top of page

Navigating your cookbooks

"A reference or teaching book is only as good as its index." Julia Child

NOTE - I published this back on April 4th but nobody seems to have looked at it. Somehow it slipped through the cracks - so I've changed the date so it shows up again. Mind you it might just have been uninviting. There is, of course, no compulsion to read.

My longest and last career was as a librarian - a cataloguer even - and so you would think I had all my cookbooks would be well organised. To be honest though, they are almost randomly placed on the available bookshelves. I have tried to keep particular authors together, but this is not always possible if the books are of different sizes, because to be honest the books are mostly arranged by size according to the multi sized shelves that I have. I sort of mostly know where a particular book is - particularly the ones I refer to most frequently but there are little clusters here and there of books I rarely use, and which I therefore forget about and because they are forgotten they don't get used. Chicken and egg.

But this is not the real problem. Let's face it I shouldn't have so many. The real problem is the index. I considered being an indexer for a while, but I'm guessing that these days it's mostly done by machines and the indexer merely sets up the machine. Not that that doesn't take skill. And some indexes are way better than others. I have a few that I find intensely irritating because of their lack of specificity and there are others that err too far the other way. I use indexes a lot.

These days, as I have said many times, I do not use my cookbooks a lot. I'm mostly going to the fridge, seeing what's there and concocting something. But every now and then I am either uninspired or tired and need a push, or I have suddenly decided that I will cook saltimbocca say - and so I need to find a recipe. It's Ok if you are planning a dinner party - will we ever do that again I wonder - because then you can just pick a few favourite cookbooks and have a happy afternoon browsing them for ideas. But if you are looking for ideas for something different to do with a leg of lamb for example, then you need an index really. And then I write this blog every day which means that I often need to find something particular in one or several of my books. Some books don't get used a lot for this purpose, when perhaps they should, because they have such bad indexes.

I have been meaning to write about indexes for a while now, but of course, others have done it already. Which is always very depressing. I simply do not have an original thought in my head - but then again only the very rare geniuses do I suppose. I found this article, Indexes in award winning cookbooks by one Catherine Sassen, which was a bit learned but if you want to take the subject further than I shall, have a look.

For me it's two problems really - design and content, although the two do merge here and there.

Design is fundamentally how it looks - which includes the actual layout of the text, the font chosen and also any 'pretty' bits you might include. None is the general answer to that one I think. It seems that no matter what beautiful design features there might be throughout the book to give it a particular look, they disappear when it comes to the index. The most I could find was the occasional pretty background, but always pale, and a coloured strip down the side the page in Love Your Leftovers, which is consistent with the rest of the book whose sections have a different colour down the side. The most radical - and it's really not that radical - is this one - Jamie's Great Britain. But as you will see it's also a role model for indexes. I shall come to why. Well since we're on design and fonts and all that - it's very clear - the font is a readable size and each line is well spaced. The headings for ingredients and types of dish stand out, as does each new letter. Plus you have indications of what dishes are for vegetarians. He hasn't got to vegans yet! Gluten free either. If you click on the picture you can see that each recipe gets a listing under it's Jamie name and also under the ingredients that matter, or the kind of dish that is - for example the baby Yorkshire puds, also appear under Yorkshire pudding which has a see also reference to crumpies (whatever they are).

The only other book I found with anything like real artistic design was a smallish book called The Grammar of Spice, which fundamentally just lists spices, their history and their uses. At the back there are a series of indexes each one arranging the spices differently - very clearly laid out and with a small piece of Islamic design at the top of the page, from a book called The Grammar of Design, which sort of inspired the book. It's a book that is a design exercise as well as a sort of dictionary of spices. No recipes, but a pleasure to browse through. The designer is Caz Hildebrand, who, I believe is one of the top designers of cookbooks around.

But let's have a look at a few of examples of how not to do it. This one is from 28 days in Provence by Shannon Bennett. It's one of those travel/personal memoir/recipe kind of books and it does indeed have some good recipes. But I never use it because the index is so awful. Ok - it's not long - just three pages, but there is no attempt to categorise the dishes in any way. They are just listed by title. For example I know there is a recipe for ratatouille in there, but you won't find it under ratatouille. No it's under Classic ratatouille. And yes it's got a pretty background consistent with the design of the rest of the book - a sort of scrapbook approach - but it really isn't helpful. If it was just one page you might scan it. But not three. And you can't even resort to finding things via the contents or the chapter arrangement of the book, because there is none. It's a sort of diary with him just cooking different things according to where he is and what he finds in the market and shops. I'm sure the recipes are wonderful an it would be a good kind of lucky dip exercise I guess, but only if you didn't know what to cook today.

I used to find Robert Carrier's Great Dishes of the World index annoying because, although the index is arranged like the chapters of the book, which follow the standard sort of cookbook process that starts with appetisers and works its way through a meal, you can't just look up chicken for example. You have to find the section on Poulry and game and then go through everything there. Not impossible, but it could be a whole lot of better because there are subdivisions and then sub-sub divisions. . Clear font though and pretty easy to read, with fairly clear indentation under headings. Interestingly, the later edition that I now have, courtesy of my op shopping friend, has a 'proper' index. One designed like most cookery book indexes under ingredients, recipe names and types of dish. The font is a bit small though.

The Great Australian Cookbook has a bet both ways and to my mind manages to annoy a bit in the process. First of all they have a standard kind of index which is fairly clearly laid out and efficiently cross-referenced. But then it has a second shorter index which groups, I'm guessing, all of the recipes into categories like those shown here - a vaguely haphazard selection of categories. I suppose it's a quick way of finding, condiments, sauces and preserves for example, but you might well have already searched the main index for condiments only to be directed to the second index. And you won't find a heading for preserves in the main index either. Very annoying I think - why not just have the recipes listed in the main index under headings for condiments, sauces and preserves? I mean almost all indexes these days would have a heading for sauces wouldn't they?

Magazines and booklets as opposed to books also tend to have somewhat unhelpful indexes in that they tend to have the dishes in about three sections listed by name only. Not much hope if you are looking for something to do with a leg of lamb.

delicious Magazine separates them into a few categories and the Women's Weekly does it alphabetically by title - which as I have now said many times, is not helpful. But they are very small indexes - just one page - and the font is pretty clear. So I suppose they just pass. But they are also annoying in that they (and others like them) are frequently not on the last page of the book - you sometimes have to shuffle through quite a few pages to get to them. I mean we all expect to find the index right at the back don't we? Not after a couple of pages of what is basically advertising material.

Another kind of very annoying index is the kind that is just too too learned. And the prime examples of these are Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking and, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

The font is tiny. Even with my reading glasses on I sometimes find myself squinting to read these. And they are so dense. Intellectually I suppose everything is there, everything is cross referenced and sorted into all manner of categories. Everything is included - as well as the recipes themselves there are also the methods, the equipment and in Elizabeth David's case, the places and people she refers to throughout the text. For example you will find Chateauneuf-du-Pape listed, with three page references, and a sub-heading 'wine' with two page references. When you follow up on these references you will just find passing mention of the place, and the wine, but only one passing comment that has anything to do with a recipe she is presenting. And you will need to skim the entire page to find those references as well. It's all very scholarly but unnecessary. Mastering the Art's index is a more relevant but it is trying so hard to include everything you could possibly think of and how you might look for it, that one becomes somewhat overwhelmed.

Of course if you only have a few books then you can browse through the contents - but that's a whole other issue isn't it? How you arrange your book. Your book might be arranged by ingredient for example but you still need an index, because how are you to know otherwise that there might be a perfectly wonderful recipe for a chicken dish in the section on lemons?

If you read cookery books like I do then you have a vague idea of what is where, but the brain can only accommodate so much information. Hence those books that live unseen in the mass of the other glossier books. It's sometimes wonderfully refreshing to just pick a book at random and find something to cook from it, but I think that's probably a luxury. Mostly we are trying to find something specific to do with a particular ingredient that we have lots of. For that you either need your own inspiration - which tends to be learnt over a number of years, or a good index.

I think Jamie is the winner out of that lot - although I hasten to add that there are lots of others. These were just the few I picked out.

bottom of page