Whose recipe is it anyway?

Almost all of the recipes I share are not my own invention. I begin with a recipe from a book, magazine, blog or other source and add my tips and variations. Before I began blogging, I wondered if that was going to be ok. There are many trendy bloggers whose writing has been collected into books. Could their recipes – or, for that matter, those of any cookbook author – all be “from scratch” inventions? 

Many classic cookbooks are (fully or in part) like ethnographies – capturing some aspect of cooking culture that their authors felt had never been recorded, or recorded well.

  • In the well-known “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” (1961), Julia Child worked with Simone Beck (aka Simca) and Louisette Bertholle (who was eventually dropped from the writing team). Julia Child’s goal was to share with Americans doable recipes from her beloved French cuisine. Simone Beck may also have been motivated by concerns about the loss of cultural memory. “Simca was… determined to preserve the family recipes she inherited…. they pushed and pulled at those recipes, challeng(ing) long-standing methods.” (Dearie p.236) 
  • Edna Staebler, who I have previously mentioned in this blog, was clear that she herself was not an expert cook. She described herself as a “collector” compelled to record the wonderful recipes of her friends – many from the local Mennonite Community. Her second “Schmecking” book was unavoidable, since after the first, people kept sending her contributions for a next book. In the second volume she noted that “the uncollected recipes in Waterloo County are boundless” – and clearly the contributors were happy to share their recipes and see them in print. Staebler prefaces many entries with remarks like “Norm and Eva gave me this recipe.”  Acknowledgments like that abound even in contemporary cookbooks, such as Ina Garten’s.
Staebler's Date Orange Muffins

Staebler's Date Orange Muffins

  • In the introduction to the more recent Ovenly cookbook, Agatha Kulaga and Erin Patinkin outline how inherited recipes and recipe cards spawned their thriving business and cookbook. Yet, who is to say if those faded and smudged recipe cards contained “original” recipes? Many of us have inherited such index cards. I plan to make “Ann’s Cookies” one day – but where did Auntie Ann get that recipe? Respectfully, I doubt that she invented it.
  • In their “Eat, Shrink, Be Merry” book and TV show, the Podleski Sisters create “skinny” versions of signature dishes from popular restaurants. Obviously the restaurant owner gave them their "secret" recipe and then the sisters (one of whom is a nutritionist) created a lower calorie, but equally tasty, version.

Are all cookbooks recordings of oral traditions, polished versions of faded recipe cards or low calorie / gluten-free updates? Did / does anyone invent / create unique / original recipes? 

Clearly there are always innovators. They deconstruct classics or are truly inventive. (I hate to begin a list of examples, for fear of leaving out someone important.) Innovators know about food properties, cooking techniques and ratios – the basic rules of combining ingredients. Apart from the classic 3:1 vinaigrette ratio (3 parts oil, 1 part vinegar), I know nothing about ratios. Coming to the rescue of those who want or need to know are books such as Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, by Michael Ruhlman. He now has a ratio app to accompany the book. In her upcoming (October 2015) book, The Baker in Me, Daphna Rabinovitch promises to share classic baking ratios that open the door to understanding and innovation for the home cook.
Finally, back to blogging... In blogs, attribution is (not surprisingly) critical to sharing recipes that might not otherwise be published, except in hard copy. (Interestingly, I have found that many recipes I first find in hard copy, can be found on the internet as well/already.) Up to a point, it seems that authors are ok with the free promotion that comes from a blog-share. I have no idea if blogging recipes supports or diminishes book sales. Bloggers themselves are usually hooked on buying cookbooks. I have not counted mine, though it is well over 100 even after a recent major purge. Another blogger I follow recently noted that she has 450 and counting.

Now for the recipe linked to this thinking / reading journey. So as to not be buried under magazines, I eventually tear out pages/recipes I want to keep and then toss the zine. Once sorted and filed I sometimes end up with various versions of a fav recipe. One of these is Date Orange Muffins which are nutritious, tasty and have a “cool” factor since the batter, which is made quickly in a food processor, includes a whole, unpeeled orange. The dates on my collection vary (2003, 2006) and there are slight variations on the ingredients or method, but none make any reference to the same recipe in Staebler’s 1979 “More Schmecking” book. She says the recipe "comes from Ruby" – so who knows how long that recipe has been around? One 2006 source (that shall remain nameless) had the cheek to claim copyright to the Date Orange Muffin recipe which was exactly the same as Edna’s - with the exception of adding an extra ¼ cup sugar. Even the method was only a slightly massaged version of Edna’s. 

If I search for a recipe for orecchiette with sausage and there are over 300, 000 search results - who owns that recipe/idea? Can a recipe be owned or copyrighted? How much do you need to change to make it yours? Can it ever be yours?

"According to the Recipe Writer’s Handbook, Ostmann and Baker, legal ownership of recipes is somewhat 'murky'. The authors assert making 3 MAJOR changes to the recipe can make it your own… but that you should still credit where credit is due if your inspiration came from a specific recipe. Standard recipes for standards (such as mayonnaise) are exempt for that rule... The handbook goes on to say that copyright protects the particular manner and form — not the idea itself, so perhaps the ingredients in a recipe aren’t necessarily copyrightable, but the technique and directions may be.” [Source]

Reading about recipe ownership has led me to surprising stories about Internet thieving that I hope to never encounter personally. Meanwhile, I share and adapt others’ recipes, crediting sources. The closest I have come to being innovative was in trying to recreate a layered raspberry / rice pudding parfait – which I will share sometime soon. Meanwhile, toss that orange into the food processor and – with a nod to Edna (and Ruby) - whiz up a batch of these terrific Date Orange Muffins!

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