Cookbooks may make good timeful texts

Cookbooks are a poor medium for supplying a collection of recipes. You might read through a cookbook when you buy it, but at most you’ll only be cooking a few of those recipes in the near future. In fact, you may not be able to cook many of the recipes soon: ingredients may be out of season, or they may be more appropriate for a large party (but you have non planned), etc. There’s too much to hold in your head, so you remember a few key recipes, and often the rest are forgotten until you pick the book up again many months later.

I suspect most recipes in cookbooks go uncooked, even while home cooks strain each week with “what should I cook?” And I think this has a lot to do with the form of a cookbook, inappropriately instantiated as a linear reading experience.

When reading a non-fiction book on a topic, it’s relatively easy to “index”—to vaguely remember what ideas were discussed because they make a coherent whole. But recipes in cookbooks are more of a disconnected jumble; building a mental index is much harder. You might turn down the corners on a few pages that catch your eye, and start cooking one or two things in the coming weeks. But when corn comes into season three months later, will you remember which of your cookbooks included an interesting recipe for corn? When winter comes around and you want something warm, will you remember that stew on page 216? Even if you turned the page down, what will trigger you to pick up the book and look through those pages again? It almost feels as if the cookbook is too “opaque” as an object; the contents are out of your Peripheral vision.

I don’t think the right answer is to use something like the Mnemonic medium to memorize a cookbook’s contents. I think a likelier model is: each time you see a recipe, there’s some chance it’ll trigger an actionable “ooh, I want to make this!”, dependent on seasonality, weather, what else you’ve been cooking recently, etc. A more effective cookbook might simply resurface recipes intermittently over time, creating more opportunities for a good match: e.g. a weekly email with 5-10 cooking ideas, perhaps with some accompanying narrative. Ideally, the cookbook would surface seasonally-appropriate recipes. Seasonality would make the experience of “reading” a cookbook extend over the course of a year—a Timeful text.

In some sense, this is what cooking magazines like Bon Appetit are already doing: each month, you get a bundle of cooking ideas. You’ll cook a few that seem most interesting, then you’ll lose track of the rest… but it’s okay because next month, another issue will arrive. Still, such a magazine would be better delivered in small sections weekly, rather than all at once monthly—it’s too much, too unwieldy at that size.

Lightweight feedback could helpfully steer these interactions. Maybe if you mark a recipe as something you cooked and enjoyed, it’ll resurface next year when the season returns. If something looks unappealing, you could nix it from the rotation. And so on.

Cooking prompts like these could appear in general Spaced everything systems like Orbit, but I’m not sure that seeing one at a time (flashcard-style) is the right interaction. Drawing a small “hand” of cards may be a more appropriate metaphor, like A reading inbox to capture possibly-useful references or A writing inbox for transient and incomplete notes.

Q. Why might you not feel inspired to make a recipe, even if it looks good?
A. (e.g. ingredients out of season, wrong for the weather, already decided what to make this week, etc)

Q. Huge portions of my cookbooks go unused. Why?
A. I forget about most of their recipes; triggers to re-read are rare.

Q. In what sense are magazines like Bon Appetit more effective at delivering recipes than a cookbook?
A. They deliver a small number at regular intervals, rather than a huge number at once.

Last updated 2023-07-13.