Pass the Shakespeare, please

Even the most fervent hobbyists rarely have the opportunity to indulge two of their passions at once: The market isn’t exactly throbbing with demand for crafty mash-ups like decoupage decoys or stained-glass postage stamps. So Reynolds Mountain resident Joyce Miles, a baking instructor and amateur bookmaker, was understandably delighted when Asheville BookWorks put out a call for edible books.

Good enough to eat: Challenged to create a book suitable for eating, Joyce Miles found inspiration in American candy history. Her “Walt Whitman’s Sampler” is made from sugar cookies, gingerbread, licorice and dried fruit.

“I bake like crazy,” confesses Miles, who’s spent much of the past month perfecting her entry for the city’s first Edible Book Festival, part of an annual global celebration of gustatory surrealism.

The intentionally whimsical event—always held on April Fool’s Day (“the perfect day to eat your words,” according to the festival’s Web site)—has become a fixture on some community calendars since a California artist dreamed up the concept over Thanksgiving dinner in 1999. Festivals have been held in places as far away as Hong Kong and as close as Cullowhee, where participants have submitted books made from chewing gum and deep-fried wonton wrappers sprinkled with sugar.

“The festival combines literary, culinary and visual arts,” BookWorks director Laurie Corral explains. “And there’s a playfulness about it that really appeals to me.”

The rules imposed by the international organizing committee are appropriately loose. All contest entries must be “bookish, through the integration of text, literary inspiration, or quite simply, the form.” That means some edible books have pages and spines, while others are visual puns—like one Alabaman entrant’s rendition of E.B. White’s One Man’s Meat as a cold cut platter, or the mess of green onions submerged in blue-tinted water and labeled 20,000 Leeks Under the Sea. Other entrants manage to retain a book’s form while toying with its title, like the edible version of Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham, featuring a few slices of breakfast meat tucked between bound frittata covers.

The simplest edible book, of course, is a cake frosted to resemble a book, but Miles was set on finding a more creative solution.

“I got the e-mail the week before Valentine’s Day, so I had chocolate on the brain,” recalls Miles. “My first thought was to do Forest Gump, but I’m not Martha Stewart: I can’t write the words “Forest Gump” in frosting. So I had to segue way into something else.”

Still thinking of chocolates and the heart-shaped boxes that line pharmacy aisles around the holiday, Miles remembered Whitman’s, the leading name in candy when she was growing up. While it had been years since she’d even seen a Whitman’s Sampler, she decided to revive the concept for her edible book: Walt Whitman’s Sampler.

“I don’t know if anyone else has thought of this or not,” says Miles, who confirmed via the Internet that Whitman’s Samplers were still for sale. After carefully studying the box’s distinctive design, she began the process of replicating it in food, allowing me to join her in her open kitchen for an early trial run.

As Corral emphasized in an informational meeting for participants, every component of the edible book must be, well, edible: Paper, ink and other useful but potentially toxic materials are strictly forbidden. These books are designed to be devoured: Festivalgoers will be invited to eat the entries.

Miles started with the box, which she built from slabs of sugar cookies. “I’ve never even done a gingerbread house,” Miles admitted, marveling at how well her first stab at cookie construction worked. “But I’ve made this recipe probably 150 times. And I was so pleased with how it came out that I think I’m going to stick with it.”

Fussing over her first version of the Walt Whitman’s Sampler, Miles lightly fingered the corners of the box, where the cookie edges didn’t quite meet. She’d tried to compensate for the geometry by plastering the gaps with brightly-colored frosting, a solution she promptly deemed subpar: “If I wanted to hide this, this certainly doesn’t work,” she sighed.

Miles used edible markers—imagine a pen filled with food coloring—to inscribe the box top and mimic Whitman’s signature embroidery-style motif. “I might embellish it a little bit more, but Whitman’s is very simple,” she said.

Miles planned to fill the box with thimble-sized books bound with licorice rope.

“So I went to the Dollar Store, which is my favorite place for junk, and I was trying to think what to do for pages,” Miles said. She fortuitously stumbled upon a box of dried fruit sheets, a find that was even luckier than she realized.

“When I got home, I started unrolling these roll-ups, and they had tattoos on them, so it looks like a printed page,” Miles beamed, summing up her excitement in a simile only a true culinarian could appreciate: “This was like discovering mayonnaise.”

After assessing the finished product, Miles decided her entry was nearly competition-ready: “I’ll have to remake the bottom, because I’m not a math whiz, but I’m so pleased with how it’s come out. I’ll just freeze it and it should hold up.”

Having finalized her entry so early in the experimentation process might give Miles more time to read before the festival. Perhaps something by Whitman.

“I probably should go pull out Leaves of Grass,” she said. “I’m not really a fan of poetry.”

Event info: The Edible Book festival will be held at Asheville Book Works, 428 1/2 Haywood Road, on April 1 from 6 to 9 p.m. Tickets are $5. For more information, call 255-8444.

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