Indexing a masterpiece – The Escoffier Cookbook

The average cookbook contains about 175 recipes. Indexing a book with that many recipes takes some time, as Members who have volunteered to index a book well know. Some books fall well below this average and a few books exceed it by a significant number of recipes. Even the most prolific cookbook authors, however, generally do not exceed a few hundred recipes. Only a few books clock in at over 2,000 recipes, and fewer still exceed 3,000, including Larousse Gastronomique (3,880), and Joy of Cooking, 6th edition (3,181).

Indexing books like these is a significant accomplishment, which is why we are excited to announce that we’ve just finished indexing another such masterpiece, The Escoffier Cookbook: A Guide to the Fine Art of French Cuisine. This is the American edition of Auguste Escoffier’s chef d’oeuvre, Le Guide Culinaire. The Escoffier Cookbook contains a whopping 2,703 indexed recipes. Although the book title notes that it contains 2,973 recipes, the indexer explained that often titles of food types or descriptions of foods were numbered, and these do not count as recipes in our index.  Even more impressive, this edition (based on the abridged 1907 English language edition) is only a subset of the more than 5,000 recipes in the original 1903 French version, which was meant to be a used as a guide for culinary apprentices.

The Escoffier Cookbook

My copy of The Escoffier Cookbook is the thirtieth printing of the book, and dates to 1973. Inside the book jacket, the book is described as “The Bible of Culinary Art” and “not for the beginning amateur in cookery.” As you start reading the book, you realize the truth of that statement. The recipes are written with the understanding that you are familiar with many cooking terms and know what phrases like a “hot oven” mean. The instructions are not always detailed and are written in narrative format. Take recipe No. 431, Victoria Poached Eggs, for example:

Garnish some tartlet-crusts with a salpicon made from three oz. of spiny or Rock lobster meat and one-half oz. of truffles, mixed with three tablespoons of Diplomate sauce (82). Place an egg, coated with the Diplomate sauce, on each tartlet. Arrange, and set to glaze in a hot oven. 

There are no Instagram-worthy photos or illustrations of any kind in the book, only succinct recipes and forthright instructions. Fundamental techniques are explained in eloquent detail, such as recipe 249 – Poachings. Taking up nearly two pages, the description does a better job of explaining the technique than many modern books I’ve read:

However nonsensical it may sound, the best possible definition of a poaching is a boiling that does not boil. The term poach is extended to all slow processes of cooking which involve the use of a liquor, however small. Thus the term poach applies to the cooking in court-bouillon of large pieces of turbot and salmon, as well as to fillets of sole cooked with a little fish fumet, to hot mousselines and mousses, cooked in moulds, to quenelles which are cooked in salted water, to eggs announced as “poached,” to creams, various royales, etc. It will readily be seen that among so many different products, the time allowed for the cooking in each case must differ sometimes widely from the rest. The treatment of them all, however, is subject to this unalterable principle, namely, that the poaching liquid must not boil, though it should reach a degree of heat as approximate as possible to the boiling-point. 

In addition to defining cooking techniques of the time, the book contains many ingredients that, while they may have been commonplace in 1903, are unfamiliar to modern day cooks. We had to add around 100 ingredients to the EYB Library to finish indexing The Escoffier Cookbook. A few of the more unusual ingredients include:

  • snipe intestines
  • gosling blood
  • tropical swallow nests
  • plover eggs
  • pimpernel (an aromatic herb)
  • lark pâté

In addition, there were about 20 different flavored ‘…ice’ ingredients, including blood orange ice, violet ice, filbert ice, and brandy ice, all used in making one of the 88 recipes for frozen “bombe” desserts that seemed to be popular at the turn of the 20th century. 

Please join me in extending a well-deserved ‘thank you’ to the indexer who tackled this challenging project, and to everyone who helped cross-check the index. To the other 220 people in the Library who also own the book, let’s get to work on one of the 2,703 recipes. I have my eye on recipe 2425 – Hot Viennese Fritters (aka beignets)!

If you don’t already own the book, you can purchase The Escoffier Cookbook through the usual sources, and you can likely find it it at a used bookstore or thrift store at a bargain price. I paid less than $5 for my copy at a secondhand store. It’s a great read, not only for the recipes but also for the insights on how people ate at fine dining establishments in the early 1900s. Now that it is indexed, there is no reason not to have a copy in your collection. 

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  • Rinshin  on  November 15, 2018

    What an achievement. Thank you to the member who indexed it.

  • Jane  on  November 15, 2018

    Rinshin – not indexed by a member but by one of our professional indexers. It cost a fortune! I don't think even our most dedicated member indexers would have taken this one on.

  • Deborah  on  November 15, 2018

    Members might be interested to know that the pro indexer of The Escoffier Cookbook started out as a member indexing her own books (over 100 to date). Kudos to @e_ballad for slogging through this massive index!

  • anightowl  on  November 16, 2018

    That is an impressive feat! Doubly so since the recipes are in a narrative format – that adds another whole level to indexing. Kudos indeed.

  • Analyze  on  November 29, 2018

    This is amazing! Such a commitment from EYB, and kudos also to the indexer! Really a huge accomplishment for all involved.

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