To the casual reader, Maurice Sendak’s “In the Night Kitchen” is a surreal book about a little boy’s dreamy heroics in a kitchen, but to Food Studies student, Brandie Roberts, it’s an exploration of a range of issues from the immigrant experience to the Holocaust.
Roberts, a first-year graduate student in the University of the Pacific’s Food Studies program in San Francisco, won the Association for the Study of Food and Society’s Alex MacIntosh Graduate Student Paper Award for 2017.
“Brandie is a first year M.A. student, but she beat Ph.D. students in programs throughout the U.S .and in Europe — well, pretty much the entire English-speaking world,” said Professor of History at COP and core faculty in Food Studies, Ken Albala. “This is the Association for the Study of Food and Society, which is the premiere food studies organization in the world founded over 30 years ago.”
The paper Roberts wrote was her first big project for the Introduction to Food Studies course.
“We cover everything from religion, philosophy, history, sociology, anthropology of food,” Roberts said. “So, we really had full rein on what topic we wanted to cover. “
Roberts received her bachelor’s degree in literature, so she decided to do a deep read of Sendak’s 1970 children’s book and how food drives the narrative.
“It’s basically about guilt and fear and self-reflection and the idea that the journey through the kitchen is the journey about this first-generation American becoming American,” Roberts said.
It’s also a look into the psyche of renowned children’s author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, whose parents came to the United States from eastern Europe before World War II while other Jewish relatives stayed behind and faced Nazi persecution.
According to Roberts’ research, when he was a child, Sendak’s parents constantly reminded him he was living a good, safe life while his cousins were in peril.
Hints of that past pop up throughout “In the Night Kitchen,” Roberts said. Examples include the cooks who want to bake the little boy, Mickey. Are they comedian Oliver Hardy or someone more sinister?
“They also look like Hitler,” Roberts said. It was reminiscent of a story Sendak told about his mother scolding him when he was late for dinner. “His mother would say, ‘You come in and eat because (your cousins) don’t get to eat. They’re being cooked in ovens.'”
“Maybe it’s a little bit wild and out there, but I found it really fascinating,” Roberts said.
Roberts’ instructor, Albala, found it interesting, too. Although, at first he was skeptical the thin book would yield enough material for a lengthy research paper, he encouraged Roberts to pursue it and then to compete for the award.
“I wouldn’t have applied for the award at all, but he encouraged me to do so. I think he called it a ‘weird and brilliant’ paper,” Roberts said.
Roberts entered Pacific’s Food Studies program after a 20-year career in telecommunications. She developed an interest in food and tried culinary school but decided she didn’t want to work in a kitchen. After she earns her master’s degree, she may work in policy or food education.
“I just plan on reading and writing a lot over the next couple of years and doing side projects, working with as many people as I can to figure out where I want to go next,” she said.