Cookbook collections get user-friendly thanks to tech
July 9, 2018
Last week I returned home to visit the Berkshires: a lush, muggy land of rolling hills, where life seems to move more slowly than it does in Aspen. Seated next to my parents' friend at the annual country club lobster buffet, I fell into a trance. We were deep into a conversation about cookbooks, and this lady was bragging that her collection surpassed 2,000 titles. In fact, she dropped the actual number, but I was so startled by the statement that I forgot by how much.
My mom and I couldn't believe it — two thousand and what?! She repeated the number, I forgot it again. I mean, pardon my French: that's goddamn insane. What's the point of owning so many cookbooks when their very mission is to serve as reference for easy inspiration? That seemed like a foolproof recipe for overwhelm.
Not quite, our avid reader explained. She knows the precise tally of her home-cooking library because she has an app for that: Eat Your Books.
The premise is simple: "Make better use of your own collection." Create a profile, add titles of books or magazines you already have (plus online recipes, blogs, even personal recipes), and then search your customized index via keyword to find whatever strikes your fancy. The site doesn't provide the recipes; rather, it directs users to the original source. Pull the tome quickly from a shelf (or browser history) and go to the page. Seeking a soup formula featuring sweet corn? Retrieve a list of where those recipes live among the pages of your collection in seconds.
Intrigued, I signed up.
Sadly, I was only on the site for a button click or two when melancholy struck. Not only is a premium membership required to build a list of more than five titles ($3/month or $30/year for unlimited access, sneaky!), but most of my beloved cookbooks were swallowed by fire or drowned during the rescue attempt in 2011. While I've purchased a handful of new ones in the past few years, experiencing such sudden loss has shifted my habits. I don't care to collect as much stuff in my new life of freedom. Plus, my Aspen apartment is a glorified shoebox. So I've developed a different method: I put coveted cookbooks on plastic at the Pitkin County Library, for free.
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A stubborn bookworm, however, I can't quit buying books cold turkey. Especially books about food. There's something about flipping through paper pages that a computer screen will never replace. New pages sound crisp when flipping through them like a pack of fresh playing cards; old ones smell weird and funky; stains or smudges enhance their character, like colorful jewelry on an eccentric aunt. I like the satisfaction of being able to annotate recipes right on the page, too.
What's more, good cooking, to me, is messy. Fingers are often the best tools for handling, mixing, shaping and moving ingredients into a dish, and who wants an oil- slicked screen? Crumbs and tech just don't mix.
I'll stick with pages, thanks, but an app that helps me navigate those pages is handy.
I added the maximum five books under the free Eat Your Books membership and began a journey. Now instead of paging through each cookbook index one by one to brainstorm how to use the last of that sticky bottomed bottle of pomegranate molasses chillin' in my fridge, I have exactly one idea pinpointed immediately.
I think of the woman I met over that seafood feast, she with a home library to rival Omnivore Books in San Francisco. How many recipes using pomegranate molasses must be in her virtual index? Fifty? Using the same ratio (my collection of five books to one recipe, or 20 percent) she could potentially count 400. Not likely…but possible.
Another neat feature: Eat Your Books bills itself as a "community," since recipe results often include reader comments and reviews. Among 584 recipes catalogued over five books in my library, some include notes, and a few are really helpful. While searching for those corn soup recipes, for instance, I discovered another one for bean soup. A reader suggestion indicates that an ingredient substitution worked successfully. Good to know—that I could take a shortcut and that the recipe exists in my cupboard in the first place.
Exploring Eat Your Books and becoming reacquainted with five favorite cookbooks, though, has only made my curiosity stronger. Five books comprise a lame virtual bookshelf. Even adding the few, other titles I own would grow my functional recipe archive exponentially and boost its usefulness.
As it turns out, cataloging items IRL using an app (oh, how ironic) presents a slippery slope. I'm feeling the buzz of opportunity; I could really geek out over this. But I'll probably have to acquire a few more cookbooks to make a premium membership worthwhile.
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