Sifting Through the Archives: Pi(e)Day and Creating Community Through Experiential Historic Baking

By Maggie Vanderford, Juli McLoone, and Kira Dietz

Whoever coined the phrase “easy as pie!” has never made an eighteenth-century historic pie recipe before. Historical recipes represent opportunities to build community and establish connections to the past. The challenges of such a project are multifold: Fining a recipe in the archives, “translating” it for modern-day equipment and ingredients, and documenting the process of doing so are all tasks that require thoughtfulness and care. The field of Critical Food Studies, and popular initiatives such as Dr. Marissa Nicosia’s Cooking in the Archives (among so many more) have for many years created community and camaraderie by sharing the trials, tribulations, and successes of these research experiments. However, a gap seemed to exist in the community available for the librarians, curators, and archivists who care(d) for the physical and digital collections encompassing the broader field of culinary history. 

Since 1988, March 14th (or 3.14) has been informally celebrated as Pi(e) Day, thanks to the efforts of San Francisco Science Museum employee Larry Shaw. So, for the past six years, librarians, archivists, and foodies throughout the world have come together for The Great Library Pie Bake-Off (#GLPBO). In this celebration of experiential recipe recreation, participants seek out historic pie recipes in archival collections, document their baking experience, and come together online to share and reflect. 

As befits an event driven by organic virtual participation, the #GLPBO resulted from a Twitter “conversation.” In 2018, Beth DeBold (then-Assistant Curator of Collections at the Folger Shakespeare Library) and Maggie Happe Vanderford (then-Student Research Assistant at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library) realized that baking pies from across the country, then sharing the results on Twitter, helped inspire a different set of conversations and questions than would have been possible in isolation. In the years that followed, the event took on more (and sometimes fewer, depending on the circumstances) participants, organizers, collaborators, and hosts. Various years produced various end products: In 2021, bakers from across the country gathered for a public and live-streamed Zoom symposium to formally discuss the literal fruits of their labor. In 2022, the Pi(e) Day theme was enhanced by the additional challenge of “(Un)Pi(e) Day,” in which participants were invited to test recipes for burritos, tarts, trifles, hand pies, or anything that could make a claim about what pie was/could be. In 2023, a classic fruit pie theme resulted in a smaller Zoom conversation and shared Padlet board where pictures and commentary could be uploaded.

As the format of Pi(e) Day has changed, adapting to different circumstances, we’ve faced some challenges in documenting a lot of what goes on in the real and virtual world. While we have ways of keeping our planning documents behind the scenes, the goal of Pi(e) Day has always been sharing what participants make, how they make it (successful or not), and why. Saving a formal panel as a YouTube video is easier than providing a participatory experience for multiple Zoom attendees, but the latter is a better way to support the community aspects of Great Library Pie Bake-off. The slow demise of X/Twitter has eaten into (pun intended!) an easy way to connect to potential participants. So, we’re learning to leverage other resources including personal networks, institutional networks, and a food listserv for librarians, archivists, and interested professionals. Launching a Pi(e)Day LibGuide in 2023 has created a space to start collecting our own history, provide information for the current year, and share future plans. The guide is, in effect, a living resource that has already begun to collect information and adapt to new needs in the last year alone–its flexible formatting lets us shift and add content while keeping it in (or at least linked to) one place. Going forward, we’re working on a way to turn the LibGuide into a repository for recipes we’ve offered as suggestions AND for recipes participants have made. We’re also considering how we can inspire participants to take a more active role in sharing their experiences for inclusion. 

Pi(e) Day has found a niche as an organically evolving professional development opportunity for librarians and curators working with institutional collections of cookbooks. While many librarians have personal research interests, in our day-to-day work, our principal focus is most often on supporting the research of others. In its various iterations, the Great Library Pie Bake-off has offered an opportunity to place ourselves in the researcher’s chef hat. By delving into our institutional and personal cookbook collections, not with a birds-eye collection development view, but up close and in the text, new questions arise: When did blueberry pie first appear? How many people does a prune pie serve? Is a pie with no bottom crust a pie? Is an empanada a pie? None of us are truly recreating cooking methods of the past (so far! Maybe someone will get ambitious with an open hearth next year). However, as we put historical instructions into practice, new opportunities for interpretation and questioning arise with the texture of flour, the ripeness of fruit, the smell of spices, and flavors that meld past instructions with present ingredients and kitchen technology. As the creators of the blog and digital archive, Cooking in the Archives, note in their 2015 article, “taste is the elusive element that we try to recreate when we cook these historical recipes.” While always captured imperfectly in the kitchen, it is still several steps closer than in the library reading room. Pi(e) Day events provide librarians with opportunities to partake in this broader trend within Food Studies of focusing on the material in addition to the textual elements of food in history. 

By sharing experiences across collections on social media, through the Pi(e) Day Libguide, and in real time zoom conversations, participants also become part of a community of researchers with an accompanying documentary archive in the form of recipes, photographs, social media content, and blog posts. Some of this material, such as suggested pies pulled from digital collections, is preserved directly in the Pi(e) Day Libguide, but much more, including documentation of individual baking experiences, is dispersed. Going forward, we are embracing #GLPBO as an opportunity to facilitate cross-institutional, community-created digital collections. Rather than simply preserving the announcements and suggested recipes each year, the current organizers hope to pair recipes with photographs of prepared pies, connecting text to material results. We also hope to add links to hashtags and blog posts beyond the LibGuide. As social media platforms and norms shift, the specific shape of Pi(e) Day will continue to change as well. However, the underlying praxis and its communal nature will remain central. We look forward to many years of pies to come! 

If your interest is piqued, by pie or otherwise, we always welcome new bakers and thinkers.

If you’d like to join us for Pi(e) Day 2025, please reach out and we’ll add you to our contact list. Interested? Join our Food-Collections Google Group. The more pi(e), the merrier!

 



OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
RA Kashanipour (June 20, 2024). Sifting Through the Archives: Pi(e)Day and Creating Community Through Experiential Historic Baking. The Recipes Project. Retrieved July 15, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/11v23


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