How Home Cooks Are Supporting Ukrainians Right Now
Around the world, home cooks are using bake sales and social media to raise money and awareness for displaced Ukrainians.
On February 26, Olia Hercules posted an image of a printed photo on Instagram: “My mum, my brother and me. Circa 1985 by the Black or Azov sea. I look as fierce and pissed off as I am right now,” reads the start of the caption. “Sasha, my brother, is now in Kyiv. We are taking everything into our own hands.” This was two days after the Russian military began a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and it was not Hercules’s first post on the matter. The London-based chef and author of the cookbooks Summer Kitchens: Recipes and Reminiscences from Every Corner of Ukraine, and Mamushka: Recipes from Ukraine and Eastern Europe was in the midst of starting what would soon become a worldwide fundraising and awareness campaign, "#CookForUkraine".
Hercules, along with her friend, the food writer Alissa Timoshkina; social personality Clerkenwell Boy; and Unicef's NEXTGen London team, led by Layla Yarjani, established an official Just Giving page—within 24 hours, they’d raised over $7000 for Unicef UK. The hashtag was flooded with images of Ukrainian dishes made by home cooks and chefs alike, many sharing personal anecdotes about their relationships to the country and escalating conflict. Over the past week, they raised over $150,000.
“[We’re] encouraging people to cook dishes from Ukraine and Eastern Europe and post them online with the hashtag #CookForUkraine, and then share the fundraising link,” Timoshkina, who is also the author of the cookbook Salt and Time: Recipes from a Russian Kitchen, told me. “That way we encourage people to spread the word, and also to educate themselves about food from that part of the world. And to approach a quite complex political conflict through a much more kind and relatable sphere, food.”
It has been especially difficult for private citizens in Russia to get unbiased information about the war. This has proved frustrating for those based outside of the area who have family in both Russia and Ukraine. Timoshkina explained that she and Hercules have both Ukrainian and Russian roots, and asserts that many “ordinary Russians and ordinary Ukrainians love each other and don't want this war. This war is Putin's war.”
Scroll through "#CookForUkraine" on Instagram and you’ll see garlic and herb-studded pampushky; shchavel borscht topped with a fat dollop of sour cream; fruit-topped Lviv syrnyk, each with a personal anecdote and/or a message spreading awareness about the fundraising campaign. This was a specific intention of Hercules and Timoshkina’s. In sharing links to their (and others’) Eastern European recipes on their Just Giving page, they hope to contextualize those directly impacted by the conflict. “Part of [being] a good food writer is not just to share the recipe but the stories behind it. Olia [Hercules] has traveled to remote parts of Ukraine collecting recipes from communities that have never actually been documented before. So there's a real sense of history connected to food and to the food that we are sharing.” added Timoshkina.
"#CookForUkraine" is one of many endeavors that home cooks can participate in to raise awareness and support for Ukrainians through food. The social community Bakers Against Racism launched "#BakeForUkraine" on February 26. The ongoing initiative encourages bakers of all levels to host a bake sale and donate money to a number of relief organizations, from Sunflower of Peace to International Rescue Committee. Bakers Against Racism also remains dedicated to advocacy for global antiracism: one Instagram post calls attention to the fact that “Afro-Ukrainians and African students living abroad are facing challenges seeking refuge and safety,” calling for anyone with information and resources for Black people in the area to comment.
When the conflict first escalated, the nonprofit World Central Kitchen immediately mobilized directly in the area. Their team of chefs and volunteers partnered with local restaurants to provide food for families sheltering in place in several Ukrainian cities, as well as in neighboring Poland, Romania, and Moldova for those who had just crossed the border. Home cooks living far away and feeling helpless were given another way to help through Deb Perelman, who runs the popular blog Smitten Kitchen. Perelman launched a fundraising campaign on Instagram for people at home to directly contribute to WCK’s efforts. Her photo of a recipe for potato vareniki, (originally from a 2019 blog post) circulated wildly around Instagram; as of March 8, participants have raised over $235,000.
For Olga Koutseridi, an Austin-based baker and writer, the conflict in Ukraine is deeply personal. Koutseridi was born in Mariupol, a city that has been under heavy attacks this past week. She typically runs a “micro-bakery” out of her home kitchen on weekends, taking orders for sourdough-based baked goods and burnt Basque cheesecakes through her newsletter. When she learned of the Russian invasion, she decided to run a special sale on cheesecakes, offering them throughout the week with a promise of 100 percent of profits to be distributed between a few charitable organizations benefiting Ukrainians. As of March 7, Koutseridi has raised over $4000.
“A lot of my efforts are put into the fundraiser because that’s the only agency that I have, the only sense of aid I feel like I can contribute to people that are really far away,” she told me over the phone. “Doing this through food is especially powerful. Ukraine is [known as] the ‘breadbasket of Europe.’ Being from that area I always had a special relationship with grains.”
As good as it feels to bake, the situation remains fraught. Koutseridi said her grandmother has been living in a friend’s basement. “They’ve been without power, water, electricity. People are cooking on fires outside…In the past 72 hours, we’ve lost all connection, there’s no internet, we can’t reach our family.”
Koutseridi worries that people who are not directly impacted by the war will soon forget about it. “Anything I can do to amplify the voices of people there…I think Olia [Hercules] and Alissa [Timoshkina] said, ‘We have to keep the momentum going.’”
Koutseridi’s cheesecake sale to benefit Ukrainian charities is open through next weekend, if not longer. (She’s also accepting donations via Venmo for those who aren’t local.) “I’ll bake until I physically can’t!” she writes in a caption on an Instagram post.
“Baking has always been a form of advocacy,” she added when we spoke, naming a few local restaurant projects. “We all have the same intention, helping through food.”
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