Saint Martin’s faculty member studies connections between food and literature during recent fellowship

July 8, 2014

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LACEY, Wash. – Saint Martin’s University Associate Professor of English Jeff Birkenstein, Ph.D., recently returned from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where a fellowship from that University’s Clements Library enabled him to further his research.

The recipient of an Upton Foundation Fellowship on American History, Birkenstein spent a month delving into the library’s Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive for his upcoming monograph examining significant food in fiction. The archive has a vast collection of cookbooks, menus, diaries and ephemera related to American culinary history from the 16th to the early 20th century.

Birkenstein, a 2013 Fulbright Teaching and Research Award recipient, has long studied the role and symbolism of food in literature. His archival research at Clements Library involved combing through old cookbooks and other food-related documents for narrations, explanations, quotes and stories that would help illuminate the role of American food in fiction written both then and now.

Describing himself as “a successful eater for my entire life,” Birkenstein specializes in American literature, short story and food-and-culture literature, the last of which led to a University course called "Food & Fiction." He also has team-taught two interdisciplinary courses, “Food and the Economy of Culture” and “Food, Culture and Fiction,” with fellow faculty members Heather Grob, Ph.D., associate prof. of business, and Irina Gendelman, Ph.D., associate professor of communication, respectively. An avid traveler, he uses his journeys to learn about – and enjoy – the local food scene.

Birkenstein argues that food, though important, is rarely the end in and of itself: “Rather, food is a vehicle, a lens, through which we can seek to understand what we always seek to understand when reading fiction: the human condition,” he says. “I am, ultimately, interested in the connection of cooking, cookbooks and discussion about cooking to various forms of community and political engagement.”

Birkenstein, along with co-authors Anna Froula, Ph.D., of East Carolina University, and Karen Randall, Ph.D., of the University of Bedfordshire, UK, recently published a book, “The Cinema of Terry Gilliam: It's a Mad World” (Columbia UP/Wallflower). He earned his doctorate in English, as well as a master’s degree in Teaching English as a Foreign Language, from the University of Kentucky. He received his first master’s degree in English from California State University, Long Beach, and his bachelor’s degree, also in English, from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Saint Martin’s University is an independent four-year, coeducational university located on a wooded campus of more than 300 acres in Lacey, Washington. Established in 1895 by the Catholic Order of Saint Benedict, the University is one of 14 Benedictine colleges and universities in the United States and Canada, and the only one west of the Rocky Mountains. Saint Martin’s University prepares students for successful lives through its 23 majors and seven graduate programs spanning the liberal arts, business, education, nursing and engineering. Saint Martin’s welcomes more than 1,100 undergraduate students and 400 graduate students from many ethnic and religious backgrounds to its Lacey campus, and 300 more undergraduate students to its extension campuses located at Joint Base Lewis-McChord and Centralia College. Visit the Saint Martin’s University website at

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Jeff Birkenstein, Ph.D.
Chair, Department of English
Associate Professor of English

Genevieve Canceko Chan
Vice President, Marketing and Communications