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Indexing from A to Z: excerpt

by Hans H. Wellisch

Reprinted with permission of the H.W. Wilson Co. ( From Indexing from A to Z by Hans H. Wellisch. pp. 94-97. Copyright © 1996.


Cookbooks are one of the most ancient types of nonfiction books: four of them and their authors are specifically mentioned by the Greek chronicler Athenaios as having been cataloged in the Alexandrian library in the 3rd century B.C.; we also know that they were all on cakes, then as now a favorite of cookbook writers.

The oldest cookbook that has come down to us is the work of an otherwise unknown author by the name of Apicius who probably lived in the 2nd or 3rd century A.D. The book was very popular in Antiquity as well as in the Middle Ages and is preserved in several manuscripts dating from the 9th to the 15th century.* Though these did not contain any indexes, the second printed edition, published in Basel in 1541, proudly announced on the title page "cum indice copiosissimo" (with a most plentiful index) which occupied some 14 pages. Later editions also had indexes, ranging from a dozen to 70 pages. Thus both the compilation and the indexing of cookbooks can look back on a long history.

The indexing of cookbooks has until recently not been treated in the professional literature, except for one brief article (Grant 1990), perhaps because it was thought to be quite simple and straightforward or because cookbooks are not held in particularly high esteem in the literary world. Yet cookbook indexes are probably searched more often and by more people than many others, and their compilers must be aware that prospective users will be novices as well as experienced cooks, housewives as well as professional chefs. This means that recipes must be made accessible by almost every conceivable clue, which translates into a fairly large number of headings for each recipe; but space for the index is more often than not severely limited. A cookbook indexer is, therefore, frequently caught between a rock and a hard place: the editor may have allotted 1,000 index lines to a book containing more than 300 recipes, which means about three headings for each of them—scarcely enough to index the name of a dish, its type of food, and one major ingredient. Most recipes need more than that, and it is left to the indexer's ingenuity and skill to make this possible (for methods of squeezing more entries into a given space, see LENGTH OF AN INDEX).

The indexing of cookbooks must be performed at a high level of EXHAUSTIVITY and SPECIFICITY, because people will look under all possible (and some impossible) entry words in order to find a recipe or picture of a dish they may have seen a long time ago but remember only vaguely.

For example, "Aunt Nellie's shrimp aspic mold with apple-potato-walnut salad" may need entries under apples, aspic, potatoes, shrimp, and walnuts, and perhaps also under seafood and molds, but Aunt Nellie may safely be omitted, since nobody but the author will know who she is or was.

Recipes should generally be indexed by the following features:

1. Type of food, e.g., appetizers, soup, fish (unless the entire book is on a single type of food or dish).

2. Name. Generally, the heading under which a recipe appears in the book, but excluding nondistinctive initial terms such as "old-fashioned", "homestyle", or "quick" (the latter is a particularly ambiguous and often misleading term: whether a dish can be prepared quickly depends on the cook's skill and on someone's idea of a short period of time). Initial adjectives indicating the method of cooking, such as baked, broiled, grilled, or steamed, should likewise not be the first words of a heading; rather, they should be used as subheadings under the main heading for a foodstuff, e.g.,

Names of persons, such as "Aunt Nellie" in the example above, should be omitted unless such a name has become an integral part of the name by which a dish is known, e.g., beef à la Stroganoff or Sacher torte.

3. Ingredients. Of course, not everything that is listed under a recipe needs to be indexed, but ingredients that are specific or unusual need index entries. For example, "Mocha surprise", a chocolate cake, must be indexed under chocolate, which is the main ingredient and the one that will probably be best remembered by most people who have read the recipe or seen its picture but may not recall "mocha". Unfortunately, there are as yet no THESAURI for the thousands of ingredients and foodstuffs used in contemporary cooking, so it is up to the indexer (who should also be an expert cook) to think of synonyms for the terms used by cookbook authors. Common ingredients like salt or flour will obviously not need index entries referring to specific recipes, but when the advantages of coarse salt rather than refined table salt are discussed in a cookbook on bread, salt will need its own index entry and so will the various types of flour used in baking bread.

4. Region or place. If the book mentions that a dish is typical for a certain region or originated in a particular country, province, or city, the name of the region or place should be indexed. This is particularly important for regional cookbooks, which are mostly arranged by type of food, not by place; for example, in a book on American Southern cooking, New Orleans should be indexed for those recipes said to come from or be typical of that city's cuisine.

5. Illustrations. Most cookbooks have ILLUSTRATIONS, often in color, and people may remember them better than the recipe or the name of a dish. It is, therefore, important to index pictures of dishes or methods of preparation, but, unfortunately, indexers are seldom provided with them together with the page proofs, because illustrations are separately printed (often by a different printer or in another country) and are not yet ready when the index is being compiled. The editor may not even know at that stage where exactly the color plates will be inserted and bound into the book or may not realize that this information is necessary for the index. A cookbook indexer must therefore always ask about illustrations and insist on their delivery, at least in the form of a sketch or some other preliminary form, e.g., as black-and-white photos of final color plates. Illustrations should have clearly marked LOCATORS; boldface numerals are much better than the usual italic numerals often used for the same purpose because they stress the importance of pictures. The index to that staple of millions of American households, The joy of cooking (Rombauer & Becker 1975), uses this feature; that index is commendably thorough and clear, justly honored by a prize, and thus a good model for cookbook indexers.

Upon completion of an index to a cookbook, the indexer may have experienced not only the joy of indexing but also the sense of having made an important contribution to the joy of cooking.

*The work has been translated into English (Apicius 1936).