Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, cookbook author Olia Hercules was working on new spring recipes and preparing her tax returns. Hercules lives in north London with her family but grew up in Kakhovka in southern Ukraine, about a two-hour drive from the Crimean border. In her first cookbook “Mamuschka” she collected her family’s recipes: emerald green sorrel broth, garlic pampushki, Potato cake with goat cheese and blackberry sauce. “When people say I have to get used to the cold, I realize how inseparable the Western vision of Ukraine is from Russia’s – vast, gray and desolate,” she wrote in the introduction. “Nevertheless, southern Ukraine is only an hour’s flight from Turkey. 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’ parents still live in the Kherson region of Ukraine – “land of watermelons,” as she calls it in her book – and tend a garden full of tomatoes and cucumbers in the summer. Her older brother Sasha lived in Kyiv before the war and worked for an e-bike startup. On February 24, the day of the invasion, she posted a video on Instagram urging people not to panic “even though it’s absolutely terrifying.” She phoned her parents. A few days later, she was sitting in a restaurant with her husband when her brother called to say that he had joined the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces. They didn’t have enough helmets, vests or food, he told her. “When he said that, I got this kind of adrenaline rush,” she told me. “You know, last week you were drinking flat whites and doing some kind of creative ad campaign and now you’re going 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. “Cafe owners, IT people, bakers, cooks, whatever, all the professional, everyday people will fight because if they don’t, Kyiv will fall and it will become a huge humanitarian catastrophe. Her Instagram feed became a hotline and repository for memories: a picture of her mother Olga, lying windswept on a beach circa 1985, Hercules on her hip and Sasha at her side; Resources for technicians and translators who want to offer their services to Ukraine; a photo from 2016, where Olga stretches dough Virtuea long, winding dough wrapped in a circle and filled with salty cheese.
Since her first appeal, Hercules has become something of an 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, Russian chef Alissa Timoshkina, author of the cookbook Salt & Time: Recipes from a Russian Kitchen. Both cried a lot. “We just thought, OK, crying is okay – we have to let it out, but we also have to do something,” Hercules told me. They were both involved in #CookForSyria, which raised funds for Syrian refugees, and Timoshkina tentatively suggested setting up something similar for Ukraine. She was a little unsure looking around at the protest: “I was kind of 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 someone’s identity being equated with the work of a tyrant,” Hercules told me. She said to Timoshkina: “Never feel like this.”
They reached out to 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 pickles; stuffed cabbage leaves; Meatballs from Odessa. There were also Russian recipes: pelmeni dumplings in broth; layered cabbage pie. The campaign urges people to cook Ukrainian or Eastern European food in their homes or host informal supper clubs and consider making a donation. Professional chefs can also donate proceeds from Ukrainian dishes. All funds go to UNICEF‘s operations in Ukraine. “These countries share a complex and rich history, and the culinary language reflects that relationship in the most powerful and relatable way,” Timoshkina wrote on the website. “Let’s cook for peace, for freedom, for truth, for common sense, for rational thinking and for love.”
Speaking to Hercules and Timoshkina on Zoom recently, #CookForUkraine had raised around £200k UNICEF Ukraine. (The number 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 buns and that of Hercules’ mother biscuit Apple Cake. people did Varenyky, soft Ukrainian dumplings filled with cheese or sauerkraut, by the plate. The two chefs called from their respective homes in London. Timoshkina was in a half-painted kitchen; Hercules sat in front of falling houseplants. They both looked a bit tired. “It’s really up and down,” said Hercules.
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The couple met in grad school, in their mid-twenties, before either of them was a cookbook author. They were both studying at the Department of Languages and Cultures at Queen Mary University of London and spoke for the first time during a smoking break. (“We thought we were so cool,” Hercules said.) They were surprised to discover some 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 mothers are called Olga. “We just clicked.”
In 2015, about a year after Russia annexed Crimea, they held their first benefit dinner together. At the time, Timoshkina had just completed his Ph.D. in portrayals 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 wacky 1967 film Viy – produced by a Ukrainian filmmaker for a Soviet studio and based on a short story by Nikolai Gogol. Hercules cooked dishes from their book, and they served the food on rustic wooden tables covered with embroidered tablecloths and pots of sunflowers. “We created this kind of atmosphere of a Ukrainian village,” said Timoshkina. “And it was quiet witchy‘ added Hercules. “We should bring back more of it.”
Some participants of #CookForUkraine prepared recipes of Hercules and Timoshkina side by side. Timoshkina had recently heard from someone who made them pelmeni Dumplings – a Siberian specialty with minced pork and beef, lots of butter, black pepper and lots of sour cream. Hercules’ Siberian grandmother used to prepare a similar dish, which she passed on to Hercules’ mother. “Every time my mom comes from Ukraine, she makes a big batch and we put it in the freezer,” she said. Her grandmother was forced to leave Siberia for Uzbekistan in the 1950s. “There’s just so many layers of injury going back years and years and years,” Hercules said. “But is the dumpling to blame? Of course not.”
Timoshkina had just had borscht soup for lunch. “For me, this is the taste of home, this is the taste of childhood,” she said. Regional versions of the dish vary widely in Ukraine and Russia, “like hummus in the Middle East,” Timoshkina wrote. “We all eat it, we all love it, but we just can’t imagine any other country owning the rights to it.” Hercules’ borscht is meaty, with smoked pears; Timoshkina’s is vegetarian and calls for roasted beets and, unusually, pomegranate syrup. “A stroke of genius,” said Hercules admiringly.
In January, Hercules’ parents visited London, but they soon returned to Kherson. On the day of the invasion, she tried to convince them to leave again, but they wanted to stay. “I was like, ‘I’m going to f**king go and pick you up’, and my dad was like, ‘What the hell am I supposed to do in the UK?’ ‘ He said to her, ‘My life is here.’ ‘They said, ‘Why should we leave home? This is our home, our animals, our trees,” she said. “‘We didn’t do anything wrong. We’re not going anywhere.’ “By the beginning of March the city was under Russian control and Hercules followed the news with concern. She dreams of bombings most nights. When she wakes up, she sends a series of messages to her family. “I grab my phone and then start the messages: Yakwy, jakvy, jakvy. How are you? How are you? How are you?” She said. “My brother, my parents, then I go to my nephews, to my niece, then to my whole extended family. Sometimes they said ‘OK’ or sometimes my brother would send me a little video of himself and he smiled. He gives me strength.”
Recently, none of the women have been able to eat much. “I haven’t been able to cook at all since it started,” Hercules said. “I can’t eat and I can’t cook.” Timoshkina also had problems. She had watched her friends flee Moscow to Istanbul and other cities. Her parents left Russia a few years ago, but her grandmother stays there. “It’s extremely heartbreaking,” she said. Timoshkina’s mother makes home cooking: “Meatballs and mashed potatoes in a creamy mushroom sauce, chicken soup with noodles. And borscht.” Hercules had recently spoken to her parents on the phone. Her mother planted tomato seeds.