother called to inform her that he had joined Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces. They didn’t have enough helmets, vests, or food, he told her. “When he said that, I just went into this kind of adrenaline rush,” she told me. “You know, last week, you were drinking flat whites, and doing some kind of creative advertisement campaign, and now you’re running around trying to save Kyiv.”
She posted another video asking for donations to raise money for protective gear. “This is an urgent appeal,” she told her followers. “Café owners, IT people, bakers, chefs, you name it, all the professional, normal people are going to fight, because, if they don’t, Kyiv is going to fall, and it’s going to be a huge humanitarian disaster. ” Her Instagram feed became a help line and a repository for memories: an image of her mother, Olga, windswept on the beach around 1985, Hercules on her hip and Sasha at her side; resources for tech workers and translators wanting to offer their services to Ukraine; a photograph, from 2016, of Olga stretching dough for vertutaa long, winding pastry wrapped into a circle and filled with salty cheese.
Since her initial appeal, Hercules has become a kind of overnight activist in Britain, a source of information and organization for Ukrainians watching the war from abroad. Not long after the invasion, she attended a protest in central London with her friend, the Russian chef Alissa Timoshkina, the author of the cookbook “Salt & Time: Recipes from a Russian Kitchen.” They both cried a lot. “We just thought, OK, crying is OK — we need to let it out, but we also need to do something,” Hercules told me. They both had been involved in #CookForSyria, which raised funds for Syrian refugees, and Timoshkina tentatively suggested setting up something similar for Ukraine. She felt a little uncertain, looking around at the protest: “I kind of felt embarrassed, and I wasn’t even sure if I should be there, you know, if it’s appropriate for a Russian to be there,” she told me, but Hercules reassured her. They agreed to do something together. “I hate the idea of somebody’s identity being equated with the work of a tyrant,” Hercules told me. She told Timoshkina, “Don’t ever feel that way.”
They reached out to the anonymous food influencer Clerkenwell Boy, who helped set up the Syria fund, and he responded immediately. They built a JustGiving page and filled it with Ukrainian recipes: Ukrainian Jewish challah bread; rassolnik soup with beef, pearl barley, and sour cucumbers; stuffed cabbage leaves; meatballs from Odesa. There were Russian recipes, too: pelmeni dumplings in broth; layered cabbage pie. The campaign asks people to cook Ukrainian or Eastern European food in their homes or host informal supper clubs, and to consider making a donation. Professional chefs can also donate proceeds from Ukrainian dishes. All the funds go to UNICEF‘s operations in Ukraine. “These countries have shared a complex and rich history, and the culinary language reflects this relationship in the most powerful and relatable way,” Timoshkina wrote, on the Web site. “Let’s cook for peace, for freedom, for truth, for common sense, for rational thought, and for love.”
When I spoke with Hercules and Timoshkina on Zoom recently, #CookForUkraine had raised some two hundred thousand pounds for UNICEF Ukraine. (The figure is now closer to half a million.) On Instagram, more than nine thousand posts had used the hashtag alongside photos of potato pancakes, butter-bean salad, sunflower pastries, and Hercules’s mother’s biskvit apple cake. People were making varenyky, soft Ukrainian dumplings stuffed with cheese or sauerkraut, by the plateful. The two chefs were calling from their respective homes in London. Timoshkina was in a half-painted kitchen; Hercules was seated in front of cascading houseplants. They both looked a little tired. “It’s up and down, really,” Hercules said.
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The pair met in graduate school, in their mid-twenties, before either of them was a cookbook author. They were both pursuing degrees in the Languages and Cultures Department of Queen Mary University of London, and first spoke on a smoking break. (“We thought we were so cool,” Hercules said.) They were surprised to discover several similarities in their families’ backgrounds. “Our ethnic cultural makeup was almost mirrored,” Hercules told me. Timoshkina grew up in Siberia but has a Ukrainian great-grandmother; Hercules grew up in Ukraine but has a Siberian grandmother. Both of their mothers are named Olga. “We just clicked.”
In 2015, about a year after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, they threw their first fund-raising dinner together. At the time, Timoshkina had just completed a Ph.D. in depictions of the Holocaust in Soviet-era film, and Hercules had just finished “Mamushka.” “We showed a really amazing, trashy horror film,” Timoshkina said, of the trippy 1967 film “Viy” —produced by a Ukrainian filmmaker for a Soviet studio, based on a short story by Nikolai Gogol. Hercules cooked dishes from her book, and they served the food on rustic wooden tables, covered in embroidered tablecloths and pots of sunflowers. “We created this kind of vibe of a Ukrainian village,” Timoshkina said. “And it was quite witchy, ”Hercules added. “We should bring more of that back.”
Some participants of #CookForUkraine have been making Hercules’s and Timoshkina’s recipes side by side. Timoshkina had recently heard from someone who had made her pelmeni dumplings — a Siberian specialty with minced pork and beef, lots of butter, black pepper, and heaps of sour cream. Hercules’s Siberian grandmother used to make a similar dish, which she passed down to Hercules’s mother. “Every time my mom comes from Ukraine, she makes a big batch and we put them in the freezer,” she said. Her grandmother was forced to leave Siberia for Uzbekistan in the nineteen-fifties. “There’s just so many layers of hurt that goes back years, and years, and years,” Hercules said. “But is it the dumpling’s fault? Of course not. ”
Timoshkina had just had borscht soup for lunch. “To me, that is the taste of home, that’s the taste of childhood,” she said. Regional versions of the dish vary widely throughout Ukraine and Russia, “like hummus to the Middle East,” Timoshkina has written. “We all eat it, we all love it, yet we simply can’t imagine that any other country owns the rights to it.” Hercules’s borscht is meaty, with smoked pears; Timoshkina’s is vegetarian and calls for roasted beets and, unusually, pomegranate molasses. “A stroke of genius,” Hercules said, admiringly.
In January, Hercules’s parents visited London, but they soon returned to Kherson. The day of the invasion, she tried to convince them to leave once again, but they wanted to stay. “I was, like, ‘I’ll bloody drive and get you,’ and my dad was, like, ‘What the hell am I going to do in the UK?’ ”He told her,“ My life is here. ” “They said, ‘Why should we leave our home? This is our home, our animals, our trees, ‘”she said. “’We haven’t done anything wrong. We’re not going anywhere. ‘ ”By early March, the city was under Russian control, and Hercules was following the news anxiously. She dreams of bombings most nights. When she wakes, she sends a series of texts to her family. “I go for my phone, and then I start the messages: Yak vy, yak vy, yak vy. How are you? How are you? How are you? ” she said. “My brother, my parents, then I go to my nephews, my niece, then all of my extended family. Sometimes they’re, like, ‘OK’ Or sometimes my brother would send me a little video of himself and he’s smiling. He’s giving me strength. ”
Lately, neither woman has been able to eat much. “Since it started, I haven’t been able to cook at all,” Hercules said. “I can’t eat, and I can’t cook.” Timoshkina was also struggling. She had been watching her friends flee Moscow for Istanbul and other cities. Her parents left Russia a few years ago, but her grandmother remains there. “It’s extremely heartbreaking,” she said. Timoshkina’s mother has been making comfort food: “Meatballs and mash in a creamy mushroom sauce, chicken soup with noodles. And borscht. ” Hercules had recently spoken to her parents on the phone. Her mother was planting tomato seeds.