Eating in the Library

Writer: 
June 1, 2007
Give me down to there: peace, love, and  antiwar anthems staged for a modern audience

Jon Gardiner

It was late on a Saturday night, and Lee Cahow was stumped. Duke Libraries' Edible Book Festival was fast approaching. She'd been trying for days to think of an idea for a book she could make—any idea—but nothing had come to her.

Then inspiration struck. Cahow '76, who works in Perkins Library, jumped in her car and drove to a nearby ABC store. Entering, she asked the cashier whether the store carried rye whiskey and was directed to an aisle near the back, where she found two bottles of yellow-label Jim Beam. She bought one. The next day, she spent an hour foraging in a party store for cake-toppers in the form of baseball players.

The result of her efforts: a clear glass tumbler holding a plastic figurine of a catcher, thigh-deep in amber liquid.

On Monday, Cahow's "Catcher in the Rye" sits atop a table in Perkins' Tower Reading Room. The tables have been arranged in a square, so that festival-goers can circle the entries, giving each a close inspection.

This is the second year Duke has held the festival, part of the International Edible Book Festival, a larger movement started in 1999 that has grown rapidly in popularity among librarians and other book lovers. The exhibition at Duke doubles as a silent auction to raise money for a memorial fund in honor of Debra Flannery, a former library employee. The fund will go to support staff education.

Beth Doyle, a collections conservator and the Duke festival's organizer, has propped her "Tunnel of Love"—a candy-heart-encrusted book made of large rectangular cookies with holes bored in them—on its end. Just a few minutes into the festival, it tips and falls over. Doyle is unperturbed. She kneels behind the table, trying to prop the book back up, but soon gives up. "As a preservationist, I'm very interested in how books decay," she says, laying the book on its back. "This sort of fits right in with my book falling over." (It is also becoming a pattern. Last year, the cover of Doyle's "Brittle Book," made of peanut brittle, broke.)

Viewers circle the tables, helping themselves to an "offprint" iced cookie from a bowl next to "Tunnel of Love" and ooh-ing, ahh-ing, and giggling over the entries. They pass literal interpretations of famous titles: "Raisin in the Sun" is a sun-shaped cookie covered in yellow icing, topped by a single raisin. They read puns aplenty. "Lemony Snickers: A Series of Unfavorable Tea Mints," consists of—what else—Snickers bars and tea mints. And they see entries they wish they'd thought of, like "Charlotte's Web: The Sequel," a Charles Addams-ish concoction that includes a web made of chocolate frosting, a Cheez-Whiz-and-chocolate spider, and a pile of uncooked ham.

While many of the entries go for the quick punch line, others represent careful attention to craft. Jamie Bradway, a preservation librarian at North Carolina State University, created a remarkably real-looking "Roots," using only root vegetables: Sweet-potato cover boards enclose a piece of rutabaga carved to look like pages; the whole is tied together with a licorice cord. As the day wears on, the cover begins to curl up at the edges, loosening the licorice, a sort of natural antiquing effect as the potato dries out.

A photographer circles along with the guests, taking close-ups of each entry. He asks Judy Bailey if he can put her entry, "The Scarlet Letters," handmade sugar cookies iced in scarlet that spell out the title, on the floor to get a better shot. She consents.

Bailey, who is known among her colleagues at the Vesic Library for Engineering, Math, and Physics for her homemade desserts, is also, it turns out, a prolific edible-book maker. Beside "The Scarlet Letters" are two other Bailey creations: "Farenheit 451," a thermometer-shaped cake; and "Tail of Peter Rabbit," a globe-shaped cake heavily frosted with white icing to look like a fluffy bunny tail.

Over in a corner of the room, Lee Cahow is explaining to Bailey how she only came up with "Catcher in the Rye" at the last minute. The catcher, she notes, is not exactly edible; neither, strictly speaking, is the rye. "It's more of a potable," Cahow says. Still, she's proud of her creation.

Bailey had no such shortage of ideas. In fact, she says, "there's a half a dozen more" that she's got on her mind but didn't get a chance to make this year. Any hints? "I'm not going to tell you," she says. "That's the surprise element."

Doyle, busy mingling with other bookmakers, predicts some excitement for the 3:30 awarding of the silent auction's winners and the impromptu eating that might follow. "We did consume a lot last year," she says, glancing warily at "Soul Food," a row of book spines constructed, perhaps last night, out of cold cuts and cheddar cheese. "I was kind of shocked. Librarians will eat anything."

A table of refreshments not shaped like anything in particular was emptied fast, and spectators stand around eyeing the tastiest-looking entries.

"There's not enough chocolate," one bidder says as she goes to take another longing look at "The Dirt She Ate," a tray of chocolate cupcakes topped with crushed Oreos that's a leading contender for most bids. For the uninitiated, there's a note stating that the real The Dirt She Ate is a book by Minnie Bruce Pratt, a poet, activist, and scholar whose papers were recently acquired by the Sallie Bingham Center for Women's History and Culture.

Across the room, library assistant Jerry Morris M.Div. '70 sits quietly, arms folded, keeping his eye on "Million Dollar Babies," a chocolate cake that his wife, Janie, a research services librarian, had professionally screened with icing photographs of their three grandchildren.

Tom Hadzor, director of library development, and Deborah Jakubs, Rita DiGiallonardo Holloway University Librarian and vice provost for library affairs, make a circuit of the tables together, writing down their final bids. "You have any idea who's taking this one home?" Hadzor asks, pausing in front of "Million Dollar Babies" and casting a grin at Morris.

"I don't have any idea," Morris says. "I just have instructions." His instructions are, of course, to bring it home at any cost.

Shortly after 3:30, Doyle announces the winners of the silent auction. When the winner of the cupcakes is announced, there are loud cheers and someone shouts out, "Are you sure you want all of those?"

At the end of the day, they've raised $223. "Soul Food," which Doyle bid on, remains intact, though some of the meat-and-cheese books are beginning to lean. Very little is eaten on the spot, but there is talk of going to hunt down the cupcake winner in her office.