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The Edible Journey

Alumni at the delicious intersection of entrepreneurship and artistry

“The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live,” writes poet Joy Harjo in “Perhaps the World Ends Here.” “It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human.”

So, too, one might say about Swarthmore and the feast it offers, which may be why so many of its community members have found inspiration in all things appetizing.

Inextricably linked with culture, society, economics, the environment, politics, and art, the topic of “food and drink” has inspired professors like Hansjakob Werlen and Allison Dorsey to lard interdisciplinary courses with related material and students to pursue a cornucopia of projects and professions before and after graduation.

“As with everything,” Werlen says, “Swarthmoreans bring a lot of passion, intellectual probing, and active engagement to the issues connected with food.” 

Here’s a taste of the unlimited flavors in which food has inspired alumni to cook up new and creative paths.


Polina Kehayova ’01

Queen of Cakes

Three fondant ballerinas—two seated in white, one en pointe in black—gracefully adorn the Swan Lake cake Polina Kehayova ’01 made and decorated for daughter Anna. As a foil to the flawlessness of the finished product, however, Kehayova keeps a box of “ugly duckling” ballerina prototypes. 

“I want to show Anna that reaching excellence requires a long and sometimes discouraging behind-the-scenes process,” she says. “Getting caught up in being perfect from the beginning stands in the way of learning, accomplishing, and becoming more confident through mistakes.”

This was the ultimate lesson Swarthmore taught the Bulgarian-born Kehayova, and one that’s helped with her professional work as the scientific director of Harvard’s department of molecular and cellular biology and with her amateur pastry practice. Both roles not only require creativity and precision, but also present intellectual puzzles.

“For my daughter’s seventh birthday, I made a cake based on a story she and I came up with inspired by How to Train Your Dragon,” she says. “I had to figure it all out: What kind of texture do I need for a dragon’s skin? How can I shape a dragon’s wings so there’s motion to them?” 

Whether she’s crafting a cake inspired by green fluorescent protein for co-workers or plaiting a dozen rainbow unicorn manes for a preschool class’s cupcakes, Kehayova’s ongoing scientific and artistic experimentation keeps her sketching, dreaming, and yes, occasionally failing.

“I made a birthday cake with the cartoon character Dora the Explorer on top, but before the family picked it up, I discovered that she had become decapitated,” she recalls with a laugh. “I managed to reattach her head, but it was a good reminder that mishaps—with cake and life—happen, and we have to rise to each challenge.”


Reuben Canada ’99

Jin+Ja Ninja

In 2009, Reuben Canada ’99 was a patent attorney in Philadelphia looking for his true calling. He found it in a boiling pot of ginger, mint leaves, lemon, green tea, and cayenne pepper. It was more than “the world’s best cocktail mixer” that he perfected over that summer, but an elixir full of the spice and zest his life had been missing.

He’d always loved food: At 10, he sold homemade chocolate chip cookies to classmates and dreamed of being a Walt Disney World chef. So he jumped at the opportunity to reconnect with the empowering, create-your-own-destiny self he’d discovered at Swarthmore—even if reinventing himself as a culinary creative meant giving up his day job and investing his life savings. 

“Anything terrific requires a lot of luck and timing, so I decided to make my own luck,” he says. “I didn’t want to die one day without having done all the things I’d always wanted.” 

Dubbing his drink Jin+Ja (think “ginger” but pronounced with panache), Canada brewed and bottled his creation—first in his own kitchen, in potion-style bottles inspired by Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears, then at the Rutgers Center for Culinary Innovation, a food-entrepreneurship incubator, where he was able to hire a production and sales staff. Thanks to his hard work, Canada’s soft drink won over his corner grocery, Philly eateries, Whole Foods’s mid-Atlantic region, and, most recently, 1,800 Kroger stories nationwide.

Today, Jin+Ja produces an additional flavor, dragon fruit; a 4X concentrate; and a diabetic-friendly sugar-free version. That last part is important to Canada: He sees his drink—at 39 calories per 4-ounce bottle and made with natural ingredients—as less a treat and more a natural complement to a healthy, holistic, happy lifestyle.

“I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives, so I started by taking a big risk in mine,” he says. “The most validating thing I can hear, more than any award or contract, is that, thanks to Jin+Ja, I have brightened someone’s day.”


John Lim ’16

Victuals Vlogger

Growing up, family dinner was a formative ritual for John Lim ’16. The child of Korean immigrants, he still remembers how it felt when his father came home at 7 p.m., marking the moment when the family could at last enjoy his mother’s cooking.

“It felt super late, back when I had a bedtime, and very special,” he says. “Dinner had a much bigger meaning than just eating.”

That sentiment hit especially hard after his father died when Lim was in middle school, emphasizing how closely intertwined food and family really are.

At Swarthmore, Lim sought to recapture some of that close-knit communal feeling over food by turning the College’s dining hall into his own personal kitchen. Viewers of his how-to video series, Sharples Cookbook, learn to elevate and innovate cafeteria fare to make everything from Sriracha mayo panini to balsamic stir-fry.

“Everyone at Sharples does a great job, but I was getting a little restless—like any other senior,” he says. “I also have an interest in cooking and video production, so it seemed like the perfect intersection of ideas.”

His edible innovation isn’t limited to YouTube, either—along with his friend Brian Shields ’18, Lim launched his own late-night campus food business, Quesadrop, in March. 

Fridays between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m., students order quesadillas by text, which Lim and his co-workers make in their dorm kitchen and then deliver anywhere on campus—combinations ranging from chicken/cheese to banana/Nutella to avocado/pico de gallo, limited only by the imagination.

Whether he’s pursuing new recipes in front of the camera or feeding friends behind it, Lim’s discovered a universal truth: There’s a healing power to food and its preparation.

“Food always makes me feel better, so I knew creating easy-to-cook recipes was a great way to make the community feel better, too,” he says. “One of the tough lessons I learned from losing my father so early is that I really enjoy bringing smiles to people’s faces. Seeing others experience happiness helped me heal, and that’s something I’m going to try to do for the rest of my life, with or without food.”