I’ve been meaning to ask fellow writer and editor Carody Culver to write a guest blog for an age. With Christmas just around the corner and food, glorious food on my mind, as well as my complete inability to cook (with the latter quashing the excitement about the former), I realised now was the perfect time to ask Carody to put something together. Her expertise is all things cooking and cookbooks. Not only is her blog post incredibly helpful, offering a way to overcome the ‘but that requires me, like, flicking through lots of pages to find something and then making sure I have all the ingredients’ dilemma that often defeats me, but it reveals why Carody and I get along so well: we’re both complete and utter book addicts…
There’s only space for one bookshelf in my tiny apartment. It’s tall and old and its shelves are bending beneath the weight of its contents: approximately 120 cookbooks, my not-so-secret shame.
While my other books are variously piled up in my storeroom, boxed up in my parents’ house, or stacked up around my apartment (I like to call it ‘books-as-furnishings’—hardbacks make very spacious coasters and slightly hazardous footrests), I gave the cookbooks pride of place—partly because I’m writing my PhD thesis about them, but mostly because I love to cook and the bookshelf is conveniently located next to the kitchen. When I moved in, I had visions of myself casually browsing the pages of my culinary collection, selecting the perfect recipe, and then stepping approximately two feet to the right in order to begin cooking it.
It didn’t quite work out this way. Sometimes—OK, often—I berate myself for not making more of an effort and actually using my cookbooks. I know I’m not the only one who feels this way—while part of the joy of cookbooks is simply browsing them and seeing things you want to cook, most of us don’t have time to do this every night. If you’re me, you’ve also spent your entire pay on clothes and books again and are thus forced to use the existing contents of your fridge and pantry as cooking inspiration.
Well, no more. A friend showed me an article recently that sang the praises of a website called Eat Your Books, which lets you create an online index of your cookbooks, food magazines, and recipe blogs. Annual membership is only $25, which is less than the price of a cookbook these days.
Once you’ve signed up, you can create a virtual bookshelf of all the cookbooks and magazines you own and the blogs you follow, and then search it by ingredient or recipe name. So, on nights when I open my pantry and am faced with little more than the poor-student-staples of lentils and tinned tomatoes, I can look up both on Eat Your Books and see, at a glance, what recipes I have that allow me to work some culinary magic (trust me, lentils and tinned tomatoes truly are the gift that keeps on giving).
The nice thing about Eat Your Books is that it has no intention of stopping you from physically picking up your cookbooks, since it doesn’t give you complete recipes. I admit that I initially added about five books that I don’t own to my virtual bookshelf in the hope that I could access their recipes for free; my plan failed (yeah, there is that thing called copyright).
What actually happens is that when I do a keyword search for, say, salmon, the first result I get is the salmon fishcakes from Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat. I can see the ingredients and the type of meal it is—a main course—but that’s all. Now I can pop to my bookshelf and find the recipe in the actual book. Eat Your Books just makes the searching process a lot quicker, which means I get to eat sooner. Everyone wins.
Part of me thinks it’s a shame that things like this encourage us to be more reliant on technology to do the simplest of tasks for us—honestly, how taxing is it to take a few books off your shelf and flick through them to find a recipe? Truthfully, though, when you have a shedload of cookbooks, or not enough time, or both, Eat Your Books is a godsend. Laziness, apparently, is the only way to get me using my cookbooks more, and also to potentially justify the purchase of yet more cookbooks. Hurrah!
Still, it’s interesting that at a time when many cookbooks are becoming less practical—bookshops are filled with pricy tomes that are more like coffee table books than anything you’d want to actually bring into your kitchen and risk spilling food over—a tool like this comes along that renders the non-pragmatic element of cookbooks a bit obsolete.
Will websites such as Eat Your Books, alongside the numerous cooking apps available these days, push us towards the inevitable digitisation of cookbooks? I hope not; I like to think that we’re too attached to the physical appeal of the cookbook, and to all of those non-recipe elements that make you want to take it off the shelf and buy it: the design, the images, the heft of it in your hands. I hope it stays that way for a while.
In the meantime, I’m off to see what I can make for dinner before those leftover tinned tomatoes in my fridge start creating new bacterial life forms.
You can read more of Carody’s book blogs here.