To get another perspective on the creative process of recipe writing, I interviewed Amanda Hesser, co-founder of Food52, the crowd-sourcing recipe website; and author of award winning cookbooks, most recently The Essential New York Times Cookbook.
Food52 accepts recipes for testing, voting and eventual publication, so the site has contest rules for acceptable recipe adapting. Intrigued by the pains Hesser took to show an example of successful recipe changes, I thought Hesser might have opinions on the matter.
Q. This blog has had heated discussions about what constitutes recipe writing and adapting. What is your definition of an adapted recipe?
A. There are two definitions.
At the New York Times, any recipe that comes from another source will always say “adapted from” because it goes through the copy-editing department, and there are little tiny changes that have to do with the stylebook. It means it’s not a word-for-word replica.
The other definition is when it’s someone’s own recipe has been inspired by another’s, for instance, if someone has cooked Alice Water’s Braised Leeks enough times that they’ve personalized it. A lot of people read recipes for inspiration, looking for a flavor combination to play around with. Then they go in the kitchen and do their own thing. But it’s important that they credit the source from which they adapted their recipe.
Q. What about the idea that if you change three ingredients, it’s now your recipe?
A. You can do that, but is that really what you want to call a creative endeavor? Is that what you want to put your name on, as a creative author?
Over the long term, bloggers or anyone who does that kind of thing is not going to gain a lasting following. Personal voice, experience, and conviction are what come through. If you’re just tweaking to legally call something your own, that lack of genuineness will surface.
Q. Is the proliferation of food bloggers and food writers a good thing?
A. If more people are out there writing recipes, it’s better for the food world and our food culture. It means they are enthusiastic about cooking, eating, and expressing themselves. I don’t see what the great harm is. But this idea of just tweaking recipes is how our cooking culture has evolved.
Q. And what about the argument that there are no original recipes, that no one owns them?
A. There’s nothing new in the food world. It’s all about personal perspective. It comes down to the individual. If people are not putting their own voice and experience into the recipe, they’re missing out on the fun.
There’s original voice. There aren’t original recipes. It’s the way in which someone explains a technique, the way they construct and write their recipes — that is original. That is what people own and what distinguishes one recipe from another.
Q. What are examples of original voice?
A. On Food52, one of the great benefits of submissions from home cooks is that the recipes are really fun to read. Their metaphors are so fresh, exciting, lively and personal. For instance, there’s a Food52 member who contributed a tomato soup recipe, and in one step she said, “Stir the shit out of it.” We knew exactly what she meant. You could say, “Stir vigorously,” but it’s not as vivid.
I spoke with a cookbook editor at Clarkson Potter who said she wouldn’t buy a book from a writer who uses standard recipe language. She wants voice. Not “Add the flour to the mixer,” but “Toss in the flour.” It’s natural. It feels like this person is talking to you rather than a recipe robot.
Nigella (Lawson) is another great example. She has a colorful vocabulary, and she gives you a sense there’s a human being behind the recipe. Dorie Greenspan writes in a formal style, but her sense of experience is vibrant and clear. You find it comforting to make her recipes. You feel like Dorie has been in your shoes and she’s looking out for you.
Q. How do you know if you’ve received an “original” recipe on Food52?
A. When we built Food 52 we did a few key things to set the tone for the kinds of recipes and cooks we would attract, and the conversation that would form around those recipes. For example, you cannot cut and paste a recipe from Epicurious into our database. Our recipe uploading form is very structured, so only the most determined cooks will add recipes.
We say, “Tell us about the history, what inspires you, where did this come from?” We want to encourage the conversation around a recipe’s history. Recipes have been handed down forever and over time they change in small but significant ways.
And people pick up tips as they go. Someone might say, “Thanks to Ina (Garten), I found out that you get this really intensely flavored lemon cake when I zest the lemon, make a syrup and use the juice in the batter.” Why not thank Ina for these tips when you write a recipe inspired by her?
Or our community members might say, “This started out as a recipe from Southern Living.” So we look up the recipe. We don’t want to be awarding someone a prize for a recipe that’s either plagiarized or too close to the original.
Q. How do you select contest winners?
A. We read every recipe entry and create a spreadsheet with our favorites. Then we test 10 to 15 percent of them. Every recipe tester is assigned to source check. We Google the title and main ingredients to figure out whether the recipe came from another source. Often the person who wrote it will state the source of inspiration, so we go to the cookbooks or online to check out the recipe.
We make our best effort. You could go mad trying to find out the origin of every recipe. If we find something that’s too close we don’t test it.
Q. Have you discovered many suspect recipes?
A. There was a case where a person grew up eating a cake, posted the recipe on the site, and never realized her mother got it from Gourmet. We sent her a note and asked her to credit Gourmet. This has happened maybe twice.
Q. What about copyright law? Do you believe that parts of a recipe are copyrightable, such as the headnote or method? Or is that irrelevant?
A. It’s not something I spend a lot of time thinking or worrying about.
Q. You give an example of an acceptable adapted recipe with Anise Cupcakes with Chocolate Icing. Is this how people should approach developing a recipe?
A. It’s about sensibility and conviction, rather than just tweaking measurements: you found the original too sweet, you want a caramel note, and you think anise is an underappreciated flavor. That’s when it becomes your own. If you can’t articulate why you made those changes and what inspired you, then that’s laziness and dishonesty. It doesn’t seem like an interesting way to get engaged in the food world.
People should take a step back and think about how they’re living their lives. There’s this great chai supplier in Connecticut. The first time I ordered the chai by phone, she told me she would send me an invoice. I said, “You mean, you’re going to send me the chai before I pay?” She replied, “Yes, because if you don’t pay, it’s really your problem, isn’t it?”
I thought, “Yeah, I have a problem with my life if I take the chai for free. I have to live my life as a person who steals. Is that an interesting way to lead your life?”
The Internet is a democracy and that’s the beauty of it. Over time, people will get bored adapting recipes, or readers will eventually see through those who adapt recipes in an uninspired fashion.
A recipe becomes your own when you write the recipe as you would cook it, and it reflects your voice and experience. It’s not a game about moving this part or that, or tweaking a few ingredients. It’s about telling a story through ingredients and instructions.
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