Sunday 3 August 2008

Do I dare to cook with one less pear?

I was horrified at reading Melissa’s post (thanks for the link, Mary) last weekend about being told by America’s Test Kitchen that they did not allow their recipes to be modified in print because they are tested they up to 100 times. The implication that there is one perfect version of any recipe seems ridiculous, esp, potato salad which was the recipe Melissa had posted. We all have different preferences, different kitchens, and different diets, as I have written about before. No matter how many times you test a recipe for potato salad, my sister and I will always disagree on a perfect version because she loves bacon and boiled egg in hers and I will not eat either of these ingredients. This doesn’t mean we can’t each have versions that are perfect to each of us.

There are now 278 comments in reply to Melissa’s post which shows it has really hit a nerve in the blogging community. There is a lot of respect on blogs for not reproducing recipes verbatim – but the idea that you should not cite your sources of inspiration when you adapt a recipe seems wrong. Unfortunately, this is what America’s Test Kitchen seems to imply. But my experience of blogging is that we like to give credit where credit is due.

I like blogging because I like the interactive sharing of recipes. Melissa’s experience led her to read up on copyright. What she found is that a list of ingredients is not copyrighted, but the methods re copyrighted if they have literary merit (eg ‘bring to the boil’ does not but ‘watch the little bubbles rise to the surface of the water like a school of dolphins coming up for air' does).

I know there are bloggers who will only write up a recipe if they have modified the ingredients but I find that, even if I use the same list of ingredients, my method often is slightly different (and I always rewrite the method in my own style). I agree with Neen, that we are promoting the magazines or cookbooks. After all, even if I really wanted to, I would not be able to cook everything out of a magazine or a cookbook.

It seemed even sadder to read this last weekend because it was the Melbourne bloggers meet at Lentil as Anything in Abbotsford (followed by a drink at Handsome Steve’s Bar), organised by AOF. It was a relaxed get-together of a group of friendly and generous people. This is much more the spirit of blogging than America’s Test Kitchen. Fortunately for me I have much more to do with the former group than the latter and will continue to share recipes.

Which brings me to today’s recipe. I had made this Spanish Vegetable Casserole before reading Melissa’s post but had been pondering issues of reproducing it. I found the recipe in a Tesco magazine when I lived in Edinburgh probably about 6 or 7 years ago. I had been thinking that there shouldn’t be problems with putting recipes from this magazine on the net because it is so unlikely that most people would be able to find a copy of it, apart from in charity shops and doctors’ waiting rooms in the UK. Magazines are the ephemera of the publishing world and I really like how blogs dredge up old recipes that I would never find, because I didn’t buy the magazine at the time.

It is not just magazines where recipes are hard to find. Blogging has made me aware that there are local cookbooks which are hard to find outside Australia, and many cookbooks go out of print all too fast. (If you don’t believe me on this last point, check out this article on cookbook collecting in The Age newspaper last week.) Besides, my experience has been that I have been more likely to find out about and buy new cookbooks since starting blogging, and my reading of other blogs suggests I am not alone.

My second point, raised by the Spanish Vegetable Casserole, is the issue of modifying recipes. It calls for the addition of two pears. (As an aside, I have never thought of pears as particularly Spanish and was curious as to whether anyone knows of other savoury Spanish recipes with pears in them.) I love eating fresh pears but am a little dubious about cooked pears, which may be one of the reasons it took me so long to try this recipe, but I was curious. Now I have made it, I would only add one pear next time, because the pears added a considerable amount of sweetness to the sauce. But again, this is personal preference, rather than an imperfection in the recipe. I think I added more stock the second night we ate it but I would recommend this as a good hearty winter stew.

Update Sept 2009 - just saw this article from Not Quite Nigella today on ACP asking her to remove recipes from an Australian Women's Weekly Cookbook. Seems we have just as many problems in Australia.

Spanish Vegetable Casserole
(adapted from Tesco Magazine)
Serves 4

2 tbsp olive oil
1 Spanish onion, sliced
500g new potatoes, halved
1 tbsp paprika (I used mild but hot or smoked could also be used)
2 cloves garlic, crushed
180g green beans, trimmed and halved
1-2 firm pears, cored and roughly chopped
400g tin of chopped tomatoes
400g tin of chickpeas, drained
1 tsp vegie stock powder
300ml water

Fry onion in oil in a large saucepan for a few minutes over low to medium heat til translucent. Add potatoes, paprika and garlic. Stir for about 1-2 minutes. Add remaining ingredients. Bring to the boil, cover and simmer for about 30 minutes or til potatoes are tender. Season and serve with bread or rice.

On the stereo:
An Embassy to Gaius: Thanatos


  1. I totally agree. I love how blogging is for the most part laid back and so many unusual (to me) recipes are posted from sources I either wouldn't know to look for or would be horrible difficult to find.

  2. I saw Melissa's post, it was very interesting to read. My main concern is what to do when I blog about a recipe I made verbatim from a cookbook - to post the recipe or not to post it? I feel that it would be stealing from the author to post the recipe on my blog so instead I just mention the cookbook in question. I am surprised how many bloggers do post a recipe verbatim from a cookbook.

    This dish reminds me of a soup I've made called "Gypsy Pot", it too contains pears. Even thought it is summer here, it never gets hot in the Pacific Northwest so we can enjoy a nice warm dish like this year around :)

  3. I just clicked through on the link. I can't believe the exchange. LOL! I reckon a blog carnival designed to wind these people up would be fun.

  4. Hi Johanna, I too was appalled when I read Melissa's post. I don't think that the test kitchen have done themselves any favours!
    I think it is ok to try out a recipe from a cookbook, magazine, blog, as long as you credit the source and give a bit of review too. Although saying that, if I try another bloggers recipe, I will usually link back to their instructions. We are a very supportive communtiy and I don't think we should berate ourselves over this.
    Lovely recipe by the way, it sounds real good.

  5. It was great to discuss this in the flesh last week and I have thought about the issues a lot ever since. If recipe writing was my job, then I might get more than a little annoyed to find something I'd slaved over for months getting passed off in a blog, or by a colleague, as their own. I say this because similar things have happened in my professional world where we share 'recipes' so to speak amongst ourselves but have felt very differently when an ex-student has marketed them as products of her own.

    For me it is really important to acknowledge sources otherwise it is out and out plagiarism. But blogwise I am still hesitant to reproduce something entirely the same even if the author is duly noted. You mightn't be able to copyright ingredients but I respect the work that has gone into working out the combinations of flavours and quantities, which maybe more important to the final outcome than saying bubbling rather than boiling. Interestingly, the Bali cooking course at Casa Luna very pointedly copyrighted its notes and make it clear that recipes couldn't be reproduced, acknowledged or not.

    But back to the potato salad. How silly to think there is just one ultimate recipe. That to me is the idiocy of all this, not just the issue of copyright!

  6. Wow! I just went to Melissa's blog (there are now 284 comments) and couldn't help but post what I'd been told when I owned a baking company and was trying to safeguard original recipes: if someone changes THREE ingredients--even if it's 1/4 tsp. to 1/2 tsp. vanilla--it is considered a new, original, recipe. So ATK has no "copyright" over the recipe. Further, according to U.S. "fair use" laws, anyone can republish up to 10% of a printed work without worrying about copyright--this is what book reviewers do all the time in newspapers and magazines. Whew!

    And now, on to the casserole. . . .looks beautiful, and what an interesting bunch of ingredients! I think I'd find 2 pears too sweet, as well. . . so just drop it to one, and a whole new recipe is born! ;)

  7. Wow, this is really interesting. I'd always wondered whether there were any rules, but as in the academic world had always assumed that as long as you credited where the recipe was from you were ok. I can see why trying to pass it off as your own is wrong, but apparently I stand chastened (and probably in breach of all sorts of laws!) I was always more concerned with whether authors would be upset bloggers would affect sales of their books but this seems to be a separate issue.

    On another note - the recipe looks lovely. I've only matched pears with cheese or relish - or put it in cakes. This sounds like a good one.

  8. I hopped over to Melissa'a blog after you mentiond it at the Convent and was surprised - very - by the magazine's response. That any recipe can ever be 'perfect' is hugely debatable...such an aggresive stance over a potato salad is utterly outrageous. Sheesh!

    Acknowledging sources is something bloggers, generally speaking, do well - ever fearful of the 'plagarist' tag! I suppose that 'Weblogs' (i.e. blogs, online personal diaries) are being taken a little more seriously?

    Love the pears in this.

  9. thanks Mary - I agree with you that blogging has opened up a whole new world of recipe books and sources that might never get many readers without the net

    thanks LisaRene - will need to check out your gypsy pot again - remember seeing it some time ago. I don't see it as stealing if people blog recipes and mention their source - and I think many bloggers put recipes up with their sources with the intention of sharing.

    thanks Ed - oh yes some stirring up these types would be fun

    thanks Holler - I agree with you - I like to see a bit of a review and a recipe together - often makes much more sense of a recipe

    Thanks AOF - I know what you mean about people not crediting in the professional world - I not only want people to acknowledge my contribution but I also like to know who has developed documents I deal with. But if you read a lot of recipe books, so many people are passing on recipes from others anyway and so many are quite similar to others that I don't feel I can't reproduce a list of ingredients - but admittedly if I was a cookbook writer i might feel a little different

    Thanks Ricki - have never heard that about the three modifications - v interesting - but I feel like I don't own recipes unless I go and find it in my own head rather than a book - and even then I am sure I just read it somewhere once - I think some of the discussion seems to assume more originality than is there - although I know your recipes where you modify them to be vegan and gluten free do seem to require quite a bit of work which is a different matter

    thanks Lysy - I get very confused about what Ricki said with the 10% fair use copyright law - after all blogging is not about making money and you are good at acknowledging your sources so I don't think you should feel so bad - it is a confusing area of law (I always come away from copyright seminars feeling more confused than enlightened). and re the recipe - it is quite interesting

    thanks Lucy - it is outrageous to feel they have the perfect potato salad and that you can only make changes in the privacy of your own home - never thought making potato salad could be so rebellious. I agree with you that in my experience bloggers generally do well with acknowledging sources

  10. Thank you for the thoughtful post, Michelle. I enjoyed reading it. I also would enjoy sharing this meal with you. It sounds wonderful.

  11. I love hearty dishes. Lovely choice of dish.

  12. thanks Susan - I would be happy to share this meal with you (and Michelle)

    thanks Valentina - hearty is a good word for this dish!

  13. Neat! Are you a T.S. Eliot fan? "Do i dare to cook with one less pear" sounds a lot like his "Do I dare to eat a peach!"

  14. wow! i've never even conisdered the repercussions of posting a recipe I made from a cookbook or magazine. I always thought if I simply cited my source i'd be covered! now i'm not so sure, but i'll still do it, otherwise, like you said, how would other people know about it and be able to make it themselves. that is what i love so much about blogging - that it's so easy to share and learn new recipes. love the blog

  15. I always worry about posting recipes that are from a cookbook, and try to both acknowledge and modify them. I've tended to view it as fair use to reproduce a recipe if I've reviewed the book and provided a link to where people can buy it, because I think if one reviews a cookbook it makes sense to include a recipe so that people can see what sort of things the book has... but I've never yet copied a method from a cookbook without adding my own commentary - that would feel like cheating.


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