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An Interview With: Olia Hercules

Author and activist Olia Hercules was having a positive start to the year before her home country came under attack from Russian Forces. Since the invasion, Olia has worked tirelessly spreading awareness, raising millions for charity. Interestingly, Olia works on maintaining Ukraine’s presence in popular culture delicately, discussing culture and presenting food to enable people to best understand a nation in need of support.

This aside, Olia has spent the last five years writing a collection of award-winning culinary books, focusing on heritage recipes from Ukrainian culture, as well as recipes surrounding Eastern European countries.

Jai: Throughout 2022, you have combined your culinary skill with your desire to raise awareness and funds to aid the war effort in Ukraine with the #CookForUkraine campaign. How has the campaign developed and evolved throughout this year? (perhaps expanding into the Legacy of War work) 

Olia: So, there have been two branches of work – we started #CookForUkraine on the day of the invasion. Me and my friend Alissa Timoshkina met at a protest, traumatised and upset. We didn’t know how to deal with what was happening – how can you? But, we felt we had to do something to help. We were both involved in #CookForSyria in a small way and we knew the team behind it – so we got in touch to ask for help in setting up a similar process to aid support in my home country. As this started happening, my brother joined the Territorial Army as Head of Logistics helping provide food and nourishment to hundreds of soldiers in Kyiv.  Just to make a distinction, everything we have done for Ukraine is humanitarian, for children, the vulnerable. 

My other more personal work was to raise money for protective gear for his regiment, and also to help families that remain in the occupied territories. Alissa took the reins to start with over the first three months of #CookForUkraine, it was crazy trying to source military gear, you wouldn’t believe it. Also, I was trying to help get my parents out of the country; my parents left when it was possible, charities do a lot of good work and I have supported them. I was doing my best to financially support people trying to get out of the country, but as the borders became increasingly dangerous and war expanded, this had to unfortunately stop. 

So, we had both of these projects running at once. I was involved but doing a lot of press and PR. By the time my parents left and my brother had his kit I got more involved. We started to get people to cook Ukranian food, and to use the hashtag as we both knew the hashtag would work and people would find some comfort and understanding in it. It is so hard to be plugged into horrific headlines of death and violence, so we tried to work in a positive, more gentle way, reminding people that Ukraine is still here and still battling. If you are cooking a Ukrainian dish, you will talk about the culture, the families, everything that is going on, food is a gateway to understanding other cultures and people. It has gone very well, and we have raised close to £2 million for UNICEF and we encourage people to donate to smaller charities – Choose Love and Legacy of War are also associated with all of the work we are doing, both in food and with getting clothing to our defenders. They have been beyond amazing. Giles Duley, the founder of Legacy of War is a friend. He lost a few limbs in Afghanistan, he stepped on a landmine working as a war photographer. He has been involved in helping people in wars since setting it up and has been extremely present, I am so grateful. He has been to Ukraine for weeks at a time, he has been teaming up with Women’s March Kyiv – setting up a shelter for vulnerable women and the LGBTQ community.  Despite the pain and hurt, we have tried to do our best and will continue to do so. There is plenty more to do. 

Jai: You appear to have a desire and willingness to help educate people, what inspires this?

Olia: Well, I think curiosity and learning are, in my family and in my own life, really rather huge. My grandparents, due to war and deportations, never got a higher education, but they have always been curious and knowledge-loving. My grandma had six children, a small holding, and worked the land. She would always ask my uncle to get books from the library and she would do all of her work and then, late at night, would start reading french novels. 

That thirst for knowledge has always been there. It has always been special. It is mind-opening. I love learning about other cultures, you know, writing about my own culture and our food throughout my books has been a beautiful process. Ukraine has been in the shadow of the Soviet Union and Russia for so long – people would hear me say I am Ukrainian and call me Russian. I have been hit by stereotypes my whole life. I am from the south of Ukraine, it is mediterranean there. The country is beautiful, and people haven’t been, but I hope one day they can. We have  beautiful writers and artists – even though Russia appropriates a lot of our work. 

Jai: One quote of yours that has always stood out to me is “cooking is an act of defiance” – please could you let me know what that means? 

Olia: It stemmed from my experiences eating and cooking when the war started in February. When you go through the state of trauma most of us went through, I couldn’t eat or cook. Normally, cooking for me is therapy, it is something that brings me joy – an ultimate mindfulness, it does wonders for my brain. When war started, I lost this power. I lost my power.  I couldn’t find joy in life, it felt painful – even hugging my children felt painful, it felt wrong. How could I feel joy when my people couldn’t? My parents left via italy and ended up in Berlin. I went to meet them there in my cousin’s house in Berlin atop a twisted hill. They had been driving for five days, away from war, and I wanted them to come in and smell the food. It was the first time I had cooked since the war started and I felt empowered again, I felt a sense of ownership and healing. That felt like defiance. I spoke to my mum in the months that followed – I kept cancelling all media appearances. I just couldn’t focus and I would be deeply depressed. My mother told me that this is what warfare is, it isn’t just on the battlefield they are trying to break us psychologically – you can’t let them beat you on the inside. We are tortured from a distance, people are tortured in person – it is awful. You are plunged into horror but you have to maintain your mind. For me, I had to keep cooking and working, that was when the passion came back and that is when I realised that cooking, eating, taking care of our families and continuing to work is an act of defiance

Jai: Arguably the best way to understand a culture is to understand its food. How would you best characterise Ukrainian food/ingredients/recipes? 

Olia: Deeply connected to the land and the local environment. Like people, nature in Ukraine is central. So much has been damaged, Kherson has been obliterated. The history of my area has been damaged, we had some amazing agricultural practices. Whole populations have been plucked out and sent to somewhere else. Our villages have been flooded. Despite all of this destruction, people kept going. But the idea of land, the sun, the climate – it is central to our food culture in all facets. We are a unified organism in Ukraine. We love the land, we play with the seasons all of the time. Traditionally you get some different spicing depending on which country is near to your area of the border, but typical Ukrainian cuisine is not so much based on spicing, but it is all about quality, fresh, seasonal ingredients. The summer kitchen always existed in Ukraine. When my grandparents gave birth to my mother, the first thing they did was to build a full kitchen – it is the hive of the family and hub of the house.

Preservation is always something we have done – it is normal across certain parts of Europe. However, across the opening half-century, and even now, Ukranians have had to deal with multiple famines forcing people into finding methods of preserving food. Fuck Russia. We use fire ovens over gas ovens as Ukraine has to consistently deal with Russian interference in domestic energy use. We adapt and survive. 

Jai: Over the last seven years, you have written and published five books. What has the journey from Mamushka through to the present moment been like? 

Olia: It has been an amazing journey really. Mamushka came about quite unexpectedly, I never even dreamed of being able to write, I just wanted to cook. I would do anything to cook. Mamushka was a beautiful experience, we actually went and took plenty of the images in Ukraine. We had to sign a document saying if we got blown up it was on us! It was vital for me to take pictures of real people, with real food, in truly Ukrainian places. The book has been a great success, and is being released again as Mamusia. It is less Russian sounding. Kaukasis allowed me to travel throughout Georgia and Azerbaijan, a beautiful experience throughout eastern Europe. Looking back now, the idea of travelling throughout this part of the world holds greater value. It was an experience I will not forget, that’s for sure. 

Even recipe writing has changed. I used to write for Sainsburys magazine which was a little regimented, but in my own book, I was able to make it more my own and add elements I think are important. Hopefully, people have been able to connect and make it their own. It was only the pandemic that stopped me writing a travel book – Summer Kitchen was super important. I feel so happy I was able to travel around Ukraine, now it feels like a treasure that I will never not hold close. I went to the Sea of Azov and spoke to the people there, and saw as many people as I could – it was all self funded. Again, the summer kitchen – it is a symbol of the heart of Ukraine. 

Home Food is my journey, my career and life. It is split into parts. Starting with migrations of my grandparents, to my own. I touch on comfort and connectivity – the universal moments of innocence and love that can feel the world in a small yet massive way. I wanted to touch on memories. I want to hold the reader by their hand, with gentle recipes that encourage them to explore. I have realised with these texts, I wanted to be a storyteller as well as talking about food. I wanted to tell people the stories I have learned – it brings me so much joy. I feel as though I have got better at doing so, but it is a project of love. More history, more stories need to be told to the people. 

Jai: What differs between UK and Ukrainian food culture, and to what extent do you think people’s understanding of your work and food has aided your campaign work? 

Olia: Interesting. Unfortunately, I feel that UK food culture has been affected a lot more in the post-war era than Ukraine. Ukraine is bigger and has more of that countryside expanse, the peasantry working the land is more prominent in Ukraine than the UK so we were better able to maintain traditions. The revival of British cuisine is exceptional and there are heroes throughout the culture, and the way in which British food celebrates seasonality is wonderful. My husband Joe grew up on a farm. He remembers seeing ingredients like tongue in the fridge, but now that is very rare, in Ukraine, people would not normally eat meat daily, so when it was there, we attempted to utilise the whole animal- when I was writing Summer Kitchen I would make cow udders which used to be a thing in the UK but now you cannot find it anywhere.

Fermentation culture isn’t as prominent in the UK just yet, but this process is not uniquely Ukrainian, there are multiple nations that have traditions of fermentation.  That said, the love of gardens is very similar in the Uk and in Ukraine, it helped me connect to living here. Many British people are proud of their garden and there are many, many people who grow fruit and vegetables. This is remarkably similar to the culture at home. The land and the people work in harmony. 

Jai: One thing supporters of yours enjoy is your openness with your family, in particular your husband Joe Woodhouse. How does he and the rest of your immediate family influence your work and food?

Olia: I couldn’t have survived this year without him. He has taken care of the house, the children, and my niece that I got from the Poland/Ukraine border. He has been a rock. Incredible. Also, he cooks for us and nourishes us. In terms of my cooking, he is a huge influence. I have always been conscious that meat hasn’t been used on an everyday basis in Ukraine, but Joe doesn’t eat meat, and he made it very easy to be a vegetarian household. He isn’t preachy, he cooks meat if the children would like some but it is rare, we eat vegetarian almost all of the time. When meat is on the table, it is a big deal and teaches our children to appreciate good things like this as, where I am from, it is not common. There has been a huge breakthrough in the house with vegetarian food, but when good quality meat comes in, the kids are all over it. This year would have been impossible without him, no doubt. 

Jai: You have harnessed social media incredibly across 2022, was this an organic process from your culinary and activist work?

Olia: There was no plan – it has been completely organic as typical as that sounds (laughs). I am the type of person who is a little fatalistic, but I believe in what I am doing and if it attracts people then great. I started my Instagram account as a single parent years ago. I felt lonely, and I knew I could connect with people in the food world and with people like me. It snowballed from there, and when the war started my following doubled overnight and people were really paying attention to what I was saying, I was like “fuck, what is going on?”.  

Patreon was planned – I wanted to create a small community and my own show. I kept doing loads of classes and filming things in a disjointed way and I found that it enabled me to be a little more organised and regimented, which not only helps me but those interested in joining or taking part. Building that community has been a wonderful experience throughout a challenging year. I am really looking forward to working on more content across 2023, hopefully it will be a more harmonious year.  


Words: Jai McIntosh
Imagery: Joe Woodhouse