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Attribution For Our Very Thoughts: Necessary Or Overkill?

In the Spring 2012 issue of Lucky Peach Magazine Dave Chang, Sat Baines, Claude Bosi and Daniel Patterson scathingly discuss chefs that steal from other chefs. They’re pretty harsh about the whole thing. What interested me was that they were not talking about stealing a recipe. They were talking about stealing concepts and techniques; they were talking about stealing something much more abstract than a list of ingredients, a set of instructions or a picture.

This reminded me of my own academic background where one credits every idea to as many sources as possible. You never have your own unique thought in academia. Or at least, you don’t have one without propping it up with a whole bunch of other people’s thoughts first.

And then there’s food blogging. We all are familiar with the discussion about adapting recipes: If you change three ingredients, you’re fine, right? If you re-write the instructions and headnote, all’s good, right? Here’s a great post by Dianne Jacob warning of the dangers we could face for adaptation. So to be safe (and maybe even ethical) we need to go beyond just adapting a bit. We need to give proper credit while also being as original as possible.

But how much credit do you give? And to whom? Do we go the path of the academic and credit for every thought? Do we take the Lucky Peach discussion to heart and credit for concepts and techniques?

I fear that this would yield some pretty dry reading (have you read any academic journals lately???). But also, I wonder if it flies in the face of what food blogging is all about, of how food blogging started out. It really was a place for home cooks to share recipes that they’d tried in their kitchens. It wasn’t academia. It wasn’t even a profession.

What are your thoughts? Should we stop adapting? Do we start crediting more to cover our butts and to be ethical? Or is this overkill?

And a bonus question: Why all the hubbub about food bloggers adapting recipes? Do you think it’s related to the fact that food bloggers are making money now?



  1. Dianne Jacob wrote:

    Hi Christine, thanks for the link. I think it’s great that you are bringing up these questions. I don’t think food bloggers will stop adapting anytime soon, but it’s good when they credit the source of the recipe. Very few food bloggers make money — just the ones at the top.
    Dianne Jacob recently posted: Spokesperson Work: What It Is and How to Get It

    Tuesday, June 5, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Permalink
  2. Christine wrote:

    Dianne, Thank you so much for visiting this blog and commenting. You’ve made my day!

    I totally know what you mean about not making money! But I wonder if the idea of us making money is what’s got people talking about this issue more. Or is it just that there are more and more food bloggers out there?

    Tuesday, June 5, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Permalink
  3. Nicole wrote:

    I too have been agonizing over this for a while. In many ways I feel it is one of the things that has slowed down my posting recently. I’m not so worried about being sued, and if anyone asked I would certainly take down a recipe if someone thought I was “stealing” their content. Really, I just want to do what is right. I often go by the “do unto others” frame of mind, but I think I am far more accepting than others might be. I know this top is covered time and time again, but I think there still needs to be some serious discussion and some clear answers.
    I have thought that maybe I wouldn’t post recipes at all anymore, just links to the original recipe with my process on my site. Then comes the issue of what is the “original” recipe. Often the one I use is someone else adaptation of an original recipe. More often than not I use two or three other recipes as inspiration for mine. Do I link to all three of them? If I post a link to the original recipe(s), how is it ever going to turn out for my readers the way “I” made it? Even with good notes on my page, I can’t see how this wouldn’t be terribly confusing for the average reader?
    In the end, this is the answer I came up with. If the recipe is already out there on somebody’s blog or a popular cookbook, maybe I don’t need to be sharing it again. Maybe I need to work closer to home, with local recipe writers who would be thrilled to have their recipes make an appearance on my site. Maybe some smaller cookbook authors whose permission would be easy to get. Yes, this would take more time and energy. I think that my content would be better for it in the long run. Really, do I need to be publishing the New York Times Chocolate Chip Cookies recipe or another recipe from Smitten Kitchen?
    I’m still not there yet, but I hope that the answers will come.
    Nicole recently posted: Kate Payne is coming to Fairbanks!

    Tuesday, June 5, 2012 at 6:50 pm | Permalink
  4. Christine wrote:

    Nicole, I understand exactly what you mean. I have several different feelings about the issue. I pretty much only post original recipes now, or recipes that have been changed significantly enough that they are original (with the latter I will still usually credit the original with “adapted from” just to be honest). Coming up with your own recipes is therefore always an option.

    But if you, like many others, started your blog to share your experiences in the kitchen and your true experiences involve making other people’s recipes, well then that’s where the difficulty comes in. I think that you’re right that you can try to work with local writers and get permission to post their recipes.

    I think there must also be a way to share your adaptations while also linking to the primary author. I wonder if this would suffice: Link to the original recipe. Then write out instructions for what you did. Include within the instructions the amounts of all ingredients you used (prehaps in bold). You therefore no longer have an ingredient list at all. What you have is a narrative of what you did in the kitchen. You could even pepper the narrative with non-cooking experiences (I popped the pan into the oven and, knowing that it would be there awhile I put on the kettle to make a cup of tea). I think if you do something like that, then you are truly doing something different than a recipe. It is its own creative endeavor and so you don’t have to worry about the other issues.

    Having said all that, you’re right. Who needs another NY TImes Cookie recipe. Finding more obscure recipes is definitely more valuable since you can be sharing something of yourself while also exposing your readers to something new.

    Thank you for your thoughtful response. I hope that you continue posting regularly!

    Tuesday, June 5, 2012 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

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