Friday, July 5, 2013

Cookbook indexing woes II

Here is the second instalment of my cookbook indexing woes. Back in 2011 I gave a talk as a member of ANZSI QLD about cookbook indexing. For those of you who don’t know what ANZSI is – it stands for Australian and New Zealand Society of Indexers. Like professional editors and their societies, we indexers also have our own, believe it not! For a bit of fun I brought along a few cookbooks that I owned and ones I had borrowed from the library. The night was a rowdy one, who knew that people felt so strongly about the usability of cookbook indexes! We discussed very passionately about the cookbooks we loved, and there was the odd disagreement about how we look up dishes, etc. Among some of the issues we discussed were the usability of ethnic food cookbooks, food memoir/cookbooks, and cookbooks that are published for one local market but what happens when you take it out of its local context.

How do we look up or refer to ethnic dishes that have no English equivalents? How over-indexed are some books? For example, instead of having an entry for ‘Sriracha chilli sauce’ – how about indexing an entry under ‘chilli’ or ‘sauce’ for those who don’t know that Sriracha is a type of Thai chilli sauce. It’s details like these that matter when one is cooking with foreign ingredients.

There are many books to discuss and look at but one of the cookbooks that I want to briefly discuss is the beautifully produced memoir/cookbook hybrid – Pauline Nguyen’s Secrets of the Red Lantern: Stories and Vietnamese Recipes From the Heart.

(a well-worn and thumbed through copy from the library!)

Sumptuous, mouthwatering-looking photographs of dishes feature throughout the book alongside with photographs of the author’s family – past and present. These photographs of people and place tell an important but sad story of displacement and an attempt by a family to hang onto one’s cultural integrity in a foreign land. What it does is it gives Red Lantern’s food an irresistible appeal given its context of the rags-to-riches Vietnamese migrant/refugee narrative and the difference food and culture can make in our lives. Each chapter opens with narrative and ends with recipes.

The index targets a Western/English-speaking audience. The index itself is not inadequate – in fact – it’s a good recipe index. What I find curious is while all the recipes have Vietnamese names and their English equivalents – only the English names are indexed. Perhaps economy of pages dictated this decision.

(Examples of the index from the book: simple and concise)

The memoir component is an interesting one – Pauline gives us her family history, talks about the fall of Saigon and its consequences, the rise of communism and the escape from political tyranny by boat to arrive in Thailand and their subsequent arrival in Australia, etc, (there’s a typo too with the spelling of Pilau Bidong – it should be ‘Pulau’). We’re taken through the social and cultural history of Cabramatta in the early 1980s when it was a place of migrants and refugees. She gives readers another perspective on life there as a migrant family, most of us would only know Cabramatta for its druggy reputation from the media.

Imagine my disappointment when I went to the index to look up Aunty Eight’s corn business – only to find that the entire memoir section is unindexed. I am not sure if this was a conscious decision – perhaps marketing decided that this is sold predominantly as a cookbook? Surely the backstory to Red Lantern is important too? There are plenty of interesting characters dotted throughout the book - don't they deserve a mention in the index? I’m sure many bought the book for its memoir component too? I think this lack of a separate general index for the memoir is a shame – it would have given the book more weight and it would have carried far more historical/social and cultural insight had there been an index. By not acknowledging the story in the index (and I'm sure this was not their intention), I think the publisher has diluted the effect of Pauline’s story - for me, that is disappointing. Not that the Nguyen’s family story is not fascinating enough – it is precisely that it is interesting that I want the option of looking certain aspects up! This could have been an important reference for the present and future generational Nguyen clan in search of family history and the events that have been so significant in their lives.

Those who are after an unconventional review for the book, I found this site, Syrup and Tang, which I only came across recently; it highlights some important publishing issues. It doesn't shy away from being really critical. The reviewer has a valid point: it's important for publishers to make books accessible to its readers; we value the integrity of good editing but we also want to allow the author’s authentic voice to come through the page. Interesting reading, indeed!

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