Chuck Matteliano spends his days as a research and development engineer, and his weekends cooking. So when he and his wife, Cara, learned about a contest where people make books -- then eat them -- they were intrigued.
They brainstormed ideas, focusing on phyllo dough, because the thin, wispy layers reminded them of paper. Could you print on phyllo, when it crumbled so easily?
"I'm an engineer by training, and my wife has her PhD in speech communication," said Matteliano. "All her artsy fartsy speech communication friends were talking about their ideas. I said, 'This is not an English problem, or an art problem. This is an engineering problem.' "
Engineering, art and cuisine come together at the Edible Book Festival, on April 1 at the Western New York Book Arts Collaborative (wnybookarts.org). It's one chapter of a worldwide event, with the goal of creating art that tickles your imagination as well as your taste buds. The work should look like a book, invite people to reconsider the printed word, and yet still taste good. A little pun in the title doesn't hurt, either.
Before the March 29 deadline for entry registration, last year's winners offered clues to their thought processes and cooking techniques, with a glimpse of their entries for this year.
Begun in 2000, the Edible Book Festival marks the birthday of noted 19th century food writer Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who wrote: "Tell me what you eat, and I'll tell you who you are."
At the Book Arts building, 468 Washington St., as many as 40 works of book-inspired art will be admired, judged, honored -- and eaten. It raises funds for the Book Arts group, and is fun for the observers and contestants. Last year was the first in Buffalo, and "the quality of the entries was amazing," said WNYBAC head Richard Kegler. "If you look at other cities' entries over the years, there are some good ones, but many seem to miss the point."
Last year, Kegler said, "The solutions were often very clever and very delicious."
A research and development engineer for Silipos, a Niagara Falls medical equipment company, Matteliano was in his element. He ran some trials with the notoriously delicate phyllo, finally learning how to attach uncooked phyllo sheets to paper before passing them through an inkjet printer loaded with nontoxic ink.
The Mattelianos printed pages from Homer's "Odyssey" on phyllo, mounted them with more phyllo baked into a flaky, many-layered dessert, and there it was: "Booklava: An Edible Odyssey."
"The printed phyllo turned yellow and started to crack, so it looked even more like an old book," said Matteliano, whose creation won first place. "I don't know that we'll be able to top it this year."
Either way, he said, he and Cara will have fun trying. So far, they have their eyes on John Steinbeck's "Tortilla Flats," and a pamphlet with pages of ground beef and salsa, with a printed tortilla page.
"But then we were thinking of making it a pop-up book," Matteliano said. "That's going to take some engineering. Might have to get into hard-shell tacos."
A book with bacon covers, titled "Essay on the Essays of Francis Bacon," won second place last year for Shasti O'Leary Soudant and Lauren Newkirk Maynard.
Bacon has become "something our circle of friends likes to make when we have group brunches," said Maynard, an editor at the University at Buffalo and freelance food writer. "It's almost become a running joke. How many things can we make, and eat, out of bacon?"
Add a book to the list. They wove two pounds of bacon into mats, then baked them, weighed down by another tray so they'd finish flat.
"Shasti came up with the brilliant idea of taking her Dewalt drill and drilling holes through the bacon covers, and use some kind of food to stitch it together," Maynard said. "I suggested scallions -- you blanch them and they get soft, but stay bright green."
With scallion hinges, whipped egg omelet for the pages and alphabet-soup lettering, it was an edible work of art.
Maynard said they were too busy to compete this year, but urged wafflers to "go for it."
Her tips: "Choose ingredients that aren't terribly perishable, that can sit overnight and not fall, or melt, or get goopy."
For once, she agreed, it's OK to play with your food. "It's really fun to get your hands dirty."
Promoting food events while taking care of her family doesn't leave Christa Glennie Seychew with much time to fool around.
But the Edible Book contest gave her a chance to scratch an itch. "I love the idea of this book show because I'm an avid reader, and think about food all day," said Seychew, whose company organizes Nickel City Chef. "I'm an artistic person with very few artistic outlets."
Her first idea, with collaborator Rachel Fix Dominguez, failed the reality test.
"We were actually going to do a book completely out of Jell-O, lots of different colors, lots of ingredients," including a custom mold for a Dr. Seuss-inspired cover, Seychew said. "But we realized it was just way too much work. It would take nothing for it to split apart. No one would want to eat it."
Instead, she decided to celebrate Spars, the Amherst Street cured meat emporium, with a sculpted liverwurst book sporting a cover of twice-smoked bacon.
"I felt that liverwurst was a remarkable product to sculpt with -- edible clay," she said. "I was going to use local products, so going to Spar's was a no-brainer." The resulting "Francis Bacon: The Major Works" took third, served with crackers and mustard on the side.
The death of J.D. Salinger powered Seychew's idea for this year. She's thinking "Catcher in the Rye," with a mosaic cover, comprised of rye and other grains, bought from Five Points Bakery on Rhode Island Street.
"It'll be a lot more detail," she said of the mosaic. "It'll be a lot more work than baking some bacon in the oven."
Luci Levere, pastry chef at Delish on Elmwood Avenue, a rookie entrant this year, started searching for ideas in the books she knows best: The children's classics she reads to daughter Ava and son Mason.
Eric Carle's "A Very Hungry Caterpillar" has caught her fancy. The body could be composed of the cupcakes she already makes at Delish.
"The sky's the limit, because of the creativity you're allowed," Levere said. Should the caterpillar chomp his way through a puff pastry book, and pop his head out of the hole?
"I have enough time, could I tell the story? Have it turning into the butterfly?" she mused. "I might. I might. We'll see. It's there in my head. We'll see what comes out."