Blue skies, golden fields and sunflower
Flat fields stretching to the horizon line, bluest sky ever. When it is harvest time late summer, the fields are glistening with golden colors of wheat stalks, their full heavy ears swaying like sea waves with the slightest blow of wind and the sky is crisp clear, deep azure blue, sometimes dotted by that cotton ball cloud passing by.
That is the Ukrainian flag. Ukraine is known as a wheat basket, ranking third in the world in regard to the share of world exports, but wheat is not the only golden crop Ukraine grows. The golden hue of fields may also come from barley ranking second or corn ears ranking fourth, but the brightest of yellow color that dye fields are is of the rape flowers grown for rapeseed oil, aka canola, number three in the world export market. Ukraine is a leading country in agriculture, but one special crop has its stigma on the country: The sunflower.
Both Ukraine and Russia are the world’s leading sunflower growers. More than half of the world’s production belongs to these two countries, but it is in Ukraine that the sunflower became a peace symbol almost a quarter of a century ago. Sunflower is a plant originating from North America, coming to Europe only after the discovery of America.
In 1716, a patent was issued in England for extracting oil from its seed. In the early 18th century, during the reign of Peter the Great, Tsarist Russia began to be scattered with the flower, and almost a century later, the first commercially large-scale sunflower olive oil was produced by the Russians in 1830. The flower was now destined to become a major industrial crop. But for Ukraine, it means much more than being a major crop. Famed breeder and agriculturalist Vasilii Stepanovich Pustovoit, born in Ukraine, Kharkiv, developed large-headed high oil yielding varieties at the research center in Krasnodar.
The research institute became the foremost experimental selection center of Russia in 1924, and Pustovoit is credited for the development of high-oil and high-yield sunflowers, where he worked until his death in 1972.
The flower was now destined to become a major industrial crop of the region. But beyond that, the sunflower became a symbol of peace almost a quarter of a century ago. After Ukraine’s decision to stop nuclear weapons, in June 1996, the defense ministers of the USA, Russia and Ukraine celebrated the disarmament by planting sunflowers in Pervomaysk, where missile ramps were once located, as a symbol of peace. Since then, almost synonymous with Ukraine, the sunflower, “Soniashnyk” in Ukrainian, stands for peace.
Another symbol of peace and hospitality in Ukraine is the bread. Bread culture is diverse and rich, there is bread for every special occasion. Wedding bread “Korovai” decorated with flower-like dough patterns is a very unique element not only of culinary culture but also of folklore. It is a show of hospitality to welcome guests with bread and salt, break a piece of bread, dip it in salt, and offer it to the distinguished guest as a gesture of welcome. Indeed, when Joe Biden visited Kiev as the vice president in 2009, he was greeted with bread and salt.
Today, this bread culture and sunflower patterns combine, becoming a symbol of Ukrainian solidarity. The sunflower patterns on the breads baked in the #BakeForUkraine campaign on Instagram invoke peace. Support campaigns are coming from all over the world, some are literally cooked in the kitchen. Campaigns carried out with slogans such as “Make Borscht, Not War” spread like mushrooms, solidarity initiatives such as “The League of Kitchens” in New York and “Cook for Ukraine” in London draw attention.
The former initiative, where immigrant women from different ethnic groups share their home recipes in New York, has actually been in operation since 2014. Especially during the pandemic period, the initiative united women online, became the voice of immigrant women. Women from countries such as Afghanistan, Argentina, Bangladesh, Indonesia, India, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Mexico, Nepal, Uzbekistan and Greece cooked their mothers’ and grandmothers’ dishes and shared their cultures.
Now, 87-year-old Larisa Frumkin joined them. Larisa happens to be familiar with many food writers in Turkey, being the mother of Russian-born food writer Anya von Bremzen, whom we know well and who also has a house in Istanbul.
She was born in 1934 in Odessa, moved to Moscow, witnessed the most difficult times of the Soviet Russia period, despite the scarcity of ingredients, she managed to prepare festive happy tables in the shared common kitchens. She continued this passion in America, where she migrated with her young daughter. The kitchen memories of Anya von Bremzen with her mother during the Soviet Russia period became a memoir-book translated into many languages including Turkish, titled “Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking- A Memoir of Food and Longing.” Larisa made two typical Ukrainian recipes, Borscht Soup and Pampushki (Garlic Herb Bread Buns), online from her New York kitchen, donating the income to war victims.
The initiative in London is a perfect example of sisterhood with an anonymous brother. Russian food writer Alissa Timoshkina, author of Salt & Time, and Ukrainian chef and food writer Olia Hercules, author of Mamushka and Kaukasis, united to give support to Ukraine. These two friends, who met exactly 15 years ago while studying at the university in London, showed a true example of solidarity with the #CookForUkraine campaign they started on Instagram and managed to attract the attention of those who want to donate.
The secret anonymous person behind the success of the duo’s attempt is one of the most influential names in London’s food scene, known by his Instagram nickname Clerkenwellboy, who has successfully implemented similar campaigns for Syria and Beirut. With the contribution of this secret hero who cares about helping others as much as about sharing his food experiences, donations are now pouring in, and support is being sent to children affected by the war and their families through UNICEF U.K.
War divides people, turns neighbors into enemies, separates people who have lived together for centuries. War means hunger, famine, poverty. Even at such times, the unifying power of the kitchen can come to the rescue. Ukraine has fed the world with its wheat fields, now it is time to give back and provide support to the land of sunflowers, with the shining face of “Soniashnyk,” the unofficial national emblem, the symbol of peace!