Ukraine

Ukrainian Baker Reconnects to Birmingham by Sharing Her Sweet Treat

Vasilisa Strelnikova (left) stands beside Ellen Walker (Kelsey Shelton/WBHM)

On a recent Saturday morning at The Farmer’s Market at Pepper Place, Vasilisa Strelnikova’s display table is covered in European treats. A stack of golden, flakey layers sits in a glass case on the edge of the table. It’s a honey cake, one of two popular cakes in her home country, Ukraine.

“I sell both,” she said. “I don’t know why the honey cake became more popular in Birmingham. But in Ukraine, Napoleon and the honey cake are the things that divide people into teams like Alabama and Auburn, you know?”

Strelnikova fled to Birmingham following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year. When she arrived, baking became a refuge – a welcomed distraction from the turmoil her country was experiencing. But she also wanted to use baking to show her love of Birmingham, and her love for her friends.

“When I came here, I had such support from my friends, random people, the society. And I was thinking, I have to do something back, you know, for this society,” she said.

Strelnikova’s relationship with Birmingham dates back decades. Her father was a soldier who worked with the military in Alabama . When he wasn’t doing that, he was painting. He became a popular portrait artist in the city. Through his artwork, he met the Gorrie family.

“The family was ordering portraits for their children, family members at that time. And they were very interested in my father’s style and his work,” Strelnikova said.

Her father came back to Birmingham for two years in the 1990s, this time with his family in tow. Strelnikova was 11 years old.

During those two years spent in Birmingham, Strelnikova developed a close relationship with the Gorries. Their family supported them through language barriers. The Gorries shared their home with her family. Strelnikova said she was especially close with the matriarch, Frances Gorrie, who was like a grandmother to her. The Gorries made Birmingham a second home.

When she moved back to Ukraine, she lost contact with the Gorries.

“There was no internet back then and letters took forever to get to another part of the planet,” Strelnikova said.

When Russia invaded Ukraine last year, Strelnikova moved around in the hopes of avoiding the conflict, but soon the invasion became impossible to outrun.

Her primary goal was keeping her thirteen-year-old son safe – a feat that was quickly becoming unattainable.

“Once, I left him at home and shelling started and he was out of reach, and it made me realize ‘I’m not keeping him here,’” she said. “I guess when I lost my home in Ukraine, I could only think of my other home in Birmingham,” she said.

Returning to Her Second Home

After 25 years of silence, Strelnikova wrote the Gorries. But she was hesitant to reach out.

“I didn’t want to just show up and say ‘Hey, remember me?’ Maybe they don’t.” She said., “I wouldn’t want to do that  for not an important reason, like a life and death kind of reason.”

Ellen Walker, the Gorries’ daughter, recalled getting the letter.

“It took a solid month to get through the war and all that and to here. It was a battered up letter by the time we saw it,” Walker said.

The letter mentioned United for Ukraine, an American nonprofit that allows American citizens to sponsor Ukrainian families. Walker’s family was eager to help. In fact, they’re still helping her now, with her bakery.

Walker mans the tent with Strelnikova on Saturdays. She happily advertises all the sweets on display.

“Sample of honey cake?” Walker called out to passing customers.

Even the name of Strelnikova’s bakery, Cake Honeys, is rooted in her relationship to the Gorries. She said Walker’s dad used to call her his Cake Honey.

“When we we were thinking of a new name I said ‘I don’t want to stop being his cake honey,’” Strenlnikova said.

Strelnikova considers herself lucky to have met the Gorries all those years ago. She thinks about friends who tried moving out of Ukraine, but had such difficulty overcoming the cultural differences they moved back.

“You don’t know what’s more stressful, the shelling that you eventually get used to and, you know, just rely on God. Or being away from home and in a completely different society, facing cultural differences, not knowing the language, not having support that I have,” she said.

That support has inspired Strelnikova to help those still impacted by the war. She donates a portion of her profits to the Independent Presbyterian Church in Birmingham. They work with their sister church in Vinnytsia, Ukraine to help women and children relocating because of the war.

It’s not only the Gorries’ support that motivates her. The Birmingham community has uplifted her, even just by purchasing a slice of cake.

“Actually that’s another reason why I found that I can’t not be donating part of my income to Ukraine,” she said. “Because some of them just buy that cake because it’s Ukrainian. And so that’s not mine. I need to pass it.”

Strelnikova has already developed regular customers like Elquis Castillo.

“We always get the cake here and the cake is just always excellent, It’s probably our favorite dessert,” he said. “We kind of became aware of this place and as a bit of solidarity, we like to give some support.”

Even though thinking about the state of the war saddens her, Strelnikova hopes her work in Birmingham is making a difference.

“It’s a little stressful for me, but this is what I can do right now,” she said. “My quiet way of supporting my country.”