A Recipe Problem Becomes Much More, Then Much Less

December 24, 2007

Like anyone interested in food and cooking, I have cookbooks, I have a few issues of cooking magazines… and I have recipes. Recipes clipped and torn from magazines and newspapers, scribbled on scraps of paper, and printed from an email or a Web site.

These recipes comprise a tattered pile perched atop the cookbooks in my kitchen. The pile comprises a tiny but constant space in the room of my memory palace that is furnished with other personal organizational directives — photos, pantry, clothing, computer files. That room is, naturally, painted a light shade of guilt.

A recent blog post by a foodie friend brought this room to the front of my mind:

…I bought a sturdy-looking accordion file and began going through all the mags to clip out my favorite recipes. It was a herculean task that had to be done over a number of sittings, spread out over several months to allow sufficient recovery time after each brave plunge…

Organizing recipes is what people do, right? I bought an accordion file at Staples, and considered the taxonomy I would use.

  • Appetizers, Entrees, Desserts?
  • Vegetables, Grains, Meats?
  • Sweets and Savories?
  • Large Meals and Small Meals?
  • Quickies and Time-Takers?

I couldn’t commit to an organizing logic. The problem nagged at me, and I began to resent that so much thought was going into a common and ostensibly minor problem. I blamed my difficulty on the years of immersive computer use that had eroded my ability to place items into silos. Online, I search by keyword or browse by tags. On my computer, I keep folders that are loosely structured and highly imperfect because it’s easy enough to copy the same file to several places or (gasp) use the Windows Search when desperate.

But I remained convinced that the physical realm still needs categories, and that the mental exercise of creating them would somehow make me stronger. Until recently, when I had dinner with a few friends and submitted my organizational problem for a collaborative solution.

One (John) has a few tried-and-true recipes that he makes from memory. One is a food blogger, who knows where her recipes are because she turns to them all the time. Both were sympathetic to my organizing drive, but neither seemed compelled to do the same. Their empathetic distance from the issue was rather surprising, as I had not expected the discussion to call the problem itself into question.

Two other friends had no sympathy at all for my recipe problem. One is a core mover in the development of the semantic Web; the other would greatly benefit from its widespread use, judging from his current endeavor. Now, the semantic Web is a complex concept. (Overly) simply put, it’s a way to connect similar types of data across dissimilar digital contexts. One result of this, true believers claim, is that organizing things into categories is a waste of time and shuts information retrievers off from results that might actually be relevant but are in a different category. For example, if a recipe Web site relied on categories alone, an item in the Entree section might make a perfectly nice Appetizer, but the person looking for appetizers would never know.

Fine. I get this, and over the past few years my digital information management methods have shifted significantly from categorizing and browsing to search.

But what about my clippings, my tangible, physical, natty clippings? The semweb’s got nothing for me here.

Their response: ‘You don’t have that many recipes. If you bother to categorize them, you’re going to end up going through the entire accordion file to get ideas or find the recipe you were looking for, anyway. So why bother filing them in the first place?’

At this point, the brief and powerful manner in which a fundamental assumption of mine — recipes must be organized — was dismissed had an interesting effect: utter acceptance on my part. I also felt a little lighter. That’s one less piece of clutter in the room of personal organizational directives.

The conversation then took a telling turn towards other examples of mild obsessive-compulsive disorder in our lives. I did resent that a little bit. But, I could see their point. What if the desire to organize by category is not a cleaner kitchen, but rather a prison with guilt-colored walls?

I mulled over this for a few days after that fateful dinner. I came to a couple of other realizations:

-If we took a little survey of the semantic Web developer community, we’d probably find they don’t organize their recipes, they don’t put their photos in albums, I’d hate to see their closets, and they ripped all their CDs and got rid of them as soon as it was technologically possible. They likely have a general aversion to categorizing and culling, but the digital realm is more conducive than the physical realm to a workaround. (If only this crossover fantasy could be a reality without RFID tags everywhere!)

-My obligatory need to organize my recipes emerged, at least in part, from a fear of forgetting. I am not a chef or a food blogger, just a reasonably good occasional cook. I will never have enough recipes to lose track of the ones I have. And they’re kept in two places – in that pile in my kitchen, and in my head: There is a recipe clippings room in my memory palace that I hadn’t realized existed. What brings me there is sometimes rational (I need an appetizer) — but more often it’s emotional and sensual. When I think of my beloved grandmother, and I think of her matzo ball soup, I think of the page I wrote it on in a little book given to me by friends on my 22nd birthday. When I remember one of the best dinners I’ve ever hosted, I remember the lamb kofta recipe on its glossy magazine stock in that tattered pile. My pumpkin bread, made hundreds of times, still seems like the perfect thing for every occasion.

In any case, if a recipe does disappear from my memory palace, is that really such a tragedy? It might turn up the next time I rifle through the clippings, or it might not. I’ve always thought of food as experience and memory. So I’ll let it behave like those, fading in and out, establishing, or going away to make room for something new. Here, I finally understand, I do not need a closed system that scales.


7 Responses to “A Recipe Problem Becomes Much More, Then Much Less”

  1. emilyshaw Says:

    my mom has lots and lots of cutouts and they’re in manila folders based on loose categories (i.e., desserts, entrees) but things always get misfiled so you always have to look through all of them anyway if you want to make something. The act of riffling through them all is a mnemonic in itself, however, and you have visceral memories of dishes that you wouldn’t have thought of making if you hadn’t touched that torn magazine page.

    In Oakland, when our minds were generally on other things but we still wanted to be able to make dinner (as opposed to now, where our minds are on other things but neither of us has any interest in making dinner) we had index cards on the refrigerator that just had a list of all of the dishes we liked for dinner. That was easy enough to scan.

    Anything under 100 recipes is not too big for the pile method of organizing, I think. Anything over 100 recipes might deserve its own cookbook.

  2. Eve Says:

    Ha! I did not mean to create such a quandary for you.

    In my case, I organized them into the file because I had all those stacks of magazines that I needed to throw out and the resulting pile of recipe clippings was too large to sit on a shelf.

    Now that I have the file (although I’ve outgrown it and am thinking I need to move it all into one of those plastic filing boxes and add lots more categories as tehre are now a bunch of recipes that don’t fit into my current set of categories) I find that I use the recipes a lot mroe than I would have before – partly because I do read through them more than I would have because doing so is soooo much less overwhelming thanks to the organizational system.

    For example, if I have an ingredient (a type of meat, vegetable, herb, etc.) that I am not sure what to do with, I flip to that section of the file and read through all the recipes. In general, there is usually at least one recipe that sounds good to me that I then make or one that gives me a good idea for something to use the ingredient in and I just make up a recipe that is loosely based on it.

    I agree however that working with computers does kind of spoil you organizationally. I often forget that I cannot just google things in “real” life.

  3. rekha6 Says:

    emilyshaw: I think you’re right, there’s a number somewhere around 100 over which a more structured system is useful

    eve: it seems that the categories are only part of what makes the solution work for you. the other part is simply having things in a folder or file. i (used to) do this with media clippings (before pdfs and delicious) – i have 4 huge binders with every page in its own plastic sleeve (i could do things like this before i killed so much time online). there’s no particular order, but when i want to retrieve something i know i have, it’s less scary to open a binder than it would be to attack a pile.

  4. David Says:

    I understand the problem and have turned to a 3 ring binder and a manilla envelope. The other thing I was thinking is that you could scan your recipes and store them with taglines etc. This gives you a searchable database and the option to print them out. Then again you need a laptop in the kitchen but who doesn’t have one of those?!

    It is an interesting problem and personally I would organize by course (app, desert, etc) because it could help to quickly limit.

  5. rekha6 Says:

    I thought about scanning them all in, but that would be one more hobby that has migrated to the computer. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

  6. Bea Says:

    ah, sweet to see this post Rekha. You have been putting some thoughts into it, haven’t you?

  7. Samantha Says:

    Try http://recipe.gauzza.com its free/easy to use and you can access all your recipes where ever there is an internet connection

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