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Cookbook Indexing: Not as Easy as ABC

by Rose Grant
ASI Newsletter, number 98 (May/June 1990), pp. 1-4. Reprinted with permission

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in The Journal, a Washington, D.C. area publication.
It was reprinted with permission.]

Author! Author! Standing ovation. Fame and fortune are ours at last!

Alas, no one ever shouts Indexer! Indexer! But, along with editors, designers and proofreaders, we toil behind the scenes to turn a manuscript into a cookbook.

Yes, I am a professional indexer of cookbooks. Although we are never invited on talk shows and almost no one is interested in our opinions, we play a vital role in producing those cookbooks you love so well.

Although I offer this information with some pride, the usual response—"how interesting!"—is the most enthusiasm I can expect. True, most people are too polite to yawn when I try to explain what I do, but when their eyes glaze over, I know I've lost my audience—again.

I can make a good case for an intelligent index being the key to a cookbook; it should not be an obstacle course that the user has to figure out on an empty stomach.

After all, who has not had the experience of trying to find a recipe that you just know is in the cookbook, only to be taunted and mocked by an unyielding index? Rather than fight, you make something else.

I recall looking for a chocolate cake in a best-seller dessert cookbook. It was described as a heavenly cake well worth the pound of brown sugar it contained. All the information I had was that it was a chocolate cake with a pound of brown sugar.

I couldn't find it; my honor was at stake.

As an indexer, I usually can figure out where recipes hide. I sat down with this 350-page book and began turning pages. Sure enough, in the middle of the book was Quick Mocha Surprise.

The name of the recipe did not contain the words "chocolate" or "cake," so it was not listed in either category; it was, however, listed under "Quick."

That's why the indexer has a mandate to make each cookbook useful. There are rules that one should try to follow, but they are only guidelines.

In truth, every index should be a custom job, unique to the particular book. That's where the challenge lies. Since no two cookbooks are the same, there are no universal rules; indexing is a judgment call.

Take a recipe for Grandma Greta's Romaine and Red Cabbage Slaw with Mustard Blue Cheese Dressing. That recipe could be indexed eight different ways, it seems to me, but would that make sense?

Even if you had unlimited space for the index (usually there is a space constraint from the publisher), eight entries for one recipe is the lazy way to do it; you don't have to make decisions.

I would say that the most important entry for this recipe would be under Salad, even though the word does not appear in the name. Although the rules say each recipe should be listed by its name, here the words "Grandma Greta" don't give any useful information and could be omitted.

Keeping in mind that the index is a means of access to the recipes, using it to acknowledge friends and relatives is not in the user's best interests, either.

Also, recipes that start with a process—baked, stewed, roasted—do not have to be indexed under that first word. Not many people would say, "I think I'll roast something tonight" and then look in the index for something to roast.

One exception is Stir-fry. Some might want to use the bits and pieces left in the refrigerator and look for a Stir-fry in the index.

I'm often asked if I use a computer, and doesn't the computer do all the work for me? Yes, I do use a computer and no, it doesn't do all the work. It does the tedious formatting and alphabetizing and reminds me not to spell mushrooms with three o's or to remove the j in chicken, but it is a mindless, humorless machine.

It does exactly what it is told to do, nothing more, nothing less. Fortunately, I make the important decisions, which gives the index its character. I decide how to set up each entry, how to best use the space allotted and even how to fiddle around with the alphabet.

According to the rules, Eggplant and Tomatoes should come between Egg and Zucchini Frittata and Eggs and Bacon Souffle. But I think it is more useful to have all the egg dishes clumped together, so I clump under Egg(s).

I guess that doesn't qualify as high drama, but for puzzle solvers, it is a working solution and makes my day.

The real high drama comes at unexpected times. Recently, I got a frantic call from an editor to ask if the index that was due the following week could possibly be delivered tomorrow.

Someone had put the book on the press, not realizing the index had not arrived. They couldn't leave the book on the press until next week—and to take it off and put it back on again would cost thousands of dollars.

I managed to get the index done and now I know what an obstetrician feels like after working through the night to deliver a perfect baby in the morning.

I keep looking in vain for a cookbook review that comments on the index, mine or anyone else's. But a reality of the cookbook business is that although cooks can't help being irritated by inadequate access to the recipes, no one buys a cookbook because it has a smashing index.

But the indexer's fantasy dies hard, and I keep looking.

If you'd like to test Rose Grant's skills, the following cookbooks were given the once-over by the Washington Indexer: Jasper White's Cooking from New England, by Jasper White, Harper & Row, 1989; Working Family Cookbook, by Irena Chalmers, Barons, 1990; The New Pressure Cooker Cookbook, by Pat Daily, Contemporary, 1990; Hot Links & Country Flavors, by Aidelles and Kelly, Knopf, 1990.