I am a bit of a Rabble Rouser. I always have been. See:
Scene: Holiday dinner table with adult guests all around including my 3-year-old brother and 5-year-old me.
Uncle Ray: Male ballet dancers are athletic.
My Father: Oh, please. They’re a bunch of sissies.
Uncle Ray (raises voice): You live in the dark ages. You know that lots of football players take ballet?!
My Father (raises voice): Well, then, they’re sissies, too!
The argument goes on for a few minutes. My brother begins to cry. I raptly take it all in. Fade out.
Scene: Dinner table the next evening. Adults are talking amongst themselves. My brother and I are quiet, listening to the conversation. Or counting peas. Whatever. There’s a lull in the conversation. Into the silence, a small voice pipes up.
Jenni: Let’s talk about the ballet!
If there’s a serene-looking anthill, I am not above poking it with a stick–just a little– to watch the ants come out. If Ruthie looks antisocial, which is often, I will pick her up and hug and kiss her. As much as I try to be well-behaved and let small cuts heal on their own, I tend to scratch them until they bleed again. I am a Card Carrying Rabble Rouser.
And I’m about to rouse some Serious Rabble right now, so consider yourself Forewarned.
If you’ll notice over in my sidebar, sort of down towards the bottom, I have a red circle with a bar across it with the words “Secret Recipes” in it. And that means No Secret Recipes. I got said badge from Drew, from How to Cook Like Your Grandmother. I wear it proudly. Or rather, the blog wears it proudly. I truly believe not only that people shouldn’t keep recipes secret or be too proprietary about them, but that original recipes are about as common as Dodo birds and to say that Your Recipe is Original is maybe a bit of an Affectation.
Let that one sink in for just a moment.
For example, I recently read a recipe over at the venerable Coconut & Lime for a lemon-chive asparagus risotto. It, like all the recipes on that site, is touted as being completely original, and readers are exhorted not to reproduce it for profit and to always provide a link back should they reference it. Further, and perhaps more upsetting to me, the blogmistress wants us to explain how we change any of her Ingredient Selections and still link back to her recipe.
Well, well, well. And well again. As far as I know, risotto has been around for a Very Long Time. So have asparagus, lemons and chives. I myself have paired asparagus, lemon and chive together Upon Occasion. Shocking and scandalous, I know.
While I don’t advocate stealing from folks, and I always provide a link to the original Creative Commons licensed photos that I sometimes use as well as links to other folks’ blogs or sites when I’ve been inspired to make something based on their idea, I consider recipes to be very fluid. Like a song that an artist switches up a bit with every performance, a recipe is meant to be shared and altered. It’s meant to inspire creativity in people who read it. A recipe is meant to instruct, but making a recipe exactly the same way every time after you understand the principles and techniques, is C work. Folks earn A’s and B’s by working a little bit higher than the Knowledge and Comprehension Levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.
Before you yell at me, and I fully expect to be yelled at least a little bit, I understand that everyone has to start somewhere. You’re looking at the girl who once asked the guy at the supermarket what to substitute for creme fraiche, and he said a mixture of cream cheese, sour cream and something else, so I bought all three of those things and mixed them to get the stupid tablespoon or so that I needed. But the thing is, each cooking experience we have should serve to build our confidence and our abilities. Don’t look at a recipe as a discrete thing describing one dish-in-a-vacuum. Rather, look at them as mini lessons in cooking techniques.
Okay, back to the Original Recipe theory. Just as literature lends itself to multiple interpretations, so do recipes. When we read literature or follow a recipe, we look at each through our unique filters, shaped by our experiences. Food tells a story. Food is about family, memories, highlights, lowlights. It is woven into the fabric of our celebrations and of our times of mourning. If we only ate when we were hungry, if we only looked at food as something to eat to keep us alive, then we wouldn’t be human. I’m pretty sure that humans are the only species who eat for emotional reasons. We eat to evoke a certain time or place. Maybe our mom’s macaroni and cheese isn’t all that great, but it’s our favorite kind because we associate it with mother’s love. Comfort food is not about feeding the body. It’s about feeding the soul.
When I read a recipe, I make associations with each ingredient. I almost always “see” twice the salt than is called for. I automatically substitute chicken or pork for shrimp, because I’m not a fan of seafood. If starch is involved–pasta, rice, quinoa, etc–I’m all over it. If there’s no starch in it, I think of a way to add starch. Since I’m not a huge vegetable fan, I plan on adding extra vegetables, maybe blending them in with my immersion blender. I get excited about tomato-based recipes because they are familiar and bring to mind my mom’s spaghetti sauce.
The point is, I bring my experiences and associations to recipes, and you bring your own. So, as far as I’m concerned, once a recipe is attempted by another cook, it is no longer original. Let’s go back to that risotto, shall we? Like most recipes, it starts with a list of ingredients. And guess what?
Copyright law does not protect recipes that are mere listings of ingredients. Nor does it protect
other mere listings of ingredients such as those found in formulas, compounds, or prescriptions.
Copyright protection may, however, extend to substantial literary expression—a description,
explanation, or illustration, for example—that accompanies a recipe or formula or to a combination
of recipes, as in a cookbook. —Copyright.gov
Since ingredient lists aren’t protected by copyright, the litmus test for “original recipe” must come from the substantial literary expression that accompanies the recipe. And that means the rules.
The rules that accompany the risotto recipe are the rules for making risotto. Seriously. Heat broth. Saute aromatics. Add rice and cook a couple of minutes. Add broth some at a time, stirring in between additions.
I’m paraphrasing, of course, but the rules for making risotto are the rules for making risotto. How can a list of ingredients for risotto accompanied by the rules for how to make risotto be original?
Now, maybe the author of the risotto recipe perfected the dish to her taste. That’s cool–that’s what cooking is all about. She states on her site that, if One were to make substitutions or changes to her original recipe and then want to post about it, that One should make crystal clear the changes One made. Because apparently she does not want to be held responsible for One’s desecrations.
But at what point is the recipe altered enough–keeping in mind that the substantial literary expression in this case is just the rules for making risotto which has been around since the 1500’s–that it becomes a completely different recipe? If I decide to substitute sugar snap peas and mint for the asparagus and chives and then add some lamb, making the risotto with a vegetable, lamb or beef stock as opposed to chicken stock, do I still have to credit the original? I mean, seriously. I might see her recipe and be inspired to make risotto, but if I change it up to suit my tastes and the ingredients that I have on hand, doesn’t it become my original minted lamb risotto with sugar snap peas? If I see someone’s recipe for red velvet cake and I get inspired to make devil’s food cake, do I have to credit the red velvet recipe?
Confused yet? Well, let me further muddy the waters. I found this Enlightening and Informative article regarding Intellectual Property in regard to “copyrighted” recipes over at the Washington Post: Can a Recipe Be Stolen? The article states that Rachel Rappaport, the very lady from Coconut & Lime, understands the issue this way:
Rachel Rappaport, a Baltimore teacher, operates a blog called Coconut & Lime in which she shares recipes she has liked. She says her understanding — a common one — is that if she changes two or three ingredients in a recipe, it becomes her own and requires no attribution.
This is the same Rachel Rappaport who submits on her FAQ page that:
I am glad you enjoyed my recipe enough to want to post about it! Please credit me and Coconut & Lime and post a direct link to the recipe. If you make changes to the recipe, include a note making it clear that any changes were your own. Do not post or directly reproduce the actual recipe or picture(s), these are copyrighted materials and represent hours of hard work. Unlike food bloggers who post recipes from cookbooks, magazines and newspapers, I only post recipes that I personally created and developed in my own kitchen. This is tremendously time consuming, requires a great deal effort and is deserving of credit.
Très intéressant, non? Let me stop poking at that Particular anthill right now.
I don’t mean to be Unkind, nor do I mean to make Rebels out of all of you. I just want us to start thinking about recipes in a new and different way.
If I am inspired by a recipe, I gladly link to the original as my inspiration. When you’re starting out, by all means follow recipes as written. Just know that you will do it just a bit differently than “the original” was done. Maybe you cut your onions differently. Maybe you saute for a little longer than the original. Your stove, pots, pans and even your ingredients are not going to be exactly like the stove, pots, pans and ingredients used in the version that you are trying to duplicate.
I also don’t want to take anything away from the lady from Coconut & Lime. She’s been around for at least six years (which is Forever in web-terms), posting recipes that she has perfected. And that’s fantastic. Her recipes all sound wonderful, and she often uses interesting flavor combinations. I just wish that she not be so proprietary with them. I wish she would say, “Here, take these recipes and run with them. Please credit me as your inspiration, but build on the recipes and make them to your taste.” Or something like that.
I think the whole Crux of the Matter rests in what folks call Intellectual Property. And here’s what the World Intellectual Property Organization has to say about Intellectual Property:
The term intellectual property refers broadly to the creations of the human mind. Intellectual property rights protect the interests of creators by giving them property rights over their creations.The Convention Establishing the World Intellectual Property Organization (1967) gives the following list of subject matter protected by intellectual property rights:
- literary, artistic and scientific works;
- performances of performing artists, phonograms, and broadcasts;
- inventions in all fields of human endeavor;
- scientific discoveries;
- industrial designs;
- trademarks, service marks, and commercial names and designations;
- protection against unfair competition; and
- “all other rights resulting from intellectual activity in the industrial, scientific, literary or artistic fields.”
Intellectual property relates to items of information or knowledge, which can be incorporated in tangible objects at the same time in an unlimited number of copies at different locations anywhere in the world. The property is not in those copies but in the information or knowledge reflected in them. Intellectual property rights are also characterized by certain limitations, such as limited duration in the case of copyright and patents. —The World Intellectual Property Organization
Surely any copyright on the Risotto Technique is long since expired. When I list some ingredients and tell you to use The Creaming Method to put them together, I am not stealing anyone’s intellectual property by using the term The Creaming Method. Or the laminated dough method. Or the confit method. Or the braising method.
Here’s my rule. I follow the rules that each food blogger has. If they explain their rules for using their recipes in detail, I follow them. If they don’t explain their rules, I cover my bases by linking to the post anyway. I don’t begrudge a person the belief that their recipe is set in stone, unalterable and Eternal (to be redundant to the third power). I don’t share that belief, however, and I wish fewer people believed that they have the corner on the market for any recipe. I firmly believe that recipes are meant to be changed up, expanded upon, altered to suit one’s taste and shared freely. As a food blogger/writer, I am honored when someone references one of my recipes as an inspiration. I want to inspire. I don’t want to dictate.
I will leave you with one more quote from the Washington Post article:
Washington chef and cookbook author Nora Pouillon said she would not sue if she saw her formula for, say, cherry clafoutis, on a Web site. She’d be the first to say that she based her recipe on versions of the French specialty featuring kirsch-soaked fruit that she had seen or eaten during her childhood in Austria.
Wonderful food, she points out, is more than a recipe. It also is the sum of a cook’s experience, eye for detail and technique, plus the quality of the ingredients.
Pouillon said she’s flattered if somebody passes along one of her recipes. “It’s nice to get credit, but I really feel that a recipe is something to share,” she said. On the other hand, if someone is a terrible cook, she said, she would rather that person not tell people that the formula for yam vichyssoise came from her.
I think Chef Pouillon and I would get along famously.
And now I think I’m done. Agree or disagree, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.