Trouble for Two Recipe Adapters

by diannejacob on February 28, 2012

Food Network fired star Anne Thornton for adapting recipes a little too closely. (Photo: Food Network)

Yes, one of my favorite subjects was in the news again recently: the perils of adapting recipes. Here are two recent developments that affected a cooking show host and a food blogger:

1. Show cancelled because of adapting recipes. The Food Network cancelled the show of TV Chef Anne Thornton because she adapted recipes based on making small tweaks to the recipes of others, apparently.

Media outlets went crazy when the news hit that her show, Dessert First, was not renewed because many of her recipes were “plagiarized” from Martha Stewart and Ina Garten, specifically a German chocolate frosting and lemon bars.

“You take what you learn from them and then you riff on that,”she said in her defense in a story in the UK Daily Mail. “As for lemon squares, there’s only so many ways you can make them, so of course there will be similarities.”

Her comment sounds similar to those I’ve received on this blog. And I don’t necessarily disagree with her, in principle. There really are only so many lemon bar recipes, and is it your job to find the original one? Here’s what I’d say to her: “If you have nothing new to offer about a lemon bar, move on.”

What’s great about the Daily Mail story is that you can see a side-by-side comparison of her frosting recipe and Stewart’s. Scroll down to the end of the article and read the recipes. Clearly, Thornton made a few minor edits. It’s one thing to be inspired from someone else’s recipe and write your own, and another to just tweak a few words and amounts.

That rule you’ve heard, about changing three things in a recipe to make it yours? It didn’t work for her.

I asked on Twitter and Facebook what people thought about Thornton’s recipe writing skills. Here are some of the replies:

Food blogger Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen asked, “Why is it plagiarizing Martha or Ina, not the other 10K people who have published riffs on these?”

Cookbook author Nancie McDermott said (in a series of tweets) the report’s tone was sensational. “It presumes we can & should come up w/Unique NeverB4Seen Creations. Stealing = bad&wrong. But…who created lemon bars? Where? What time? If I could come up with something “new,” why couldn’t another 1 come up with same thing on own?” This stinks of ‘faux-righteous’ outrage. Seldom can we track ‘1st Ever!’ And why bother?”

Food blogger and cookbook author Beth Sheresh of Kitchen Mage tweeted, “Nothing is new. Created a recipe from nothing but my head. Found THREE different recipes that were exactly same thing.”

On My Will Write for Food Facebook page, food blogger Amanda McInerny of Lamb’s Ears and Honey wrote, “I just wonder if there isn’t another agenda here. It is a rare and remarkable cook who can come up with a recipe which doesn’t reference some other dish, somewhere in the universe. With the popularity of food books, mags, tv, blogs etc I can’t see this issue going away or being resolved any time soon. …not at all sure that rare and remarkable is what tv execs look for in anything. I suspect they are after looks and marketability to attract the advertisers – it would be nice to think I’m wrong, though.”

2. Food blogger harassed for adapting recipes. Lest you think that people only notice when televisions hosts adapt recipes, Australian Food Blogger Amanda McInerney (whose comment you read above) posted an adapted recipe by UK cookbook author Dan Lepard on her blog. She left the ingredients list the same, but wrote her own headnote and method. Lepard’s business manager, David Whitehouse, came after her in the comments of her blog post and requested she take her adaptation down. She refused. Read the blog’s comments to see what ensued. Two intellectual property lawyers came to her defense! Whitehouse’s argument is that her work was derivative, and therefore subject to copyright law.

I dug around and found three other brownie and sweet potato recipes:

  • On The Kitchn, the writer linked to the original Leopard recipe and listed only the ingredients, converting them for an American audience. I like that, even though readers have to print his recipe and The Kitchn’s.
  • The blogger of PaleOMG changed the ingredients to include honey, coconut oil and coconut flour and didn’t mention his recipe — if indeed she got it from him.
  • Most fascinating was a brownie and sweet potato recipe from Body-Soul from April 2009, more than two years before Dan Lepard published his recipe in the UK Guardian. So whose recipe was it in the first place?

What is the message in these events? Adapt recipes at your own risk? Or should we all just get over it, because everyone does it, and recipes can’t be copyrighted anyway?

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Adriana March 11, 2012 at 3:46 pm

Very interesting thread and one which is close to my heart as I often adapt a recipe into a gluten free one, but always always mention the original source. Now on to Mr. Lepard. I met him many years ago when he taught at Baker and Spice. I paid to go on a baking course and I am still scarred by the experience. Here is a guy who hates sharing information and was so protective of everything he taught us on the day that he refused to give us the recipes! When some of us asked questions, he refused to answer them on the grounds that he would be giving away his secrets. Fast forward, now having written a successful baking book, he goes after someone who has adapted a recipe which although completely altered in process he still considers his even though he probably adapted it from someone else. I am still picking up the pieces from a gluten free bread recipe he printed in the Guardian several years ago, where it looks like they used a photograph for a traditional loaf and passed it off as a gluten free bread. One lady spent ages trying to get the recipe to work and finally gave up after the 10th attempt. She was so demoralised by the experience and practically in tears. I took one look at the recipe and could see immediately that this man did not understand gluten free bread making. Perhaps he’s picked up a few tips from others along the way. Let’s hope he has learned from his own experience to share and acknowledge other’s contributions.

diannejacob March 12, 2012 at 10:12 am

How odd that he refused to share the recipes in a cooking class, but after you describe how protective he is, it makes sense. That happened to me recently, and I complained and received the recipes from the cooking class event’s organizers. The teacher had decided we should all buy her cookbooks (over $100 combined) if we wanted the recipes she demonstrated.

That is a sad story about the gluten-free bread. It may not have been his decision to use that photo, though. I say that as a former– and very young– newspaper editor who probably made a ton of mistakes.

Princellar Bland March 14, 2012 at 12:55 pm

I have more of a question to ask instead of a comment. I am working on creating a blog doing one now as a little hobby but would like to develop it more and see where it goes. So my question is from what I’ve read so far is that a list of ingredients is not copyrighted so if I was to say watch a show like chopped and use the ingredients they have in the boxes it would not be considered copyright infringment, but only if I made the same thing as one of the chefs and tried to pass it off as my own would it then be copyright infringement?

diannejacob March 14, 2012 at 1:06 pm

It is best not to take someone else’s list of ingredients. Create your own take on the dish.

Ellen May 1, 2012 at 7:34 pm

Just be glad no one has tried to trademark the term “lemon bars.” ha ha. (There are many terms you would consider generic that have been trademarked and trademark owners DO go after them… (entrepreneur, urban homesteading for example)

Ellen May 1, 2012 at 8:03 pm

I was later struck by the idea of comparing how to grow food with how to cook it. Other than GMO stuff, (which is a whole ‘nother issue) I’m not aware of any gardeners trying to protect their “ideas” on how to grow food–and there are lots of unique ideas, from square foot gardening to how to grow vertically to how to extend the seasons, how to blanch things like asparagus, cauliflower, celery (and blogs on all of them I might add). I would be curious if you all see parallels. Would you all be upset if someone baked one of your recipes and sold it at a bake sale? Would they need to credit you? Or do you not care about the finished product and any profit that might be had that way?

diannejacob May 2, 2012 at 2:05 pm

No, I would not be upset at all. The issue is with someone publishing a recipe, not making it. It’s not about profit either, since there’s so little to be made!

diannejacob May 1, 2012 at 9:18 pm

That would be terrible!

ruthie July 29, 2012 at 2:16 am

I had some phyllo dough, some leftover deli roast beef I wanted to use up, some spinach and some feta — pretty traditional combo, no? I put them together into a big “pie” (plus garlic, onions etc.), baked it and took it to a potluck dinner. One of the guests came up to ask me who had brought the bourek. Now I’d heard of bourek, but I’d never tasted it. Excited, I asked him to show me where it was. He took me over and pointed to my “pie.” Plagiarism? I don’t think so, but if I put that in a cookbook, someone, with an agenda, could make a big stink about it.

Clearly, someone here had an agenda. Someone(s) else at the Network had a serious case of the PCs and didn’t have the cojones to stand up for their chef, and so a budding career is shot down. Ditto for the food blogger. Someone needs more to do with their time or maybe buy their tighty-whities a size or two larger. And the Network needs to man up instead of throwing their people to the wolves.

It would be ridiculous to even use the fudge of “adapted from” because, hello?!?, there are a million lemon bar recipes out there.


diannejacob July 29, 2012 at 10:03 pm

Hah, that is so typical! Here you thought you’d come up with something special. Re your points, yes, I agree completely. Thanks for the comment.

ruthie August 1, 2012 at 1:46 am

Not special, just some fairly standard elements that used up my leftovers. Who knew? I made a Bourek. Stuff like that happens all the time to people who cook a lot. There’s only so many ways you can combine a set of ingredients.

And I’ve had entire posts from my old food blog stolen, so I am sensitive to the issue, from both sides.

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