Eat Your Books

I recently received an invitation to attend a reception at the headquarters of America’s Test Kitchen to celebrate the launch of The Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook. I don’t know how I came to their attention, but I never turn down an opportunity to mingle with other cooking geeks, so I spent a pleasant two hours at ATK world HQ, meeting the staff as well as every food blogger in Boston*.

Despite founder Christopher Kimball’s “ship of fools” dismissal of food blogging (and his follow-up), he has come to acknowledge to power of social media, going so far as to create a social media group in his own publishing empire. In addition to featuring the new book, they were introducing the ATK Feed (and their very entertaining Tumblr blog — don’t miss the Friday fail/win feature). This is me with senior books editor Lori Galvin in front of the “wall of awesome,” a collection of tweets, Instagrams, and posts about ATK projects.

The new cookbook collects almost every recipe from every issue of Cook’s Illustrated magazine into a single 890-page tome, complete with index. This is a boon for cooks like me who have limited shelf space but still want to refer to any issue for a particular recipe — I can replace a few linear feet of magazines with one volume.

Of course, the modestly-sized Belm Utility Research Kitchen Reference Library is dwarfed by the ATK cookbook collection, a library so large that is has multiple shelves devoted to individual regional cuisines. As we inhaled miniature chocolate pots de crème, I mentioned that Cook’s had the only index to which I regularly referred, relying on my memory to find recipes in other cookbooks.

“How many cookbooks do you own?” someone asked.

“About 150.”

“Then you have a library of at least fifteen thousand recipes. There’s no way you can remember where they all are.”

The math checks out if you assume the average cookbook contains one hundred recipes. Truth be told, I only remember where my frequently-used recipes are located. The rest are… somewhere. And the person who brought this to my attention was Jane Kelly, the founder of Eat Your Books, a web site created to answer the question most cooks ask: “Where is that recipe?”

The site provides a search engine for your cookbooks. When you join, you populate your library by adding the titles of your cookbooks, many of which are already in the EYB database. Books will be categorized as indexed, “index soon,” and unindexed, with an option for you to request that  book be indexed. Indexed books can be searched by recipe title, ingredient, recipe type, and ethnicity, with search results showing what’s available in your library as well as the 90,000 books in the complete database. What is not found in Eat Your Books are the actual recipes or page numbering. There are copyright issues involved with publishing entire recipes online, and page numbering can change as books get revised or go into new editions.

When I discover sites that claim to be comprehensive, I do my best to find out how they break, looking for the odd case or the search term that blows up the database. I have not been able to do that with EYB, a testament to the thoroughness and precision of their indexing. (They just recently completed the indexing of Modernist Cuisine, and I can say without hesitation that the EYB index is easier to use then MC‘s own index.) What I have been able to do is customize my library by adding the location of each cookbook by specifying the room and shelf on which it can be found.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of what I could do on the site. There’s an active community that discusses everything from organizing cookbook collections to polling members about favorite books and recipes. (Number 1 cookbook found on most members’ shelves: The Silver Palate Cookbook. Number 2: Mastering the Art of French Cooking Vol. 1, followed by The Joy of Cooking. But three Barefoot Contessa cookbooks in the top ten? I don’t get it.) You can also search food magazines and blogs, a recently added feature.

So how do I use Eat Your Books? When I begin planning a menu, I can search for a particular ingredient (“What do I do with 20 duck legs?”) or a recipe (“Which chicken soup looks interesting?”), all without having to drag out dozens of books. Once I’ve settled on the menu, I can compile a list of ingredients for a shopping list. If I’m away from home and am asked to cook a meal, I can look for recipes that can be found in the kitchen of the home in which I plan to cook – no more photocopying or emailing myself recipes. And I can do all of that for only $25/year, which isn’t much more that what I’ve paid for the Cook’s annual index.

If you’re the kind of person who obsesses about the proper tagging of every song in your music library, or how books and CDs are organized on your shelves, then Eat Your Books is just what your inner cookbook geek needs. Apart from more cookbooks, of course.

* Hello again to A Thought for Food, Beantown Baker, Boston Tweet, Cake, Batter, and Bowl, Cooking Whims, Delicious Dishings, The Food in My Beard, Free Food Boston, Pixelated Crumb,  La Tartine Gourmande, Travel, Wine, and Dine, Tri to Cook, We Are Not Martha, and anyone else I missed.

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7 Responses to Eat Your Books

  1. Lori says:

    Thanks for coming, David. It was great to have you there. I’m sure everyone who finds out about Eat Your Books thinks….now why didn’t I think of that?!

    • David says:

      Someone’s first thought may be “Why didn’t I think of that?,” but if their second thought isn’t “That’s an impossible amount of work,” they’re underestimating what it took to make the site happen.

  2. Josh Jasper says:

    “Then you have a library of at least fifteen thousand recipes. There’s no way you can remember where they all are.”

    Of course not. Many of these will be duplicates, and many of them will be things you might have no interest in cooking. You’ll remember the ones you liked, though. What the site sounds good for, form my perspective, is getting to the ones I *might* want to use, but have not yet used.

    Speaking of cookbooks – just nabbed Kokkari, Contemporary Greek Flavors from PW. Pretty pictures. Lots of nice dishes, and some basic Greek sauces/sides in the back.

    • David says:

      I hope more use of the site will help me rediscover recipes I’d forgotten.

    • Bryan says:

      A lot of cookbooks are not well indexed by ingredient. If you use the indexes to answer the “What can I do with all the X in my fridge” question, you’ll miss a lot of possibilities. Being able to do a more comprehensive index search isn’t that unusual a thought; the fact that someone did all the work is. So it seems to me like a useful supplement, at least until we have all of our cookbooks in ebooks, and stain-resistant ebook readers for the kitchen.

      • JaneEYB says:

        Thanks David for a great review of the site. Actually you are under-estimating the number of recipes you have in your books – the average # of recipes per book from the 2,200 we have indexed is 224. So 150 books gives you 33,600 recipes – far too many to keep in your memory. And yes, Josh, there are duplicates of recipes between books but EYB allows you to compare those side by side.

        Bryan – having your cookbooks replaced by eBooks won’t help you find recipes across your collection. Each eBook will have its own searchable index but you won’t be able to search across all your eBooks at once. So if you want to know what to do with X in your fridge, EYB is the only way to search across all your resources – books, magazines, blogs, eBooks and apps. And the ingredients list goes right down to sauces, herbs, spices, etc which are never listed in the book index.

      • David says:

        I suspect the number of recipes per book is skewed by the presence of popular encyclopedic works like Bittman’s cookbooks, Joy Of Cooking, Silver Palate, Gourmet, etc. Restaurant/chef cookbooks have fewer recipes, I think.

        You’re right about e-books; each is its own walled garden. It would take an extraordinary act of cooperation from publishers and e-reader makers to arrive at a common index format that would then talk to a universal indexing application. I’d like to have one someday, but it would take the efforts of someone like Steve Jobs to make it happen. Oh, wait…

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