Creating a Master Index for a Cookbook Collection

January 23, 2013 at 9:18 pm | Posted in Book Blather, Nonfiction | 2 Comments

A dream of mine has come true. I’ve finally found a practical way to index my massive cookbook collection! I’m about 2/3 done, and only today did it occur to me that others might be interested in a project like this. (Humor me, okay?)

Up to now, I have had to rely on memory when I’ve wanted to look up a specific recipe. What book was it in again? This might not seem like a big deal in an ordinary kitchen. Combine 7 shelves in two bookcases with weekly dinner parties involving up to 20 people, and you can see why I wanted to get more organized.

I do have a sort of system in place for tracking recipes I have tried. I use one of four symbols to mark the page afterward. A recipe gets a check mark as a sign I’ve made it. It gets an X if I wouldn’t make it again. A star means it was good enough to make again, and a circled star means it should be in regular rotation. This system has helped a lot when I’m trying to recall which cornbread.

This still didn’t help with the problem of remembering which cookbook a recipe was in. It also didn’t provide a quick way to find our favorites. I tried using a blank book to write a few names, but I found this cumbersome. No way to alphabetize as I went, no search feature, no tags, etc.

I tried setting up a spreadsheet and typing in lists of recipe names, with columns for different ingredients. After about two hours I could see that this would take the rest of my life, with the added drawback that our computer is on the other side of the house from the kitchen.

Enter EverNote. I had made indexing my cookbooks a New Year’s goal, and I started searching for ways other people had done this. I stumbled across the fact that EverNote has OCR features. I thought, “It can’t be that simple, can it?” I loaded the app onto my iPhone (again – I had tried it and been unimpressed) and tested it out. Yes, it is that simple!

What I am doing is scanning each page of the index for each cookbook. I rename the ‘snapshot’ with the book’s name and the index page number. I put it in a folder marked ‘Recipe Indices.’ I tag it with the book’s name, author names, and publication date. It sounds complicated, but once I got going I found I could tag everything in seconds.

Now, when I search for a term, EverNote returns all the pages with that word, with each instance highlighted in yellow. The other night I wanted to make a cassoulet recipe I first tried 18 months ago. Even though I was only halfway through indexing, the correct book came up in seconds. That’s part of why I haven’t bothered creating tags for recipe categories like ‘Thai’ or ‘soup’ – I figure those terms will have been indexed already.

The other thing I’m doing is scanning all those recipes with a star, as I come across them. EverNote also uses a star to mark favorites. So far I have 50. It’s like a mini travel cookbook. I no longer have to worry about wandering the grocery store wondering what to cook. If I feel a sudden craving, I can check the recipe and make sure I have all the ingredients in the cart. One day I’m sure my phone will also have a complete inventory of what’s in my pantry, too, so I quit overbuying. I have so much molasses right now the ATF is investigating me as a bootlegger. But I digress.

EverNote has two additional features I haven’t used yet: web clipping and handwriting recognition. When I’m done with the current phase of my project, I can find out if my handwriting is legible on my collection of recipe cards. (Yep. Books are only part of my hoard). As I move to a more electronic system, I can add recipes I’ve discovered online.

Possibly the most interesting finding has been that I had never used 40% of the cookbooks on my shelf. I didn’t count how many more had only one recipe checked off; I’m afraid that would have been too revealing. I went through and rigorously culled books I was sure I could let go. One guideline that helped was to cut off anything more than 10 years old, although I made the exception of a few reliable restaurant cookbooks I use regularly. Another, easier guideline was to flip through books I recalled harboring a failed recipe or two. I started with 128 and now I’m down to 82, including my handwritten recipe journal.

Why not just buy the e-book versions of my favorite cookbooks? Believe me, I wish this was a viable option. Not all of them are available in electronic format. Each recipe in an e-book spreads across multiple screens. There is no way I know of to search multiple indices at once. It might be easier to use e-cookbooks on a tablet, and I’ll find out once I get one, but for now I like my system better.

If you have a system for organizing your recipes, or ideas for using EverNote to improve my project, I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

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“Annoying”

February 18, 2012 at 8:56 pm | Posted in Nonfiction | 7 Comments

I knew at a glance that I needed to read this book. Is it just me, or has the world gotten more annoying lately? Joe Palca and Flora Lichtman explore this in “Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us.”

I want to summarize some points I found interesting, and then talk about things I find annoying. What could be more fun than that? I also want to annoy my readers by deliberately misusing punctuation, but I will refrain, although since this is my first ever blog by iPhone, I’m sure I’ll do it accidentally.

• Annoyance is difficult to separate from anger.
• Initial testing suggests that the higher a person’s body mass index, the more likely that person is to experience annoyance.
• What annoys people depends on culture, physical and mental health status, and gender.
• Listening to half a conversation is one of the single most annoying experiences humanly possible, because we can’t stop ourselves from trying to imagine the part we can’t hear. This is why cell phones are universally reviled.
• Men are more likely to be annoyed by women when they see them as domineering and controlling. Women are more likely to be annoyed by behavior they see as uncouth.
• A baby’s cry acts on the limbic system. Parents are able to tolerate it because they have an emotional, hormonal bond with their child. But to others, it is one of the most annoying sounds possible.
• Fingernails on a chalkboard make a sound reminiscent of a primate alarm call. Our horror of this sound is instinctual.
• Other animals don’t tend to experience dissonance, as in someone singing off-key. (True of my parrot, who finds loud, annoying sounds amusing and loves music though lacking in taste).
• It is difficult to put a finger on exactly what is annoying about an annoying person, but it is clear that annoying people don’t know they are annoying. (To paraphrase Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense.”)
• As a corollary to this, those who are most easily annoyed also tend to be the most irritating. Did someone immediately come to mind for you the way it did for me?

Do you ever have one of those fantastic coincidences that seem designed for blogging? My DH just interrupted me to ask what was for dinner, then peered intently at me and pulled out an errant white hair. I asked him, “For my blog, which one of us was annoying just now?” He said, “Me.” “But my hair! It was just driving you crazy!”

As I was typing this, a kid of indeterminate age and gender ran down our street, calling out operatically for the duration of several sentences. This might have been annoying but was in fact hysterically funny. Why is that? (Possibly because the words were unclear).

I believe our rising level of annoyance is both good and bad. Good, because in the distant past “annoying” behavior often led to overt violence. Bad, because it’s likely a symptom of simple population pressure. There are at least 20% more people around than when I was a kid, and as far as I can tell they all set out to tailgate me.

Compassion meditation helps hugely when dealing with annoying strangers. I find that headphones and an app called “Nature Sound” do a great job of masking noise when working in public. As a high-reactive person, I remind myself that my snit may not be someone else’s fault. I also learned to quit caring about poor grammar, punctuation, and spelling when I married an engineer – a brilliant man who struggles with those things but can beat me at Scrabble. Everyone wins when we learn to take it easy and let it go.

It is my thesis that annoyance leads gradually to positive social change. Personal hygiene is a case in point. Once the majority agrees that a given behavior is not just a pet peeve but intrinsically annoying, social pressure begins to drive the behavior to extinction. Sexual harassment is a case in point. I had a coworker who was over 70 who came up behind me and blew in my ear – something he probably decided was charming back in the 50s. Isn’t it amazing how quickly certain things change?

The social networking world may be a microcosm of accelerated social evolution. Memes such as the xkcd cartoon “Someone is wrong on the Internet” and the term ‘vaguebooking’ spread almost instantaneously. As annoying as your politically ranting friend may be, at least he is expressing his feelings in text. Perhaps in time, maybe even one lifetime, he may learn to relax and regard these matters more meditatively.

The habit of blog commenters who leave long-winded critical remarks and then depart, never to participate in a real dialogue, will probably never die, though. And that’s my pet peeve.

Reading Coincidences

January 18, 2011 at 9:00 pm | Posted in Book Blather, Nonfiction | 7 Comments

Have you ever picked up a book, not knowing at the time that it would be much more relevant to you than you expected?

I started reading Douglas Hofstadter’s I Am a Strange Loop after it had sat in my stack of library books for about two months.  When I requested it,  I just wanted to read the author’s long-awaited follow-up to Godel, Escher, Bach.  Today, I discovered that he is a long distance runner.  (Why is it that the smartest, highest achieving people always seem to be so good at so many things?)

My regular readers may recall that I set out to read 500 books in 2009.  I did it, of course, but I also got out of shape and put some weight on.  Last year I dropped 15 pounds.  Last month, I suddenly discovered the power of the hula hoop.  It rapidly became an obsession – I swear I am not making this up – until I was doing it an hour a day.  For some strange reason that I can’t fully recall, I decided to take up running as my new fitness plan.  The first day out, I literally could not run around the block, and it took over two weeks before I could run a full mile.

Now I have this new passion, and lo and behold, this book speaks to it in ways I never would have guessed.

I can’t help but wonder whether, if I had read the book any sooner, I would have glossed over the running analogies, or whether they might even have repelled me enough that the impulse would not have taken over my life the way it suddenly has.  (As I run on, my sentences do too).

Readers, weigh in.  Has a book ever spoken to you in a way that made it seem written especially for you?

This Week

November 6, 2010 at 6:46 pm | Posted in Fiction, History, Nonfiction, Young Adult Fiction | 3 Comments

A quick synopsis of some super books I read this week (and how I found out about them):

Fat Vampire – Adam Rex.  One of the best YA books I’ve read in some time.  A screamingly funny satire of vampire novels with some great characters.  This deserves to be a series (TV or print) or at least a movie.  We read it aloud, I had a terrible time trying to do half a dozen different accents, and it was one of our best Family Reading Hour picks ever. (Amazon Book of the Month)

Skippy Dies – reviewed below, adored, definitely helped keep my Booker momentum going. (Booker long list)

The False Friend – Myla Goldberg.  No, I haven’t read Bee Season yet, though it’s on my shelf and I know I’m going to love it.  The False Friend was a gripping account of suppressed childhood memories, family loyalty, and adult romance.  For such a slender book it packed a powerful punch.  This would be a great book club pick. (Indiespensable)

I Curse the River of Time – Per Petterson.  I fell in love with Out Stealing Horses and had to grab this.  It’s still settling in my system.  The protagonist is a working-class man who turns down a chance to go to college to be true to his Communist ideals, then stumbles his way to a rapprochement with his dying mother.  It’s sad but honest.  I might benefit from a rereading. (Indiespensable)

Trespass – Rose Tremain. This author won the Orange Prize for a previous book.  Trespass is a story of dysfunctional families, class conflict, crime, antiques, real estate, and lesbian sex.  In other words, it’s a great airplane read, about eight notches above The Slap but still bloody and kinky.  It’s also very short if you have a rainy night that needs dealing with.  (Booker long list)

Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln’s Corpse – James Swanson. This is history the way it ought to be written – approachable, level-headed, and chock-a-block with research and photos.  I learned things about Civil War history that I never expected to, and got a bit of a crush on the marriage of Jefferson and Varina Davis.  Plus I got to see a picture of a pillow with Lincoln’s blood on it.  (Actually, come to think of it, I could have done without that part).  (Amazon Best of the Month)

Now I’m tackling Long for This World by Sonya Chung for the third time.  It’s impossible for me to believe a book under 300 pages can have so much in it.

“The State of Jones”

May 18, 2010 at 3:19 pm | Posted in History, Nonfiction, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer have written the sort of history book that should turn more people on to history in general.  It’s well documented and researched, and the characters spring to life in a Civil War that seems like it could be going on right this minute.

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The State of Jones: The Small Southern County That Seceded from the Confederacy focuses on a man called Newton Knight and his family.  He had two wives and two families, one white and one black, who seemed to know about each other and get along better than you’d think.  He also went AWOL and led an insurrection against the Confederate Army.

I have a degree in history and I’d never heard of this guy.  This is a really gripping story that deserves to be told, because it should interest anyone.  The passages from journals and letters not only bring forth the voices of the past, but remind us that ordinary 19th century people had beautiful writing skills.

“The End of Overeating”

April 21, 2010 at 2:58 pm | Posted in Nonfiction, Slow Food | 5 Comments

“Why can’t I stop eating Snackwell’s?”  It’s a question that should rank right up there with “Follow the money” as the launch of a legendary investigation.  David Kessler, a formidably educated and accomplished man and a medical doctor, asked himself why certain foods made him want to pig out.  Then he started asking neuroscientists and food industry people.  What he found out should have people rioting in the streets.

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The answer is shocking: food has been deliberately designed to act on the brain like a drug and to induce what Kessler calls conditioned hypereating.  In other words, just like the cigarette industry, the food industry is manipulating us to addict us to unhealthy foods, driving up health care costs, just to make money.

The End of Overeating is an understated masterpiece.  I read it aloud to my husband, who has struggled with his weight for 30 years but has just succeeded in taking off 20 pounds since the holidays.  (Nobody can get fat off my cooking, I joke).  He would keep chiming in, often anticipating the final sentence of a paragraph, progressively more outraged.  He started sharing what we’d learned with a friend of ours at work, who said, “You just ruined my nachos for me.”  The book truly is gripping.  While the chapters measure only 3-5 pages in length, nearly every one could merit its own book.  Kessler could easily, easily have written and sold this as an 800-pager.  Instead it’s about 250 pages of graceful text.

A caveat:  The first section of the book goes straight into neuroscience, which can be a bit daunting.  Let me assure you that it swiftly moves along into more approachable discussions of the food industry, and finally, what the individual can do to fight back.  In between are a multitude of descriptions of engineered foods, and individuals responding to them, that are nearly pornographic.

What Kessler tells us is that the food industry needs to regulate itself or be regulated.  It’s no wonder we have an obesity epidemic, and it’s easy to see why it started when it did.  That’s the main point of the book – to inform us of what’s going on and get us worked up enough to do something about it.  In the meantime, he helpfully includes some tips to help us try to resist the magnetic pull of sugar, fat, and salt.  (I’ll end with mine, as I sit here smugly in my size four jeans:  Switch to a diet based on organic vegetables and whole grains and start cooking at home at least 80% of the time!)

“E is for Ethics”

April 13, 2010 at 5:42 pm | Posted in Nonfiction, Reading with Kids | 3 Comments

I picked up this terrific little book, E is for Ethics: How to Talk to Kids About Morals, Values, and What Matters Most, in the hope that it would apply to all ages of children.  I suppose it could, but our sardonic 15-year-old is at a particularly cynical stage.  Mr. Corlett, if you can hear me, here is my plea for a similar book aimed at teenagers!

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I came into my step-daughter’s life when she was already 10 years old.  I’ve worked in as many subliminal messages as I can think of, from healthy eating to housework to academic focus, but ethics has proven the hardest.  If you’re a parent with young kids, run, do not walk, and pick up this book.  I think it’s impossible to reinforce these concepts too much.  Look around any time you go anywhere in public – especially in traffic – and ask yourself how many adults around you were shortchanged on ethical instruction as children.  Phew.

We’re reading Sophie’s World this month, though right now we’re still in the materialist philosophers.  So far we’ve learned (from our kid) that you’re a good person if you think you are, and you’re the only person who can decide whether you live a good life.  So evidently if you feel self-satisfied, that’s the only contribution you need to make to the world.  I guess all that self-esteem building education really works, huh?

If anyone has any suggestions for remedial moral training, please by all means pass them on.  I’m hoping it isn’t too late!

“The Happiness Project”

April 6, 2010 at 1:22 pm | Posted in Nonfiction | 8 Comments

Stunt nonfiction is something I’ve always loved, but didn’t know the term until I read The Happiness Project.  I did my own stunt of reading 500 books last year, and I’ve read books on cooking through Julia Child, reading the entire encyclopedia and the Oxford English Dictionary, and who knows how many more.  Surely the idea of spending a year trying to be happier must be the most sensible of these.

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Gretchen Rubin grapples with some challenges during her project:  Other people tell her that thinking about her own happiness will actually make her unhappy, that it’s irresponsible to feel happy when other people in the world are suffering, and that her specific strategies are dumb.  This is some pretty heavy stuff.  I agree with her, though, that being happier makes us more likely to help others (and vice versa), that it is possible to teach ourselves new skills to improve our happiness and well-being, and that it’s valuable to everyone to do so.  I’m already thinking out what my own happiness project will be.

The section of the book that caught my attention the most, though, was under the month of November: Give Positive Reviews.  That’s what I try to do here, and sometimes I find others are not receptive to this.  I’ve actually been asked why I liked a book that someone else hated – more than once.  Is it really offensive to find that someone liked something you didn’t?

Why was it so deliciously satisfying to criticize?  Being critical made me feel more sophisticated and intelligent – and in fact, studies show that people who are critical are often perceived to be more discerning.  In one study, for example, people judged the writers of negative book reviews as more expert and competent than the writers of positive reviews, even when the content of both reviews was judged to be of high quality.  Another study showed that people tend to think that someone who criticizes them is smarter than they are…. Being critical has its advantages, and what’s more, it’s much easier to be hard to please.

So there you have it.  Try harder to enjoy things, just like I’ve always said.  Look at critical reviews with a jaundiced eye, and suspect that you may have the capacity to get more out of the criticized book than that snarky reviewer managed to do.

“Mindless Eating”

February 15, 2010 at 12:41 am | Posted in Nonfiction, Slow Food | 3 Comments

The best of pop psychology, funny, fascinating, and with a bit of a Candid Camera sensibility, Mindless Eating makes a great read even if you don’t find the topic relevant.  Honestly, though, how many of us can claim we never eat mindlessly?

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I listened to Brian Wansink’s book on audio, mostly while cooking.  Luckily for me, food prep makes me less likely to snack, perhaps because raw onions aren’t very good.  I can vouch that the narration is superior, and the only bad thing about it is that it’s hard to turn off.

What you’ll learn from the book is that no matter how bright you are, no matter how dedicated you are to healthy eating, there are pitfalls and snares to trip you up at every turn.  I’ll summarize the points that seem the most helpful for my family.

  • Identifying a few small ways that extra calories tend to creep into your mouth can help you effortlessly lose about 10 pounds a year.
  • It’s best to dish up meals directly onto the plates, putting serving platters on the table only for salad and other vegetables.
  • Smaller plates and bowls, and tall skinny glasses, help us dish up less.
  • Make half your plate salad and vegetables.
  • One person in the family is usually the “nutritional gatekeeper” who does most of the meal planning, shopping, and cooking.  That person has a lot of say over whether the family is fat or healthy.

I’m in my skinny jeans again – size 4! – since it appears that I only really snacked and ate junk food in the office.  I’m good at keeping it out of my shopping cart and my cupboards.  My dear hubby is in a weight loss contest at work, with two months to go.  I’ll use what I learned from Mindless Eating to see if my role as nutritional gatekeeper can help him along.

The Book That Changed My Life

February 8, 2010 at 6:51 pm | Posted in Nonfiction, Personal Finance | 7 Comments

In my second week working at home as a wanna-be writer, I wanted to share a little about the book that started it all:  Your Money or Your Life, by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin.  (Hey, it looks like a new edition came out in ’08!)  I was lucky enough to stumble across this book in 1997, and I’ve probably read it 3-4 times since then.

The sad thing about evangelizing a favorite book of this nature is that nobody is interested.  I’ve tried to lend it out half a dozen times, and each time it comes back slightly skimmed.  I can say quite frankly that this is one of only two books I’ve ever lent out that I’ve actually gotten back!  Not only that, but usually within a couple of weeks.  I’m sure I’ve lent out at least two dozen books in my life that flew away never to return.  I’m giving up now, but perhaps this little paean of praise will inspire someone else to check it out from the library or perhaps even buy it.

I won’t summarize too much, except to say that YMOYL is a textbook on how to think frugally, learn to save money, and become financially independent – all without resorting to multi-level marketing, chanting, flipping real estate, or whatever else the Easy Money books teach you to do.  This is what I learned:

  • Money is life energy.  Every penny you earn represents part of your life that you never get to re-live.  When you spend it, you’d better be sure you’re really glad you traded part of your life to buy whatever it was.
  • Debt is a cancer.  When you spend more than you earn, you pay dearly for the privilege.  There is no pair of shoes cute enough that I want to pay for them three years from now!
  • Planning is crucial.  No matter how busy or tough things are, you have to take the long view with your finances because the years are going to go by regardless.  Whether you save or spend, you’re gambling on what your circumstances are going to be like further down the road.  Better hope you’re right.
  • It is possible to become financially independent.  Even if nobody in your entire family tree ever had two nickels to rub together.  Even if your income has never reached the national median.  All you have to do is know how much you really need to get by on and keep saving until your investment earnings reach that level.  If you want it badly enough, you’ll do whatever it takes to save as much as possible to get there.

What my husband and I did last month was to look over our finances for 2009, compare them to the five- and ten-year plans we made last winter, and realize that the time was right for me to Quit My Day Job.  We’re still paying off his ex-wife’s debt from six years ago, and he still has to pay child support as well, but in three years we’ll be done.  In the meantime, we figure, even if my writing doesn’t get anywhere, I can continue to pull my weight with temp jobs from time to time.  In three years, when our little bunny goes off to college and we’re debt free, my husband can make his own jump.  We know what we need to earn to afford our minimalist lifestyle, and as an engineer and a secretary we can pretty much go anywhere in the world to work.

Ironically, my first week at home, Sweetie Junior caught a nasty cold and my husband wound up having to pull 31 hours of overtime.  Words cannot express how much my being at home improved our standard of living, at least that week.

What’s it like?  We spend less than 25% of our net income on our rental house, which is both bigger and nicer than we would have settled for.  We have one vehicle, which is paid off at just over 100,000 miles.  He buys his clothes at Costco and I buy mine at a local thrift store, or we shop at Ross.  We pretty much never go out – we spend $15 a month on Netflix and maybe $60 a month at restaurants for the three of us.  We don’t drink alcohol or coffee.  He has one credit card – a mileage card – that we use occasionally for convenience, but otherwise we’re debit-only and have been for years.

It might sound grim to most people.  It works for us, possibly because we’re both of Scottish extraction.  We started discussing and planning our finances together long before we even began dating!  It was a few weeks after we set up our 5- and 10-year plans that he proposed.  We have our fun cooking together and trying new recipes, reading aloud from library books, playing with our pets, working out together, and talking a lot.  Sometimes we talk about what it would be like if we spent our time sacked out in front of the TV or driving back and forth to the mall, eating fast food, and we both shudder.

There have been times when I’ve listened to my friends – all of whom earned more than me – chattering excitedly about Shopping and I’ve just felt like crying.  Not for me, though; for them.  My husband and I have compared notes, and every single one of our friends has debt problems that won’t seem to go away.  We know because over the years they’ve all come to us and told us about them.  They all also seem to have major dreams that they’ve felt forced to put on the back burner.  For instance, we have a friend whose dream is to “mow rich people’s lawns” when he retires, and another who wants to deliver flowers.  Both of these guys could quit and start doing those jobs tomorrow if it weren’t for debt, you know?

It does take years and it does mean saying goodbye forever to Cute Shoes and it does definitely put you outside the mainstream, which can be uncomfortable.  But it is possible to get up one day and say, “You know what?  I’m going to live my dream now.”  And if you can do it, you should do it, for yourself and your family but also to inspire others, whose dreams might be cooler than yours.

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