Readers Digest

The Mad Hatter must have organized the menu and set the table for the First International Edible Book High Tea.

The "tea" -- and I use the term quite loosely -- was held during one of Tempe's patience-trying street fairs on Changing Hands Bookstore's back patio during intermittent rain showers. It was April Fools' Day, and Changing Hands' final day at its longtime Mill Avenue location.

Intrigued by the concept of reading a book and eating it, too, I spoke to ASU art professor John Risseeuw beforehand about the self-described High/Low Tea. Risseeuw teaches a class in artists' books and, with his students pitching in as sous chefs, is the person responsible for cooking up Tempe's entry into the international arena of chewable literature.

The tea was an idea hatched by Judith Hoffberg, a collector and scholar interested in artist-made tomes and owner of Umbrella, a Santa Monica-based publishing house. It was to be held simultaneously around the world. At each location, it would serve up -- for both viewing and actual eating -- books made from edible ingredients or digestible art about books such as literary-themed cakes, pies and cookies. Risseeuw first found out about the global tea party from an Internet book-arts group he belongs to.

The ultimate goal was to digitally document the culinary art fete and, after the event, post cyberspace photos of the crazy comestibles inspired by the theme. Paris and Lyon, France; Victoria, Australia; New York, Los Angeles and San Diego were some of the cities where artists-cum-food fans signed up to participate.

Risseeuw has already made edible-art history. Back in the '70s, while still a grad student in printmaking, his specialité du jour was whipping up art from baked cookie dough concocted in his home kitchen. He'd then silkscreen imagery and text onto the cookies with edible ink. Presaging the fad for edible undies, at one point he produced life-size cookie torsos and printed bras and girdles on them. "It took a whole batch of cookie dough to make one of these cookies," claims Risseeuw.

Then there was his project involving a box fashioned like a Whitman's Sampler. Inside the box were sections, each holding a cookie shaped like a different internal organ. "I made my own cookie cutters and created a stomach, lungs, heart, liver and some other organs," Risseeuw recalls. "I mixed up some really ugly colors in edible ink and printed little red and blue lines to indicate veins and arteries. They were kind of repulsive.

"I landed on a sugar-cookie recipe that is rolled out before baking and then you cut it," he confides. "I ate a lot of these cookies; when they cracked, I just ate them."

Considering this kind of hands-on experience, you'd think Risseeuw and troupe would be naturals for this potentially palate-pleasing edible-book project. So, with high hopes, I made my way through the street fair's food booths with their less-than-cordon-bleu lure of Shishkaberrys, Coyote Kettle Corn, foot-long corn dogs, alleged Thai Chinese food, Maui Wowie Smoothies and, for canine companions, gourmet dog biscuits baked by Bone Appetit Bakery. I wasn't even tempted to try the funnel cakes. And get thee behind me, potato pancakes. (Okay, so I couldn't resist the roasted corn-on-the-cob with red chile flakes and jalapeño-flavored salt). I even wrestled over whether to go for Dippin' Dots, billed as the "ice cream of the future." The fact that this supposedly futuristic food looked like a cross between tiny frozen rabbit turds and Styrofoam pellets quelled my enthusiasm somewhat.

Advance publicity promised books made out of fruit leather and tortillas, but no tortilla tome, not even one measly fruit-leather folio, could be spotted on the tables that held Tempe's meager contribution to the internationally touted tea party. In fact, cameras outnumbered esculent entries.

I had to make do with a scroll fashioned from cinnamon rolls on which appeared the words, "Sweet are the rewards of knowledge," and a marginally edible saltine-cracker presentation by student Dusty Dye. Ms. Dye apparently painted the saltines, which were laced together with string, with an egg white-vegetable dye "paint," microwaved them for 30 seconds, then iced them with Alice-in-Wonderland words like "eat," "big" and "small."

The Fred Meyer at Baseline and McClintock donated an eye-catching cake printed with a page from the Nuremberg Chronicle, "a very famous printed book with Latin text and woodcut images," that Risseeuw supplied to the store's bakery.

"Some bakeries have digital printers now that use vegetable dyes," he explains. "They scan in a photograph you give them and print it out on the top of a flat, white-frosted cake. If it's your kid's birthday, you can bring in a photograph and print it on the cake.

"Although it's kind of perverse, people cut it up and eat it."

The real standouts of the day were two small books with homemade dog biscuits inside crafted by Steve Kostell. One featured a "know thy dog" schematic, with all doggie parts labeled, and drawings with instructions on simple dog-training commands. Another exhorted the reader to "free yourself from political dogmata" by feeding the enclosed bone "to a K9 pal as a non-partisan motivator, ridding oneself of false hopes and beliefs that have been instilled through the relentless barrage of campaign promises."

Where were the rest of the clever creations I longed for? Apparently in New York; St. Paul, Minnesota; San Diego; and L.A. Check out to get an idea of some real edible art, like celebrity chef Kathleen Richert's "Booklava," a phyllo dough-and-sugar wafer creation, and her "Set of Cooked Books" made out of deep-fried potatoes.

I'd say it's back to the drawing board, or maybe the kitchen, for the home team, who give new meaning to the label "starving artists." For the most part, their culinary contributions bring to mind those unfathomable lyrics in Jimmy Webb's song, "MacArthur Park": "Someone left the cake out in the rain/All the sweet cream icing flowing down . . ."

Contact Kathleen Vanesian at her online address: [email protected]

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Kathleen Vanesian