And Now is the Time on PMAT When We Poke the Anthill. Join Me, Won't You?


Oooh, an anthill! Let me get my stick! (Click on the picture for attribution)

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.

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.


  1. says

    Well of course I agree with you. Duh.

    I especially like the line from Pouillon about not giving her credit if the result is no good. I’m pretty sure I’ve said that before, but can’t find anywhere I’ve written it.

    In the copyright statement in my books, I explicitly tell people that the ingredients lists can’t be copyrighted. And in the introduction I tell them: “This book is not the bible, it’s a starting point. Cross out ingredients in favor of substitutions, change amounts, modify times and temperatures. Once you get this book home, these aren’t my recipes any more … they’re yours.”

  2. says

    I agree with you 100%. Annoying, I tend to change what is copyrighted when sharing recipes- the directions. Mostly because I know that most of my friends aren’t cooks, so explaining is key.

    But honestly, it’s a recipe. While families have always guarded recipes, there’s only one family recipe that I don’t give out. Mostly because it’s just too hard for people to duplicate based on instructions. I have copies of notecards, handwritten copies of other families’ family recipes… because food is meant to be enjoyed and shared.

    It just reminds me of a couple years back when a blogger (I wish I could remember who) had posted an America’s Test Kitchen recipe with some tweaks she’d made. She was asked by ATK to remove the recipe (which was for tacos, I believe) as their recipe was copyrighted, and their recipes do not require any alterations. I understand that they labor on their techniques to make them “fool-proof.” But to say that I shouldn’t have to change seasonings to make something spicy… yikes.

  3. Jane Field says

    Hi Jenni, Very well-written article and interesting behind the scenes of recipe etiquette….holy cow. Love, Mom

  4. says

    You mean I don’t have to follow a recipe EXACTLY? I can throw in stuff I like and leave out crap I don’t?

    I must go lie down.

    Just imagine what it’s like living with a person who insists that her recipes be followed exactly and attributed to her. This is not a person who allows snakes in her house. Or people either, probably.

  5. says

    You know me, I see an ant hill, my stick goes right in with you!

    Love this post, I love you! I love every thing I read and see, even if it is not so good- we learn from everything that enters our life, good or bad- Okay that is another ant hill along the way…

    I also like building ant hills- the ones where I take $45 pound cheese and make tuna melts with it, so blog trolls can write me nice comments about how I have lost my mind…

    Life is too short NOT too stop and smell every flower, make the most out of life, or notice them little critters working their little ant legs off…here I am dropping them a piece of this french raw sheep’s milk cheese into their hole…

    Happy Mother’s Day to all you beautiful people over here!

    Chef E

  6. says

    While I am flattered that you felt the need to write about me and my career so extensively, I wish you had bothered to contact me to clarify the issues you find objectionable. My contact information is easily found on my blog.

    A few quick notes:
    1. My quote in the WP article was taken out of context. It was part of a much larger conversation that did not make it into the article.

    2. I ask for people to link back to me rather than re-post the recipe for a few reasons. My blog is more than a full time job. I spend 8-10 hours on it Monday through Friday and every weekend is spent cooking and photographing food for it as well. I’d rather people come to my blog for the recipe than provide free content for other people. Many people just post the recipe (even if they didn’t actually make it) to “share” and generate traffic for themselves. Why should they benefit financially from my hard work? The ads on my site pay for my mortgage, food, utilities etc. I don’t think it is out of line to want people to come to my site to get my work.

    3. While I welcome changes to my recipes and experimentation and state this more than once in my FAQ, I started to ask people to make clear which if any changes are their own after an incident where someone one said they used my recipe, posted it with changes to a cooking club website and then I received over 100 emails from people when it didn’t work. The way it was rewritten made it impossible for the recipe to be successful. Which is fine, do whatever you want to the recipe in your own home but since they posted the altered recipe to a website and didn’t link to the original, I had to deal with the fallout.

    While I don’t mind answering questions, I get hundreds of emails every day, spend dozens of hours cooking for both the blog and my recipe development clients. Responding to people who are upset because they followed someone else’s version of my recipe just got to be too much.

    As for the risotto you focused on, as I state rather clearly in my FAQ, while I didn’t invent risotto (or cupcakes or whatever), I do create what I feel is the best ratios and techniques for my recipes and interesting flavor combinations. I tested out different versions of the risotto and posted the one I liked the most. I am not sure why you would think I would expect someone to credit me as inspiration if they also made a risotto dish. If they followed my exact recipe, yes, it is appropriate to credit me. I also think it is appropriate to credit and link to me if they make say, my mango-chile pie and only change the type of chile powder used or used low fat cream cheese instead of full fat. It is still 99.9% the same recipe I created in my kitchen from scratch.

    I post new recipes at least three times a week. “Easy” recipes like risotto free me up to do recipe experimentation that is more complex which will result in more exciting and unique recipes while maintaining my posting schedule. So yes, it might seem a bit silly to be so vigilant about a risotto recipe but when you’ve spent 60 hours developing a new cake or pie recipe or tirelessly recreating the Thai food you’ve only had at a restaurant only to find out that someone submitted that recipe to a contest and won thousands of dollars, it stops being silly. I can’t change my acceptable use policy on a recipe to recipe basis.

    I enjoy blogging and I love sharing my recipes but it is no longer strictly a hobby for me. I have had to take certain steps to protect my livelihood and try to cut down on some of the issues that have arisen while running a blog with over 1,000 recipes and which receives hundreds of thousands of visitors each month.

    • says

      Hi, Rachel, and I appreciate the time you took to comment over here. I focused mainly on your blog since it is so widely known for 100% original recipes. Since my whole premise is that there are very few truly original recipes (mine included–and some of mine are damn fine, if I do say so myself) I singled out your blog. I am well aware that there are many other bloggers out there who feel the same way you do.

      I am not one of them, however, and since my blog is my public soapbox, I stated my case as best as I could with no intent whatsoever to upset anyone. Including you. I think I stated a few times that I think that your flavor combinations are interesting and your recipes look wonderful. And while I certainly do believe that you spend hours on your blog (as do I), I still take issue with the whole 100% original claim.

      In your comment, you make many valid points about the blog as your livelihood, and I don’t take anything away from you for that. I would love for my blog to be my main livelihood one day, so in that way you are my hero. But as far as contacting you directly to clarify the issues I find objectionable, I did not think it necessary. After all, as I said before, my blog is my soapbox. This post was supposed to be a bit controversial. After all, the title was about poking anthills! My baking philosophy posts often are controversial, and this is just one in a series of posts about my attitudes towards and ideas about baking and recipes. If you’re interested in reading any more of my thoughts on the issues of automaticity as a cook, following recipes and my definition of “recipe,” please take a look around sometime.

      Once again, thanks for stopping by. I know you inspire many thousands of people, and as a fellow former teacher, I wish you the best now and certainly when your book comes out in August.

    • says

      Rachel, I understand first-hand the frustration of seeing your original recipes showing up under someone else’s byline, wrapped with their AdSense ads. I also understand, though without personal experience, how much time it can take answering questions about a recipe someone else modified badly.

      But you’ve chosen to make a living telling people how to make your recipes. If you want to keep them as your recipes, it’s really simple: Open a restaurant and don’t give them out. I don’t think I’m telling you anything you don’t know when I say going the restaurant route makes even your current schedule look light.

      I said on the page that Jenni linked to that “you ain’t Colonel Sanders.” So maybe you’re the exception and your original recipes are worth protecting. How do you expect to do that while telling people how to make them?

      From a purely legal standpoint, you can’t prevent anyone from copying the ingredients. That’s settled law.

      Who am I to tell you you’re wrong? I also have a blog that gets hundreds of thousands of visitors each month. According to Alexa, I regularly get more traffic than you, as a matter of fact.

      But I haven’t managed to turn it into a full-time job yet, so you’re doing something right that I’m not. I could be wrong, but I don’t think it’s being protective of the recipes.

  7. says

    Jenni, I don’t think you need me to tell you where I stand on this. I’ve learned a lot about baking and the nature of recipes from my visits here (and hey, I’ve got the UPMAT certificates to prove it 🙂 ) – I don’t think I’d ever be tempted to think that I had cornered the market on any recipe!

  8. Co says

    Thank you for bringing light to things we don’t see behind the scenes from FoodNetwork or those that want to be there. Major Ego check is needed for Rachel, but I appreciate her articulating her thoughts. Drew is smart.
    One other stone to kick around, is that the electronic revolution / digital age has changed every aspect of every law. Hopefully, we can hold on to the intent from 1967 but some clarifications and freedoms must be included.
    Jenni, you rock!

  9. says

    Nothing gets my apron in a twist more than failing to give credit where credit is due. But as you’ve pointed out, most recipes are simply iterations of long-extant dishes. The joy of food is in sharing it with others; the gift of cooking is in sharing the knowledge of it with others and seein how far their skills and imagination can make it even better.

    You, my dear, are a Champeen Anthill Poker who seems to have graduated to Undaunted Wasps’ Nest Disturber! 8-P

  10. says

    Before I even read this, I had clicked on the No Secret Recipes badge, and read the rules. As you know, I completely agree. I copied and pasted the code to install the badge on my blog but it is not showing up. Now to figure out why!

  11. says

    You went into greater detail than I did Jenni in the post I referenced to you but it’s evident we are on EXACTLY the same page. And I’ll tell you this…even if I went to someone else blog and made ‘their’ recipe exactly as they proscribed it; I will always put the recipe on my blog. David Lebovitz feels the same as Ms. Coconut but I don’t and that’s that. If I get inspiration from them, sure I’ll include that but I feel as long as my time, my ingredients and my many years of experience are part of the equation…then damn it, it’s going on MY blog. Period.

    I understand the idea of making a living from this but being pissy is so unattractive that I’ll never visit her blog now anyhow…how did that work out for her? 🙂

    • says

      I find the whole idea of ownership of a recipe to be a bit…weird. I can understand if you’re actually the first to do something completely awesome and unique, but as we all know, almost everything has been done before, so why waste time and energy policing when you could just be producing more and more compelling content? Sigh


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