Recipe plagiarism has been been burning up the internet lately, be it in the form of a VegWeb member submitting other people’s internet recipes as her own, or Cindy McCain claiming that a recipe from Hersheys.com were from a friend.
Copyright infringement and plagiarism aren’t the same exact thing, although it seems that here Cindy McCain has committed both crimes. The less interesting part is the legal stuff; that you can’t copyright food ingredients. Even if our recipes are identical in quantity, as long as the words were changed around a bit it’s fine. But the social ramifications go deeper. Taking someone else’s recipe and giving it a phony back story is frowned upon, whether the story is that you created it after having a feverish dream about butterscotch or that it was passed down a few generations. But it got me wondering, are these fibs particular to food? People don’t seem to lie as much about other things, like knitting or blacksmithing. Why do people lie about recipes so much? I don’t just mean bloggers who “forget” to attribute their recipes to someone else, or “forget” to mention that their entire knowledge of swiss chard is coming straight from Wikipedia.
For instance, my mom insists that certain things are “family recipes.” Like these tofu balls we’ve been making since I was a teenager. They are our tofu balls! We’ve eaten them for birthdays, we’ve rolled their little bodies between our palms after arguments, we’ve smothered them in sauce through the ages, since the eighties, and so they are ours. Well, yes. And no. They are from the Tofu Cookery. It was our first vegan cookbook, it was the first meal we cooked as a family and I can remember the day my mom came home with it and we passed it around, folding over pages, deciding what to make and finally coming to consensus on the tofu balls. My sister is now feeding them to her children and making a little gastronomical imprint in their psyches. For the whole of their lives, a whiff of these in the skillet is going to make them feel like they’re home. So, yeah, it really is a family recipe even if we didn’t invent it. But I think the truth is much more interesting than saying we made it up or it was passed down from our vegan Russian great great grandma.
On top of spaghetti…a pack of lies?
But why is my mom ashamed of admitting that it comes from Louise Hagler’s cookbook? That’s sort of a rhetorical question, and I think the answer would be really interesting so I wish I could give it to you. Why did Cindy McCain say that her Passion Fruit Mousse was a family recipe? Why didn’t she say she got it out of Better Homes and Gardens or where ever? Or even worse, that her people got it out of Better Homes and Gardens. It’s as if we all intuitively know this secret, but we don’t know what it is. Something about how our recipes make us seem, what they say about us. Would you rather have fresh baked cookies from someone who visits Hersheys.com or by someone who has a friend with a collection of vintage salt and pepper shaker and a box of recipes that goes back to the civil war? The cookies should taste the same either way, right? The fact that they don’t makes me think that there’s a secret ingredient here that’s a lot more esoteric than “nutmeg.”