By Miska Lewis
I met Rachel Broder last spring, when chance brought us to the same discussion section of our 200-person Anthropology of Climate Change class. Later in the semester, we found ourselves planting flowers together at Barnard’s Earth Day event—a nexus quite fitting for us both. The third time I saw her off of Zoom, she offered me a slice of freshly baked sourdough. As I chewed, I reflected that my humble quarantine-era foray into the bread world could not compare. However, those two months gave me the knowledge to objectively assess that Rachel’s bread had the perfect crust and crumble. When I inquired about her secret, she attributed cooking the loaf at an 85% humidity level. At that moment, I knew she meant business.
Six months later, sitting in the Hungarian Pastry Shop, she tells me about her relationship with food, her thesis, and growing up in her grandparents’ kitchen. When the waitress comes to our table, my order in hand, she chats with Rachel, asking about her day. “It’s like I live here,” she said later, laughing. “My housemate works here, so I’m definitely here a lot.”
Rachel’s voice effortlessly rises above the Hungarian hubbub: a melody of first dates, study sessions, and coffee grinders. Per her recommendation, we drink orange blossom tea mixed with apricot jam. As I take my first sip, she asks if I like it and explains that her grandmother constantly drank the concoction. After our conversation, she texts me: “The first question when you walk into one of my family member’s houses is if you want tea.” With every sip, warmth radiates through the china cup and hints of apricot pollinate my taste buds. As we chat, I am struck by how strongly I can relate to her fondness for cooking, particularly for others. Rachel has a gift for carving out spaces for the practices—and the people—she loves, despite the relentless pace of Columbia and New York City.
Rachel tells me that her mother emigrated from what is now Ukraine to the United States at 22. Her grandparents soon followed, making a home in New Jersey within walking distance of their daughter. It was with her family, especially her babushka, that Rachel discovered her love for cooking. A big part of her childhood, she told me, was “not even really cooking with them, but just watching them cook, and having them show love through food and through preparing food.”
Just like her babushka and dedushka, Rachel infuses and creates a little bit of home in every dish she makes. She smiles while remembering, as a child, watching her grandparents’ hands at eye level as they cooked. When those same hands served a table full of extended family, all under one roof for a shared meal, the idea of food as a form of love clicked for the first time. “I saw how food can bring people together to have a conversation, maybe make things less awkward,” she said.
Growing up and building a home away from home, Rachel’s throughline has been imparting joy through food. The other month, Rachel baked a citrus cake for her friend’s birthday, leading to her first-ever commissioned cake of the same kind: Earl Grey, jasmine tea, chocolate, and blood orange cornmeal olive oil cake, with raspberry jam filling, brown butter cream cheese buttercream, and dried blood oranges as adornment. Hearing her speak, I think about how few college students get the chance to have a cake like that on their birthday, to experience the thoughtful and celebratory nourishment Rachel believes in.
Though Rachel grew up going to her grandparents’ house nearly every day, Mondays were the most sacred. Joined by all of her cousins, she sipped black tea swirled with her babushka’s sour cherry preserves and ate crispy potatoes with tangy cucumber salad. Years later, Rachel would reimagine these dishes for the Queens Night Market, an open-air summer food festival that features vendors of all cuisines with no dish sold for more than $6. The gig involves being on your feet for six hours straight in the muggy July heat. The chance to witness a variety of cuisines in one place for an evening of cultural exchange, however, was one Rachel couldn’t imagine missing out on.
To her, summer nights are now for sweet and sour borscht, sticky syrniki, and soft blintzes stuffed, lovingly, into delicate containers. As one of only 100 vendors, Rachel treated the Queens Night Market as a test kitchen to experiment with Ukrainian food. Despite her family heritage and palette for olivye, Rachel hasn’t always gravitated towards cooking within the Ukrainian tradition. As a child, her first-ever dish was blueberry muffins, placed neatly into a basket with pieces of pineapple. Her grandmother usually served cut fruit with breakfast, and seven-year-old Rachel wanted to do the same. “The pineapple looked like giant chunks of butter,” she explained, laughing at the image.
When the pandemic hit and her family’s most sacred Monday Dinners were put on pause, Rachel began cooking more than ever. FaceTiming her grandmother, she tried her best to replicate the dishes from her childhood, undeterred by the lack of formal measurements. Using her taste as a guide, she made the recipes she remembered. “Making the food, and smelling it, was a very intense experience,” she said. As someone who had always conceived of food communally, living with two roommates who ate at different times and couldn’t share the meals—“doing this project by myself,” as she described it—felt “weird.”
When summer 2021 came around, she channeled this practice toward a food stand, aptly named Monday Dinner, that was at once a small business run with her best friend and mother, a homage to her grandparents, and a testament to her incredible cooking and hard work. “The menu was different every week, except for borscht. Syrniki was my favorite, it’s like a pancake-cheesecake hybrid. It was a breakfast thing my grandparents would make for special occasions,” she explained.
On her feet from six o’clock to midnight,, Rachel served her memories to others, allowing them a taste into her childhood. Her grandparents’ support never wavered. “When I was at the Night Market, my grandparents would stay up until midnight when the market would end,” Rachel remembered.“They’d call and be like, ‘How did it go? What sold well?’”
While she’s unsure if she will continue with the stand this coming summer, she’s spent the semester holding cookie fundraisers, most recently for nonprofits in Ukraine, and finding a similar sense of fulfillment as a Food and Agriculture intern at New Roots Community Farm in the Bronx. A collaborative farm founded to “create a more vibrant, just, and equitable local food system,” New Roots has everything from greenhouses to beekeeping. Rachel spends her days doing a little bit of everything: maintenance, weeding, harvesting, seed-saving, helping with Tuesday farmers markets and their Community Supported Agriculture farmshare.
After working there for a year, Rachel was inspired to incorporate the farm into her senior thesis, which is a research project about New Roots and “growing food as a source of healing and servicing disempowered communities.” Over the summer, she’ll be conducting oral history interviews with farm members and will create a research project that is as much an academic study as it is a cookbook. “I want to tell people’s stories through their food,” Rachel told me. It’s a concept that she seems to have been immersed in since birth. “There’s such a disconnect right now in the food system and I want to do my best to close the gap,” she added. In making these connections, Rachel has built a web of meaning and care with everyone she encounters. You can’t help but become entwined in it the moment you try one of her cookies, buttery and sweet in their simple, skilled perfection.