March 28 2012 12:00 AM

It's time to belly up for the Edible Book Contest

To nibble at the odd notion of an edible book, we turn to Sir Francis Bacon, whose very name shouts “book learning” and “breakfast” at once.

“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested,” Bacon wrote.

Each year, on or around April 1, a global network of book nuts takes Bacon literally. Edible Book contests are hosted at schools and literary clubs from France to Russia to Brazil to Australia, with Michigan events at Michigan State University’s Center for Poetry Monday and the Kalamazoo Book Festival April 6.

The word “book” is used loosely, according to Anita Skeen, an edible book maker and professor at MSU’s Residential College in the Arts and Humanities. MSU has hosted its own contest since 2009.

“We’ve had things as simple as ketchup on rye for ´Catcher in the Rye,´” Skeen said. (The contest is an excuse for an orgy of literary punning.) Many entries are little more than elaborately themed cakes, while others are more sophisticated. 

At MSU’s contest last year, Dorothy Brooks of East Lansing created an edible tableau out of Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own.” She built a small library by arranging Allsorts licorice squares (they look like little books) on graham-cracker shelves.

“It was like you were looking down on a room in a dollhouse,” Skeen said. “There was an overstuffed chair made of marshmallows.”

A 2011 entry from North Carolina consisted of two licorice-bound, graham-cracker editions of “Pride and Pepperjuice:” an “approved version” with cheesecake filling and an X-rated “hot edition” with jalapeno jelly. A Florida entry from the same year rendered “War & Peas” with plastic soldiers charging over green-bean fortifications and pyramids of pea-sized cannonballs that were, in fact, peas.

Others take the “book” form more seriously. Skeen’s first effort was a children’s ABC book with pages made of tortillas, bound by a candy necklace.

“It worked fine until the tortillas dried out,” she said. “When you tried to turn the page, it just crumbled.”

An entry from two years ago adapted Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” on pages made of bread, starting with blackened toast and gradually getting paler until an egg appeared on the last page.

The global contest started in 2000, when Judith Hoffberg, a librarian and archivist at the Smithsonian Institution, and Béatrice Coron, an artist who cuts intricate storybook panels with scissors and paper, had an epiphany over a turkey dinner.

The “Festival international du livre mangeable” pays homage to Frenchman Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826), the godfather of gastro-literature by virtue of his deliciously eccentric treatise, “Physiologie du gout” (“The physiology of taste, or Transcendental gastronomy”).

Brillat-Savarin ate and drank — and wrote about eating and drinking — with towering gusto. “The universe would be nothing were it not for life, and all that lives must be fed,” he proclaimed. The book is spiced with droll aphorisms: “A dessert without cheese is like a beautiful woman who has lost an eye.”

In some contests, the books must be 100 percent edible; others reduce the figure to 90 percent.

 “We say there have to be edible elements on it,” Skeen said.

Last year, to render Margaret Atwood’s “Surfacing,” Skeen created a lake of blue Jell-O nestled in a forest of broccoli, with Chiclet pathways. She indulged in an inedible plastic diver.

There are only about 10 to 15 entries each year, but Skeen said many more come to gawk at the books — and eat them. Anybody who shows up can partake.

“We have some lemonade and coffee, pass out plates and knives, and you can take a chunk of whatever you want.”

At MSU, prizes will go to the most humorous, edible, creative and literate entries, with a grand prize. The prizes are books donated by the MSU Press.

No registration is needed; entries must be brought to the Office of the Center for Poetry, C230E Snyder Hall, by 2 p.m. April 2. Judging starts at 2:10 and, according to the press release, “Books will be served shortly after presentation and awards.”

Edible Book Contest

Center for Poetry

Residential College in the Arts and Humanities, MSU

2-3 p.m. Monday, April 2

C230E Snyder Hall