In search of lost recipes

So remember that I’m a cookbook nerd? Sick and home in bed with a laptop one day this week, I saw this tweet from @eleg_sufficiency – simply brilliant idea for anyone with too many cookbooks and too little time to search through them > Cook & Eat

That’s me suckered. I checked out the Cook & Eat project, which is called Gobbledybook, a search engine for cookbooks by Seattle photographer, stylist and food blogger Lara Ferroni .

It’s a clever idea to use web searching mechanisms to render the (beautiful, expensive) books you already own more useful – for years Harold McGee has been using a sidebar link to a Google Books search of his On Food and Cooking at his site News for Curious Cooks as a super-charged index. I also use food blog search a lot, and have recently started using forage, the Australian food blog search engine (and you’ll find both of those in the sidebar).

The difference with Gobbledybook is that it searches cookbooks, not blog posts. And I have a lot of cookbooks, although not as many as Pat does.

Cookbook shelf

Gobbledybook seems to have a reasonable selection of Australian content, with titles by Luke Nguyen, Curtis Stone, Bill Granger and *cough* Donna Hay. Ottolenghi is in there, and a few baking and vegetarian books, 60 in all to date for a total of nearly 5000 recipes. It has started as Ferroni’s own collection, and she will expand it with more of her titles and is encouraging others to start logging their own recipes.

It requires you to sign in with facebook, which I don’t like. It’s unclear about how the sites interact, and the sign-in box makes it clear they might publish to your wall. I’m worried that if I accidentally look up a Donna Hay recipe it could get posted to my Facebook profile and I will lose the respect of my loved ones. (Updated: more seriously, if you purchased a book via Gobbledybook while logged in through Facebook, Facebook might keep your financial data without asking first.)

As it so often happens, someone else has had the same great idea. Another recently launched service called Eat Your Books does pretty much the same thing. In both cases, ingredients lists but not method are entered, there being no copyright in an ingredients list. Eat Your Books is in beta, but is still considerably more developed with 16,521 Cookbooks and 240,795 recipes entered. It costs US$25 per year or (for a limited time only!) $50 for a lifetime membership. There’s a 30 day free trial, which I’m doing at the moment. I can see myself handing over the $50 at the end of it.

Gobbledybook is a charming name the first time you encounter it, but gets pretty tedious to type. And “EYB” makes it a lot easier to stick to twitter’s 140 characters. The problem is, I’ve found Gobbledybook to be pretty buggy and it’s certainly not intuitive to use. Perhaps that comes from it being an individual’s project expanded? EYB is much better designed and has a more developed search function. You can request that books be added and indexed.

Gobbledybook says their service is better than Eat Your Books because you can add your own books to Gobbledybook rather than waiting for the service to do it, and they will “match up” data behind the scenes so that a failure to use a sufficiently specific term won’t bugger up your search results, a problem Ferroni says she’s had at EYB with things like searching for “soup” not picking up a “bisque”.

I haven’t played sufficiently with Eat Your Books a great deal yet, but haven’t found any problems. Adding just 24 of my books has given me 4800+ searchable recipes. Searching my books for “witlof” gives me 22 recipes, including chicory and witlof so it looks like someone’s doing some “matching up” there too.

I emailed to ask some questions and was really impressed by the substance and tone of their answers. I asked if I could import the few hundred books I had in my Library Thing and was advised that a data import is on the way, and that they’re linking with British suppliers and eventually Australian and New Zealand ones to expand the library. And already, somewhere in Canberra, is an indexer adding info from the most prominent Australian books (nah, not me, although I offered …) Their focus is on the last 15 years, but I hope eventually they’ll index older titles like the Time Life Good Cook series which I have so painstakingly accumulated.

I’m not so interested in the “community” parts of the sites, as I already have a food blog and a twitter problem, but there’s potential for it to really take off. Much as I love flipping through cookbooks, sometimes I’d rather just be able to find or remember what I’m looking for – so when there’s something new at the farmers’ market or a glut in the veggie garden, dinner need never be boring. Even if it’s zucchini again.

disclosure! Eat Your Books has given me a free lifetime membership after reading this post. It didn’t cross my mind before writing, and I was going to pay up anyway, but as I don’t usually accept stuff I thought I should mention it.


15 thoughts on “In search of lost recipes

  1. Hi Zoe, thanks for this post. I saw that eleg sufficiency link and was intrigued so thanks for taking the hard work out:) As you know, I am trying to reduce my addiction without becoming all zen minimalist so like the idea of getting the most of the collection I already have. I’m planning to sign up for the EYB trial offer.

  2. Which reminds me I owe you a cake for the lovely books you gave me! I made the beef stroganoff with gherkins from the Tessa Kiros book this week, and it was a bit of a dud, actually. I don’t like flour-thickened gravies and hot gherkins is weirdly hamburgerish.

  3. Hi Zoe,

    Thanks for the mention of Gobbledybook!

    For Facebook, the only thing I’m using it for is user login, mostly to prevent spammers from entering bogus data for cookbooks. There is no data passed back to Facebook at all… so no worries about anything showing up on your wall! At somepoint, I would like to add some opt-in type functionality that would allow your friends to see which cookbooks and recipes you love. But, I’m a long way off from building that functionality, and it’s pretty low on the priority list. Definitely, there is no link between Facebook and book purchases. Those are just straight HTML links off to Amazon or Powells books.

    As for bugs or anything you find unintuitive, I know it’s probably asking a lot, but if you have a moment, and could send me feedback, I’d love to hear it! As you noted, this is has been a personal project, mostly designed around my own workflow. I want to make it easier for folks to use!

    Thanks again!

  4. Hi Lara – there are some simple things, eg there’s not a “no result found” screen if I type in “witlof”, and the search results are a bit cramped; I’d happily click through to another page.

    Good luck with the project; I particularly love the Ximena Maier illustrations.

  5. I just had a look at gobblebook and hated the facebook login thing. I’m getting more and more uncomfortable with FB. Or maybe I’m just over it.

    Hope you are feeling better. Did the Melbourne sojourn put your immune system into a nose dive?

  6. Yes, aof, you have broken me!

    And Pat, whose excellent post on cookbooks I linked up there, has told me about an Australian version, My Cookbooks Online, which emails you a recipe suggestion from your collection each day. It’s pretty light on for content so far (only two of my books in there), but will pay you to enter books.

    Can you imagine the scandal? “Zoe is making Donna Hay’s curried sausages for dinner.”

  7. Yay you for getting the free lifetime membership. I love the idea of these sites, but own so very few cookbooks that it would be a bit silly of me to sign up. (I am planning to use those food blog search thingies though, thank you for mentioning them).

    I am contemplating buying a membership for my Mum though… she often spends days trying to locate a recipe in her collection. (I’m just not sure that she would use it as I think that cookbooks are a tactile thing for her).

    Do they have an iPhone app. version? That she would use!

  8. Donna Hay is a gateway drug. I have a couple of Donna Hay recipe books (though you’d never know they were her’s – the author is usually unmentioned) which have tried and true staple dishes for our household. I figure anything that gets yo ass in the kitchen is a good thing. But the goal is to move on to more complicated things and woodwork, rather than sticking at this point.

  9. mmmm curried sausages. old skool.

    what a brilliant idea. I don’t have a massive collection of cookbooks here in London. Although I arrived with just one in my suitcase (Jill Dupleix, Simple Food) and now have about 2 doz…

    I think this would be genius for those huge tomes that are the last word on a food type. The Man likes to buy me these enormous encyclopeadias – he knows I love cooking but I think he secretly wants to make sure these are ‘improving’ and not frivoulous pretty picture books 😉

    I tend to spend more time looking at the glossy shiny books and neglect gems probably hidden in those huge ones.

    What can I say? I’m obviously a sucker for fancy photography…

    Anyway, it can be hard to navigate through them

  10. It’s a brilliant idea all round. I have often overlooked my cook books for the ease of a quick ingredient search on the internet. Will seriously consider fyb. Thanks, Zoe.

  11. Err, EYB. It was all that Facebook talk that confused me.

    Anyway, I went to EYB and have entered a few books. Noticed that in a quick search for pumpkin it cross references squash, thereby also giving zucchini recipes. Still, it’s easily solved by doing an advanced search: 140 results became 42.

  12. I just got all my cookbooks into one spot in the house and in a fit of organization was attempting to remember the names of these cookbook indexing services. Not only do I have names now, but helpful reviews as well. Thanks a bunch!

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