Australia and Pennsylvania Compete in Great Rare Books Bake Off, Highlighting Special Collections

In 2020, partner schools Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, and Penn State University in the United States decided that a friendly baking competition involving the two universities would hit all the outreach notes they wanted, spotlighting cookbooks from both schools’ collections and fostering worldwide connections during a stressful time. Now in its third year, the Great Rare Books Bake Off is a hit worldwide.

Photo graphic reading
Image by Eliza Liddy

When Monash University in Melbourne, Australia shut down for the pandemic in March 2020, library staff looked for ways to keep students unable to make it to school for the new semester—as well as those already at school but confined to campus—engaged with the school’s collections. Inspired by the lockdown-motivated interest in baking they saw documented on Instagram and TikTok, special collections librarians hit on the idea of a bakeoff featuring recipes from Monash’s extensive holdings of historical cookbooks. Participation was light but enthusiastic, said Anne Holloway, special collections curator at Monash University Library. “They essentially made full blown TikTok videos. They innovated on the recipes and had fun with them.” The winning baker, a student, gave out boxes of cookies to everyone in her dormitory.

Pandemic travel restrictions also meant that Christina Riehman-Murphy, then a reference and instruction librarian at Pennsylvania State University’s Abington Campus, had to abandon plans to fly to Australia that March to liaise with Monash librarians. The two schools have been engaged in an international strategic partnership since 2018. With no opportunity on the horizon to meet face-to-face, Riehman-Murphy and Holloway began to brainstorm how the two libraries could collaborate virtually.

Penn State had been involved with other projects that explored the intersection of books and baking, including hosting annual International Edible Books Festival events and participating in the What’s in a Recipe? project, in which students transcribe recipe manuscripts from the Folger Shakespeare Library’s collection. Marissa Nicosia, associate professor of Renaissance literature at Penn State Abington and the transcription project lead, also runs a long-term public-facing project, Cooking in the Archives, where she cooks 16th-, 17th-, and 18th-century British recipes and blogs about the process.

Riehman-Murphy and Holloway decided that a friendly baking competition involving the two universities would hit all the outreach notes they wanted, spotlighting cookbooks from both schools’ collections and fostering worldwide connections during a stressful time.

“When we were looking at some of the reasoning and trying to put together our goals to make our case for it, it was pretty easy to tie that to strategic initiatives of the university and also the libraries,” said Mark Allen Mattson, head of global engagement initiatives and international partnerships librarian at Penn State Libraries. Not only would the Bake Off introduce people to unexplored parts of the schools’ special collections, but it would showcase the partnership between the two institutions.

With Nicosia on board, the MonashPenn State Great Rare Books Bake Off was launched in summer 2020.

 

BAKE OFF (DO)NUTS AND BOLTS

Competing in the Bake Off is simple: Each year, participants are given a week to make a recipe. They then post a picture of the results—fails are welcome—to Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook, using the hashtag #TheGreatRareBooksBakeOff and either #BakeMonash or #BakePennState, depending on which team they’re baking for.

handwritten recipe in old cursive hand, titled
almond jumballs (cookies) on two plates on tabletop
Top: Scanned image of Almond Jumballs Recipe from the 1695 Christian Barclay manuscript, held by Eberly Family Special Collections at Penn State; Bottom: Almond jumballs by Marissa Nicosia, rarecooking.com

At the end of the week, the school with the most entries wins. Finished desserts are not judged based on appearance, although some bakers go all out plating and staging their photos, with props ranging from formal china to Penn State teddy bears.

In the Bake Off’s first year, the school chose four recipes apiece for participants to try, and each has added two more every year. While Monash has an endowment that has allowed it to purchase cookbooks and recipes, Penn State has only a handful of cookbooks at its Eberly Family Special Collections Library, so Riehman-Murphy reached out to the librarian network across the university’s 23 campuses to see what they might have in their collections.

The Bake Off’s oldest recipe, for donuts, is taken from a handwritten recipe book in Penn State’s collection dating back to 1697. Others include local specialties, such as Penn State’s chocolate drop cookies from the from the Patchwork Voices Community Collection at the Coal and Coke Heritage Center at Penn State Fayette, or a traditional Pennsylvania shoofly pie from the Penn State Harrisburg Library Archives and Special Collections, found in a cookbook titled Recipes that Helped Us Survive Three Mile Island. Monash’s recipes feature a 1927 recipe for ANZAC—Australia and New Zealand Army Corps—biscuits; a traditional Australian Lamington cake, a coconut and chocolate confection created in 1900; and a passionfruit pavlova, taken from the Variety Club Entertainers’ Cookbook.

Recipes range from simple to more complex, and Nicosia has updated them, where necessary, for contemporary cooks. “We’ve tried to pick a mix of things that that are going to be possible in a home kitchen and for a home baker with pretty standard set of bowls and mixing tools,” Nicosia told LJ. Images from the team’s own efforts help as well, as in the case of the 17th-century donut recipe—“managing people’s expectations that it’s not going to look like something you picked up from Dunkin Donuts,” said Riehman-Murphy. “That’s been so fun to see, when people bake things—their comments on what they were expecting to happen.”

Differences between the two countries’ baking styles are also notable, she added—for example, Australian scones are round, whereas American scones are usually triangular. The conversation among the cooks has been robust as well, with some asking for baking help and others sharing family recipes and memories.

Every recipe has been made by someone, Nicosia added, although the scones and chocolate cookies are perennial favorites. “But we’ve never had a dud, which is awesome.”

 

FULLY BAKED

The event has been more successful than they had hoped, all agreed, garnering more than 160 entries each year. Webinars in 2021 and 2022 exploring the scholarship and food history behind the Bake Off helped drive participation as well, and feedback has been positive throughout. “Engagement was off the hook for what we were used to, for both of us,” noted Riehman-Murphy.

The project took first place in the 2021 International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) PressReader International Marketing Awards; Holloway’s presentation on the Bake Off at IFLA’s virtual World Library and Information Congress that year drew some 300 viewers from around the world. “They all had questions about how would you adapt this kind of program for a community in Indonesia who may not have literacy, how would you perhaps adapt it for both physical and online, or how you might use TikTok,” she said.

“It’s really powerful to see that an 18th-century pie recipe that I adapted is now something that’s in someone’s regular repertoire of cooking in their home,” said Nicosia, “and that someone reading that might have learned something about the history of food, or the way our food traditions have grown and changed over time.”

The Bake Off has also changed how both libraries approach their own collecting. Although Monash has a large number of cookbooks, “We never have had a [stand-alone] cooking collection—we just had one that was jammed into the general run of books,” said Holloway. “One of the tasks we’re doing has been analyzing what’s in there, thinking about where we could collect and go forward, and make it differentiated from all the other cooking collections in Australia. Maybe we could have a more baking swing to it than we have previously.”

Penn State didn’t actively purchase cookbooks for its special collections before the Bake Off, noted Riehman-Murphy, “but now we’re starting to. That’s evidence of how the community can inform Special Collections, which is a good outcome of this for us, and a different way to think about how we engage with our users.”

The team has gotten involved with other academic baking projects, such as the Folger’s Great Library Pie Bake-Off for Pi Day (held on 3/14, of course). Florida State University adopted the concept with themed contests held over multiple weeks.

“I think the international competition part of it—even though it’s a friendly competition—has made it more successful than it would have been if we had just said, ‘Here’s recipes from our collections that we’re all going to bake,’” said Mattson. “The fact that there is this school pride, and also it’s against someone somewhere else in the world, makes it a little bit more compelling, a little bit more novel.”

“The element of whimsy is always wonderful,” added Riehman-Murphy. “Food connects people.”

The Great Rare Books Bake Off trophy, which the winning school displays in its library, is an engraved vintage pie tin that Mattson found in a local antique shop. In 2020, Penn State was the winner; Monash took the pie plate in 2021 and 2022. Will the Australians keep their title in 2023? Will Penn State take the pie plate back? Everyone, they agreed, is looking forward to next year’s Bake Off.

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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