Every war is a culture war. Of course there are other factors, like money (always) and religion (almost always). But the casing on the bullets of dollars and deities is one simple, steely sense: “We don’t like how you’re living.”
Prior to Russia’s unlawful and increasingly violent invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, chef Mary Sydor’s Ukrainian relatives were living well. They were just like us: people with dreams and routines, joys and jobs. Now, one of her cousins, a young and handsome civilian living in Kyiv, appears in military fatigues in a photo on her phone.
Elsewhere in the country, Mary’s relatives are hiding in basements and checking in when they can; one family member in particular is baking bread to feed Ukrainian soldiers.
And here, nearly 5,000 miles removed from the war, in Westbury, New York, Mary is baking bread, too. Of course she is. Every year, from the start of Lent through Ukrainian Easter, Mary bakes up to a thousand loaves of paska, a traditional Ukrainian Easter bread, to support Ukrainian churches and communities from St. Josaphat’s Monastery in Glen Cove to St. George’s Ukrainian Catholic Church on the Lower East Side of Manhattan—and to several other sites both beyond and in between.
It is a tremendous undertaking. Mary bakes 24 loaves at a time, with each batch taking about six hours. One thousand loaves, then, is 250 hours of work—which means that, of the roughly 40 days of Lent each year, Mary spends ten of them baking.
In a normal year, the task registers as something like a labor of love. This year, it feels more like a rite of resistance.
“The bread is always so important to me,” says Mary. “It’s a tedious job and it’s a long job, but I do it to keep the tradition alive. My experience is that the older people who grew up making it don’t have the strength to do it anymore and the younger people just aren’t interested in learning, so it’s kind of a little bit of a lost art. And now more than ever I’m just sort of committed to this idea that I am not going to let it get lost.”
Mary is a formidable steward. The girl who began baking traditional Ukrainian recipes in the kitchens of her mother and grandmother became the woman who, after culinary school, studied with some of the country’s most celebrated pastry chefs.
“I studied hard and I studied with the best of the best,” says Mary, “and then I went on to become a chef instructor at the Culinary Academy of Long Island for 16 years.”
It was a fun and fruitful season. In 2006, Mary was named ‘Chef of the Year’ by the now-defunct New York Guild of Chefs. In 2014, she won first place for sugar work at a competition hosted by the famed Société Culinaire Philanthropique in New York. She worked with the Food Network on the World Pastry Championships. Even now, though technically retired, Mary is the second vice president of the New York State Bakers Association.
“And I’m a proud, 100-percent Ukrainian,” she says. “I just want to point that out.”
But Mary’s pride requires no pointing. Signs of her Ukrainian heritage swirl all around her, just as cultural artifacts of Ukraine—in the shape of paintings; stunning, meticulously painted Easter eggs; and colorful, cascading vinoks, traditional Ukrainian flower crowns—are woven all throughout her house.
Also all throughout her house is the scent of baking paska. It is the first thing you notice when you open her front door. What could be more inviting? Warm and sweet, with delicate notes of citrus and cinnamon, the aroma is intoxicating—much like Mary’s paska itself, which practically begs to be eaten by the loaf.
“The recipe is my grandmother’s, but I got it from my mother,” says Mary. “I remember the day I tried to get the recipe down. I was a pastry chef already and you know, there’s ways of doing things. Temperature matters. Measurements matter. I look at my mother’s recipe and see that she wrote down ‘one teacup full of sugar.’ A teacup full of sugar? I said, ‘Ma, what kind of teacup are we talking about? A teacup in the 40s that was around four ounces? A teacup in the 60s that was around eight ounces? A teacup from today that’s probably around 120 ounces?’”
Mary laughs as she recounts the memory. It’s been a long time since she figured out what, exactly, constituted ‘one teacup’. Now, she makes the bread—a slightly sweet, yeasted bread that tastes like a cousin of challah—in three flavors: plain, raisin and cherry-walnut.
Baking alongside her these days, since her mother passed away, is a small group of friends-turned-volunteers. Mary’s unofficial ‘sous chef’ is a Brazilian friend who—get this— hates baking; another frequent assistant is a former student of Mary’s who now happily pitches in.
The women work together quietly, or roll and braid and laugh. Most days, making paska is a meditative practice. As Mary works, for example, she thinks of her mother, her grandmother, of other ancestors who’ve passed. She thinks of Easter, of renewal, of how God is sovereign over death.
“And I think of how this man is just murdering people,” she says, wondering aloud if war criminals like Vladimir Putin even need—or rather, deserve—to be named. “It’s like Hitler all over again. He says there are civilian passages people can use to flee and then he’s bombing them, killing them. It’s just . . . how can you do that?”
It is impossible to understand. For now, all we know is paska. Rising yeast, rolling dough, gently transferring doughy braids to well-greased pans. In Ukrainian churches, paska is the bread of life. Of Jesus Christ. A sweet treat to celebrate a risen God following a dark, sinful season of death. Aren’t all cultures, in a way, preserved by the mouthful?
“Paska is the bread of life and we’re all still living,” says Mary. “Even with all the violence and even with all the war.”
And isn’t that the story of Easter? Isn’t that the gift of the empty tomb? The bread of life eternal. Glory to Ukraine. Glory to God.
To order paska from chef Mary Sydor, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or text her at 516.334.8385. Be sure to include your name, phone number and email address. Plain loaves are $11 each. Raisin and cherry-walnut loaves are $13 each. All proceeds benefit Ukrainian churches and communities on Long Island and beyond.