A Large Flower, A Small Restaurant, and a Country at War: What Do They Have in Common?
Updated: May 19, 2022
It was my first time inside the unpretentious little diner. We walked past the outdoor shelves of candy and newspapers stacked on old wooden boxes, then went through the front entrance. The dining area was small, like most eating venues in this city. There were a few tables, but most people were sitting at the counter on metal stools. They appeared to be eating a type of dumplings with sautéed onions and sour cream. Older men were reading newspapers with headlines I couldn’t understand. They sipped purple soup and ate thick slices of white bread. The patrons were speaking a foreign language. I had no idea what it was; they could’ve been speaking in tongues for all I knew. It was a noisy, crowded, bustling place. I felt like a stranger in a strange world.
But the waiters and waitresses seemed to recognize my parents and me. They smiled and greeted us in broken English. We were ushered into the “back room”, where only a select few important people were allowed. This room was quiet but dark and dingy. Paneled walls surrounded old wooden tables and chairs. Above us on one side was a loft that appeared to be an office of sorts. Those perched in the loft could see out and monitor the activities in the room. I imagined that only people of the uppermost rank were permitted in that high place.
My brother Tom and an elderly gentleman descended from the elevated headquarters and came to our table. The gentleman’s name was Wlodymyr Darmochwal, a stately man wearing a suit that was faded and worn. He owned the establishment. Tom introduced us to him and did all the talking since Wlodymyr, his father-in-law, only spoke Ukrainian. To my surprise, Tom was able to serve as interpreter. I guess being fluent in Ukrainian was necessary to work in this place. I soon learned that wasn’t all he was fluent in.
We ordered lunch and asked for the house specialties, those dumplings, and that purple soup. Our waitress also didn’t speak English, only Polish. No problem. Tom was fluent in that as well. When did my brother become so multi-lingual? Our orders arrived. The dumplings (pierogies) and the soup (borscht) were delicious.
This was our inaugural visit to Veselka, which means rainbow in Ukrainian. It has been my family’s connection to the Ukrainian community for the past 55 years. Tom started as manager, then part-owner, then sole owner. Over the years, he has transformed Veselka from a candy shop to today’s full-service restaurant. His son Jason, who is half Ukrainian, now runs the business. My son Justin was recently added as his sidekick. For years Veselka has been an icon of the East Village—now, it’s more than a restaurant; it’s New York City’s center for supporters of the Ukrainian war effort.
One of Ukraine’s symbols, and the unofficial national flower, is the sunflower.
I’ve always loved sunflowers; they are easy to grow, stately, and beautiful. There is nothing subtle about them. They boldly declare happiness, exuberance, and, well, sunshine. Today, along with the similarly colorful Ukrainian flag, they are symbols of the courage and determination of Ukraine’s defenders against Russian aggression.
The sunflower’s importance in Ukraine dates to the 18th century, when the seeds were considered their favorite snack, and the export of sunflower oil became an essential part of the country’s economy. Since the Russian invasion last February, sunflowers have become a worldwide symbol of support for the courageous Ukrainians who are valiantly defending their beleaguered country against a powerful foe. Even Jill Biden, USA’s first lady, recently sported a dress with a sunflower on the right sleeve.
I grew sunflowers long before I knew about their association with Ukraine.
I like how they look and love how they attract pollinators and birds to their flowers and seeds. I will expand my plantings this year, with one pot strategically located next to the Ukrainian flag hanging from my house. I want no doubt about which side of the war this household supports. My Indianapolis neighbors have asked: Are you Ukrainian? No, but Ukrainian blood runs through members of my family, and the Ukrainian spirit flows freely through the combined souls of the Birchard tribe.
If you visit New York City, head downtown to the East Village and drop into Veselka on 2nd avenue and 9th street. Order some of that purple soup since all proceeds from the sale of borscht go to supporting Ukraine in her struggle against an evil regime.
Waxman, Olivia B. What to Know About the Meaning of Sunflowers in Ukraine. Time, March 4, 2022