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Eat Your Books.

SultanaBun By SultanaBun Published on May 29, 2016
This article was updated on November 9, 2016

I have 113 cookbooks on my shelf, but I regularly find myself grabbing my phone and Googling a recipe. Sure, it’s fast, but it doesn’t have the feel-good factor of taking a beloved, dog-eared book and flicking through familiar, annotated pages. Nor is it good for my phone. Whipped cream, whisked eggs and worse have been stuck to and scraped off my screen.

There is a better way.

Founded by sisters Jane Kelly and Fiona Nugent, Eat Your Books (EYB) is an index of recipes from more than 6,200 cookbooks, magazines, blogs and websites. Free membership allows you to sift through 220,000 online recipes and place your five favorite books or magazines on a virtual bookshelf. With premium membership (30 USD p.a.), you can add unlimited books and magazines.

I asked Jane of Eat Your Books to tell me more.

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Q: What's the story behind EYB?

I realized that whenever I wanted a new recipe I would search online. It was so much easier entering the ingredients I wanted to use into the Epicurious search engine and getting a list of recipes. But I owned 700 or so wonderful cookbooks that were just sitting on the shelves. When I mentioned to a friend that I was thinking of creating a database of my cookbook recipes, she asked me to share it, as she owned a lot of the same cookbooks. A light bulb moment – there must be lots of people who would love to use their cookbooks more if only they could easily find recipes. I talked to my sister Fiona, who lives in Auckland, New Zealand, and we were off. Eat Your Books launched in 2009! 

Q: Why index cookbooks when any recipe can be Googled in seconds?

I don’t actually think it is true that every recipe can be Googled. If you want a beef stew then, sure, you can Google that and see 1.6 million results. But for the majority of those recipes you will have no idea who wrote them and how well tested they are. Whereas with your cookbooks, you have cooked from them before and know you can trust the author.

In addition, a Google search is a word search, looking for a word where it appears in the text. EYB is a database and you can use any combination of ingredients and categories such as recipe type, ethnicity, special diet, season, occasion or meal/course that may not appear in the text. It is very precise as it is matching to data.

Q: Why do people become addicted to acquiring ever more cookbooks?

I’m the person to ask since my collection has now grown to 1,750 cookbooks. I agree it is probably an addiction, but a harmless one. I get to cook some wonderful dishes from my books but they are also a great read, especially with writers who tell an interesting story of their life and travels. My cookbooks are a history of my culinary journey. I can’t bear to throw any away.

Q: What is the oldest book listed on your site?

According to Anne Willan’s wonderful book The Cookbook Library, the first known cookbook is a Roman manuscript by Apicius from early in the first century C.E. The Forme of Cury was the first English language cookbook and dates from about 1390. The first printed cookbook was De honesta voluptate et valetudine (Of Honest Indulgence and Good Health) which was published in 1474. We list reprints of all of those. There is a book on EYB called The American Frugal Housewife from 1833. And there are reprints of The Art of Cookery by Hannah Glasse from 1805 and Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management from 1861. But EYB is really about cookbooks published in the last forty years or so. The most popular 25 books on EYB (i.e. those owned by the most members) range from 1961 (Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child) to 2012 (Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi). 

Q: Which authors are the most prolific?

Of the well known names, the most prolific would be Delia Smith – I counted around 40 unique titles. Jamie Oliver hits #28 with this summer’s new book. The doyenne of American cooking, Julia Child, has 20.

Q: Do you think that books from celebrity chefs and food bloggers match the quality of those originating from cookery schools?

If you want very clear instructions that will help you learn how to cook or improve your technique then cooking schools such as Leith’s and Ballymaloe produce great books. There are also some great step-by-step books from writers such as Jane Baxter. For books with lots of photos, celebrity chefs and food bloggers would be a better bet – though these books generally have fewer recipes as good photography is expensive. Well-written recipes and stylish books don’t have to be exclusive- Nigel Slater and Diana Henry, two of my favorites, produce books with plentiful, reliable, well-written recipes and narrative with lovely photos.

Q: Would you buy a cookbook with no photos?

Absolutely. In fact, one of my most favorite cookbooks, Cook This Now by Melissa Clark (a New York Times writer) has just 16 photos for 178 recipes. The only recipes that need photos are fancy desserts where I want to see what the finished dish should look like.

Q: Have any famous names admitted cookbook addiction?

There are many famous cookbook addicts out there – Nigella Lawson is very open about her addiction. The last I heard, she owned more than 3,000 cookbooks. She hasn’t yet joined EYB but she should! Her work would be so much easier if she had a searchable database of all the recipes in her cookbooks. Lindsey Bareham and Diana Henry have also been open about their huge collections, numbering in the thousands.

A lot of cookery schools such as Leith’s and Ballymaloe use EYB for their cookbook library – it really helps the students find recipes for research. TV shows such as The Food Network and America’s Test Kitchen use EYB – their libraries are huge.

Q: Finally, Jane, which would be your desert island cookbook?

I hate this question! It’s so difficult to choose. It really depends on my frame of mind at the time. As I said, I love Cook This Now by Melissa Clark and use it a lot. I also cook from all the Ottolenghi books but which one if only one? Diana Henry’s books are great – the one I cook most from is A Change of Appetite. But I suppose, if there was only going to be one book, I’d want it to cover as many options as possible so my desert island book would be How to Eat by Nigella Lawson.

Jane’s passion for real, hard-copy cookbooks is obvious. I’m impressed that she is helping people to get value from books they already own.

I love that I can use my phone, while I’m out of the house, to make a shopping list from the books that are sitting at home. I love that I can create a database of my own fabulous (or not) recipes and unleash them on the world. Eat Your Books is a revelation. I love it.

Get going; eat your books!

Irish blogger and book reviewer. Official contributor to Bookwitty.com and author of Bookwitty's monthly 'Cooking the Books' feature. Erstwhile microbiologist with an MSc in Food Science, she ... Show More