Following recipes isn’t exactly my strong suit. But I felt compelled to give Ossetian hand pies a try for Fourth of July. The food I most remember from childhood—apart from Italian takeout and hot dogs from Jackson roller rink—are my grandmother’s pierogi. She lived in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, a tight-knit Ukrainian-American community that centered around the Ukrainian Catholic church. I spent many hours with her there as a child, listening to her friends chat and make pierogi together. I do not remember my grandmother cooking anything except that—only challah bread and stuffed peppers and cabbage, the staples of a Ukrainian-American diet. My family came from Kiev about a hundred years ago—it’s not entirely clear from the records. My grandmother’s house was filled with wall-to-wall Ukrainian embroidery and ceramics. This left a deep impression on me. I carried this strong connection to Ukrainian culture throughout my life, despite being estranged from my father. When my grandmother died, my cousin saved many Ukrainian ceramics for me, including quite a few planters and a complete tea set. These are among my most valuable possessions.
The scope of crisis in Ukraine has been unfathomable and, sadly, continues. Fourth of July this year brings many complicated emotions about the cost of freedom and what it means to honor that freedom and celebrate, especially given recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions and escalating violence across America and throughout the world. The pragmatist in me immediately looks for any possible ways to help via donations, though it never feels like enough. Through much sadness, I have found myself connecting even more deeply with Ukrainian culture and the solace that can be found in shared traditions. The cookbook writer Olia Hercules has been a lifeline through these months, offering comfort through her approach to cooking and specific updates about family. I watched her video on making stuffed cabbage (holubsti) on an especially tough day. Even though I never learned to make this from my grandmother, I felt I was able to make it on my own (even a vegetarian version which I can’t imagine my grandmother ever doing). I want to make sure that Ukrainian culture is a living, breathing presence for my children, even in small ways. I did not realize the effect that this had on me till I was older but it is a vital part of who I am and where I am from. Today, I was able to make the pies with herbs, feta and haloumi cheese filling—it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever made, maybe because it’s made with so much feeling for Independence Day. This weekend I also made Ukrainian quick pickles and sauerkraut, with a mix of caraway, dill, chili and wild cumin. (Basically, what was available in the house.) It’s important to me that my children are exposed to these traditions and flavors even if they prefer macaroni and cheese and chicken tenders.
Earlier this year around Easter, I was able to order Ukrainian bread from a woman named Mary Sydor on Long Island. I received a call to pick up the bread from the deacon of a Ukrainian monastery a few miles from my home. This was a remarkable visit for me and my children—the monastery was located on a former Gold Coast estate. The deacon recognized my last name as Ukrainian. I did not know if I would change my name when I got my marriage license almost 15 years ago but when I got to the head of the line at city hall, it was clear to me that I couldn’t—that’s my name. For many years, I felt like I wasn’t part of any one culture, or from any place even—just a mix of British, French Canadian, Irish, Scottish and Ukrainian. I’m all of these things and proud of my Ukrainian-American heritage. In the spring, I attended a workshop with a Ukrainian woman who taught us regional embroidery, including how to sew a star of protection. She said that many Ukrainians started taking classes following the outbreak of the war to calm themselves down. Right now, there’s so much suffering in the world, it’s hard to know where to look, how to take care of others and ourselves. Here are some people and organizations I’ve found in recent months whose work I support. Please share other ways to help that speak to you.
Ukrainian bread/St. Josaphat’s in Glen Cove, NY https://www.ediblelongisland.com/2022/03/28/chef-mary-sydor-is-baking-paska-for-ukraine/
Olia Hercules cooking channel—proceeds go to family members and employees in Ukraine
Handmade embroidery from Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine
Razom (provides very detailed updates on where donations go) http://www.razom.org
Sandy Hook Promise (longtime effort to protect children from gun violence in schools) http://www.sandyhookpromise.org
Black Mamas Matter https://blackmamasmatter.org