Saturday, April 21, 2012

Edible Book Festival at UCLA Provides Food for Thought

If you’ve ever wanted to eat your words – or for that matter, the words of Geoffrey Chaucer or Dr. Seuss – the opportunity arose at UCLA’s Powell Library where creative chefs and bakers presented literary-themed creations for the 4th Annual Edible Book Festival on April 5. A lucky 13 entries of literally digestible prose competed for the titles of Best Student Entry, Most Creative, People's Choice, and Best Tasting.

A bumper crop of mini-cupcakes depicts "The Edible Garden" by the editors of Sunset Magazine. Complete with pretzel plant stakes and garden gnomes fashioned from Starburst Fruit Chews, this tasty tableau by UCLA staff members Dana Iwata, Laura Juarez, and Elaine Sakamoto won the "People's Choice Award."

Metaphors for reading and books often have to do with eating. You say that you “devoured” a good read; a novel can be spicy or saccharine. Creative bakers and readers among students, faculty, and staff at UCLA entered their lit-inspired creations – mostly of the cake variety. If a major in the confectionery arts was made available among the university’s degree programs, these entries would have been at the top of the class. Undergrads Kimmie Eng and Hannah Bishop-Moser created a toothsome take on the children’s classic, “The Rainbow Fish.” “It was read to me all the time when I was little,” recalled Bishop-Moser. “It’s just a really sweet book about learning how to share. I thought it would make a really great entry too, because it’s so colorful and sparkly.”

Kimmie Eng shows off "The Rainbow Fish," which she created with Hannah Bishop- Moser. The baking buddies took the prize for "Best Student Entry."

Their pumpkin cake, which was topped with an ocean of cream cheese frosting, was decorated with cookie characters from “The Rainbow Fish.” In the spirit of the book’s message on sharing, Eng and Bishop-Moser compromised to suit the latter’s vegan dietary preferences.

“The cookies are vegan Mexican wedding cookies,” said Bishop-Moser, an ecology behavior and evolution major. “We made a compromise – half the entry is vegan and half isn’t.”

The Edible Book Festival, which is an international event co-created by late UCLA alumna Judith A. Hoffberg, is usually celebrated near the April 1 birthday of French gastronome Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, whose book, “The Physiology of Taste,” has been a definitive text for foodies of the 19th century and beyond.

Brillat-Savarin’s book describes every aspect of taste, including its relationship to the other four senses of sight, sound, touch, and smell. With that in mind, judges of the Edible Book competition really had their work cut out for them. Professor of information studies Johanna Drucker is an advocate for the physical artistry and history of the book, as adept at teaching the intricacies of an antique printing press as she is  expanding the world of digital scholarship. At the Edible Book Festival, however, her concerns were more immediate.

“Everything has to taste good, because one of the categories is “Best Tasting,” said Drucker. “I don’t want to eat anything that has artificial flavor. A lot of the stuff has some color in it that I’ll bet doesn’t come from the natural world. And some of the glitter gives me pause.” Despite her discerning palate, Drucker found the entries to be a feast for the eyes.

Armed with her appetite for creativity - and a bottle of Crystal Geyser to cleanse the palate - Professor Johanna Drucker prepares to judge the wide variety of entries.

“[The festival] makes people be creative with food,” Drucker noted. “It makes them have to think about how to use the materials of icing and cake as sculpture, as well as thinking about it as taste.”

All but two entries at the Festival were made of cake. There was an inviting tray of salted caramel patties that depicted the novel, “The Book of Salt.” And in the spirit of the Easter season, Tara Prescott, a lecturer in UCLA Writing Programs, created her homage to “The Hunger Games” and its characters with a basket of dyed hard-boiled eggs.

“I was in the Research Library yesterday and I saw a flier and thought, ‘That sounds like a lot of fun,’” Prescott said of her quick decision to enter the Festival. “I’m a big fan of “The Hunger Games,” and the film adaptation came out recently, so it’s been on my mind.”

The decision to make colored eggs occurred to Prescott who says she doesn’t bake, but loves to do things like decorate eggs. “I was thinking that there are a few egg references in the text,” she says. “The hard part will be breaking them to eat them. I’ll eat ‘Haymitch’ first, and save ‘Effie’ for last.”

Lecturer Tara Prescott shows off her literary style with colored eggs representing text and characters from "The Hunger Games" and "Moby Dick" tee.

Prescott says that the Festival gives participants “one way of translating from one medium into an unusual medium. Reading is an intellectual activity and this gives you a tangible, hands-on [activity].”

“It’s one thing for [an idea] to be in a book, but it’s another thing to bring it to life in your own way,” said Bishop- Moser. “It was nice to interpret the entire book in one scene, really look at all the pictures and the meaning, and see how we can put all that meaning in our entry and make it our own.”

Although readers don’t typically notice food references in literature unless they are foodies or very hungry, books themselves are actually full of them. From the briny pleasure of a clam chowder served in “Moby Dick” to the elegant banquet of quail and pomegranates in “Madame Bovary,” the consumption of food provides a story’s setting and breathes life into its characters. Prescott said that two of her favorite food references in literature were Leopold Bloom’s “very pungent [mutton] kidney” in James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” and Charles Swann’s madeleine in Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past.” Drucker, however, takes a less literal approach when inventing her “edible book.”

“I’d be inclined to do something from “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” by William Blake,” she said. “[I’d have] taste contrast- some really intense flavors with some gentle or mild flavors, because Blake’s Heaven and Hell aren’t really good and evil. They’re different kinds of forces of intensity.”

Graduate student Alethia Shih won "Most Creative" with her fondant- coated depiction of "The Cat in the Hat."

Ultimately for Drucker, the task at hand dictated that she would find the proof in the pudding – or the Dr. Seuss-inspired cake pops. When asked how the Festival entries illustrated the relationship between the senses and literature, she said, “I’ll have to tell you after I taste them – to see if the ‘Cat in the Hat’ really tastes like the ‘Cat in the Hat.’”

Another homage to Dr. Seuss: "The Lorax" speaks for the truffula trees - and for a student's baking talents.

 Bishop-Moser and Eng, who is an anthropology major, bake together often – and it showed. The “Rainbow Fish” entry was a real catch, in looks and taste, and won the prize for “Best Student Entry.” Their prize included official UCLA Library aprons for each of them, a certificate - and proof of their excellent baking skills, an empty cake platter.

The Edible Book Festival was one of the most lighthearted events I’ve seen on the UCLA campus so far, and definitely brought a touch of levity to the hallowed halls of the Powell Library. Letting ‘em eat cake conjures up a celebratory mood and brings people together to admire the creativity of students and colleagues, compare recipes, and even become inspired to bake something themselves.

In my short time at UCLA, one of the campus’s most outstanding features is the atmosphere of collegiality among the students. The environment fosters a bond of friendship that seems to form readily between people of all ethnicities and cultures. Perhaps the willingness to come together comes from the fact that the majority of them are out-of-towners, and want to get the most out of their college experience, or more significantly from the fact that they were all intelligent enough to make it to UCLA., but it’s heartening to see. And as in the case of the creators of “The Rainbow Fish” cake, it engenders a spirit of collaboration and creativity.

Chaucer's saucy Wyfe of Bath from "The Canterbury Tales" gets her just desserts.

“Our next project is going to be cinnamon rolls but instead of cinnamon, it’s going to be flavored with cardamom, rose, and almond, “said Bishop-Moser. “I saw the recipe and said, ‘This looks amazing, I have to make it with Kimmie.”

For a Daily Bruin video of UCLA's Edible Book Festival, click here.

Photos by Matt Palmer

1 comment:

  1. no one brought Fudgie the whale to stand in for Moby Dick? What a nice way to bring people together. Good story, Joanie