The cookbook index in the age of EYB

Cookbook index

I don't know about you, but Eat Your Books has radically changed my relationship with the cookbook index.

You remember the old days.  Say you needed a recipe for quail.  You'd go to your bookshelf and try to guess which books were most likely to have quail - books that might be fancy enough, or odd enough, or retro enough, or French enough.  Then you'd flip to the back, under "Q".  Failing that, you'd try "G" for game, "P" for poultry, or maybe even "C" for caille--you were only limited by your imagination and breadth of cultural reference.  An hour later, you'd walk away from the shelf with maybe 2 or 3 recipes, your hair full of dust, sure you missed dozens of recipes in books you hadn't thought to look in, and anyways no longer really interested in cooking anything at this point.

No question, the digital age and EYB have made our lives better.  Meanwhile, though, what's happening to the old-school index?

Well, it differs greatly from publisher to publisher.  That quail recipe we were talking about?  well, let's try 4 different books.  "Marinated Quail in Sumac" is under "Q" and "S".  Grilled quail with braised chestnuts and kabocha squash?  "Q", "C," and "K".  Braised quail with apricots, currants, and tamarind? "Q", "A", "C", and "T".  Lacquered quail with Sichuan Cucumber pickles? "L" (!) and "Q".   It may seem arbitrary - but the last two are from the same publisher, although one index approach focuses on ingredients and the other on technique or literal title.  You can see how a database like EYB's has the advantage over this scattershot approach.

But the best-quality indexes (or indices, if you want to quibble) aren't just exhaustive, and they may not be literal at all.  They're conceptually comprehensive, like the one in the Science of Good Cooking. where you can find "Grilled Lemon Parsley Chicken Breast" not only under "C" for chicken, "L" for Lemon, and "G" for Grilled Dishes, but under "S" for salty marinades, which itself is cross-referenced under M.  The "Carryover cooking" entry not only has recipes in which it's important, but sub-entries like "when it does not matter" and "when it must be stopped"!  This isn't just an index - it's a work of art.  You may not be able to judge a book by its cover, but you usually can by its back matter.

Once we're all used to thinking in keywords, will the artful cookbook index become irrelevant and disappear?  Maybe - it's hard to say. But since so often all I can remember of a recipe is something like "that shrimp with the pistachios in the big book with the pink cover,"  I'd say we can use all the help we can get, online or on paper.

2 Comments

  • hshubin  on  2/5/2013 at 3:16 PM

    I just bought The Science of Good Cooking and noted that the index is comprehensive -- a cookbook should always have a long index. It also matters how the index is structured. Bittman's How To Cook Everything is a great book, but it's hard to find things in the index. The information is there, but it's a graphic design problem (typography, layout, etc).

  • Queezle_Sister  on  2/6/2013 at 10:32 AM

    A quality index is really important to me. As much as I value EYB, there are many times that my internet connection isn't good. I was lucky enough to receive Science of Good Cooking for Christmas - and it didn't take me long to realize the awesomeness of its index. Of course, EYB now has made up for all those poor index makers!

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