It’s Intrepid Indexer Who Makes Those Cookbooks User-Friendly

Rose Grant is a Washington free-lance writer, author of "Street Food" (The Crossing Press, 1989) and an indexer of cookbooks.

Author! Author! Standing ovation. Fame and fortune are yours 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. Although we are never invited on talk shows, and almost no one is interested in our opinions, we grunts play a vital role.

I am a cookbook indexer. Although I offer this information with some pride, the usual response, “how interesting!” is the most enthusiasm I can expect. 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 while trying to prepare a dish. 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-selling 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, even if they are not where I think they should be. 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 word chocolate nor cake so it was not listed in either category; it was, however, listed under “Quick.” Never mind that the cake was so important that it was on the cover of the book; a reader, who did not know the exact name of the recipe, had no access to it.

The indexer has a mandate to make each cookbook useful. There are rules that one should try to follow, but they are only guidelines. The index should be a custom job, uniquely suited 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.

A recipe for Grandma Greta’s Romaine and Red Cabbage Slaw With Mustard Blue Cheese Dressing could be indexed eight different ways. But does that make sense? Even if you had unlimited space for the index (usually there is a line constraint) 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 that each recipe should be listed by its name, here Grandma Greta doesn’t give any useful information and could be omitted. Keeping in mind that the index is the means of access to the recipes, using it to acknowledge friends and relatives is not in the user’s best interests.

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 cooks might want to use the bits and pieces left in the refrigerator and would look in the index for a stir-fry.

I’m often asked how I started in this unusual specialty. It is a story I love to tell. I had just lost my job as a school librarian and my ingenious daughter came up with the idea that I put together my library skills and my cooking skills and become a cookbook indexer. My one regret is that she didn’t think of it twenty years sooner--when she was in second grade.

The other question I’m frequently asked is 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 chicjken, 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 that 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 that the index was not there. 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 had some idea of how an obstetrician feels when, after working through the night, he delivers a perfect baby in the morning.

I keep looking (in vain) for a cookbook review that will comment 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 recipe, no one buys a cookbook because it has a smashing index. But, my indexer’s fantasy dies hard and I keep looking.