I arrived at the Kelly Writers House for the Edible Books Party just before judges announced the prizewinners. Cakes, pies, breads, and other culinary creations were laid on tables around the arts café, half–eaten, with printed book covers placed in front of each one. Many of the covers were altered to reflect puns. For example, a tall stack of golden cinnamon buns stood behind a cover that read "The Bun Also Rises," a play on the title of Hemingway’s second novel. 

I learned from Jessica Lowenthal, director of the Kelly Writers House, that, though edible books parties did not originate at Penn, The Kelly Writers House's iteration quickly took on its own quirks. “With many edible books parties, people ice beautiful cakes and make book covers that look like stunning replications of actual books, but ours quickly tipped more pun–centric.” Another contributor, using the pun "Gentlemen Prefer Blondies," had iced an impressive copy of the cover of Anita Loos’ book onto a tray of baked goods. 

A second quirk of the Kelly Writers House Edible Books Party is the unconventional prizes awarded for creative categories such as "most literal," and "best use of a single ingredient." “There have always been prizes,” Jessica told me. “This year, the prizes were a little tame. Sometimes, they’re just really ridiculous, like special, funny food tools.” 

One of this year’s prizes was a giant container of plastic cookie cutters. Jamie–Lee Josselyn, Associate Director of Recruitment at the Writers House, said, “I believe there’s always been multiple categories, so that way we can recognize different approaches to edible books.”

A prize called "the Blaziest," is given in honor of Blaze Bernstein, a Penn student who died in a homicide in 2018, and was one of Jamie–Lee’s advisees. “He was the master of this event. He would always have multiple entries, and they ranged from very silly to extremely complex culinary endeavors. So the Blaziest award can really be any of those things.” This year, the Blaziest award went to "the Divine Crème Brûlée," a play on The Divine Comedy by Dante. Jamie–Lee says that it was chosen for the prize “in part because Blaze loved a complicated kitchen project,” but also because of its use of “a high–level, subversive pun, a Blaze–y pun, if you will.”

Photo: Karen Wong

I spoke to Jamie–Lee about the history of the Kelly Writers House Edible Books Party. “It’s like the Writers House never existed before it,” she tells me. “It’s such a major event of ours every year, and people talk about it all year long, and people are coming up with ideas, and alumni come back so they can make things and participate.” The judges change every year, according to Jamie–Lee—they are usually Kelly Writers House staff, but occasionally students and people from the wider Philadelphia community are chosen.

I also spoke to the winners of the "Least Architecturally Sound" prize, one that was invented especially for this year’s party. Chelsey Zhu (C ‘22), Ryan Lam (E ‘22), and Erinda Sheno (C ‘22) brought a pumpkin chocolate chip cake. “We thought that a pumpkin would be awesome...so we kind of looked for a book that would fit that, and we found … ‘Waiting for the Great Pumpkin,’ which is based off of a Charlie Brown TV show,” Chelsey told me. I asked if they were experienced in the kitchen. Chelsey said, “We’ve baked before, but I would describe this as a disaster ... a delicious disaster.” The bakers explained that their cake collapsed when they were frosting it because it was too hot. “It looked like it had fallen on the floor, and we’d just put it back on the plate, but people still ate it,” Erinda said proudly, “We were also runners up for 'People’s Choice,'” which is the prize awarded to the crowd favorite. “And then we got three Kelly Writers House T–shirts and cookie cutters,” Ryan says. Although they had attended the Edible Books Party in the past, this was their first time baking something for it. 

The Kelly Writers House's annual Edible Books Party is a warm, festive event that has become one of the best that Penn has to offer by way of tradition. It’s a time where types of creativity, wit, cooking, and design are celebrated through the lens of writing.