Leading Index

I’m very particular about cookbook indexes. It’s not something most people think about, and you could say it’s a little strange to beobsessesd with indexes. But at a cookbook company, it’s not.  I want to find “barley pilaf” under “B,” even if it’s called Burlington Barley Pilaf or Joe’s Aunt Cindy’s Barley Pilaf. I wanted it to be listed as “Barley Pilaf, Aunt Cindy’s.”

    For years, I’ve tried to hone my vision of a perfect index into a few sentences, such as “pity the poor reader” or “help a cook find things no matter how her thought process works.” I’ve also spent a lot of time explaining and justifying it to someone who thinks every dish should be under a heading by shape (casserole, burger, salad, pie), function (starters, side dishes, brunch) or flavor  profile (lemon, parsley, cheese), and that headings should be very general rather than very specific. Unfortunately this person controls the means of index production so the indexes appear with barley pilaf listed under “grains” or “side dishes.”

Some recipes should be listed by their full name, like “Passover Spice Cake,” in the “P” section or “Larb Gai” in the “l” section, in addition to a listing under “Cake” or “Salad,” for reasons that seem logical. Passover cakes need to stand out, Larb Gai is what it’s called on menus. The other indexing professional insists that if some recipe are to be listed by their titles as a single entry, then all recipes should be listed that way. Consistency is the hobgoblin — you can look up the rest of the quote, and it’s no less true, even if it was uttered by the lightweight Algernon Swinburne. You can sense that I’m treading carefully here.

    • This book,

Jewish Cooking in America

    , has my favorite index. Dishes are listed under their full name, whether it’s Brooklyn Egg Cream, Grandma Lina’s Roast Goose, or Tschav, so if you happen to know the full name or the original ethnic name, you can find it there. But they’re also listed under “egg cream” and “sorrel.” Rather than a category called “Soup” that lists the soups, the category says “Soups, pages 305-310. And see individual listings.”

Here’s my cookbook withthe worst index.

    One rule of indexing that is pretty indisputable is that if an ingredient is in the title, the recipe is indexed under that ingredient. Even a computer program can do that. Somehow, Spicy Tofu Omelet is indexed under “spicy” and “eggs” but not tofu. Since “eggs” isn’t in the title, it’s clear a human hand indexed this book. How could it have missed Tofu? Or did someone decide that tofu wasn’t a valid heading? Or did they run out of space?

Space is always a problem in an index, and when it is, the first thing to go is the entries by recipe title. Yet here, every recipe is listed by its title, no matter how unhelpful. Two dozen recipe titles begin with the word “Spicy,” so they’re listed that way. The word tells you something about the dish but doesn’t help identify it in the same way that adjectives like “Passover” or “Singaporan” help.

    Recipes with “Name” titles like “Violet Oon’s Chile Sauce” or “Thai Cucumber Sauce” are listed under the name, and under “sauces” but not under chile sauce or cucumber sauce, as some other chile sauces and cucumber sauces are.

 If you feel queasy about people writing in books turn away, because the way I solved the index problem in the Southeast Asia Cookbook is to mark up the index myself. It looks like hell but I can find things.

I know it isn’t just me — you have a favorite or least favorite index, or at least you know what you like. I know you do.