This is Not How Bubbe Made it – Decoding Recipes

This Is Not How Bubbe Made It: Decoding Recipes

Do some treasured recipes never get published because of copyright laws? Priya Krishna wrote an interesting article in The New York Times saying, yeah, some might be getting held back. And for good reason. 

In Who Owns a Recipe? A Plagiarism Claim Has Cookbook Authors Asking @PriyaKrishna explores the idea of a recipe being a unique entity because, legally, it’s not. 

The standard of establishing an “original works of authorship” under U.S. copyright rules were being settled as early as 1790, and at a time when “cooking was seen as a woman’s domestic responsibility rather than as a professional activity,” said Sara Hawkins, a business and intellectual property lawyer in Phoenix.

“The law views a recipe merely as a factual list of ingredients and basic steps rather than as creative expression,” Hawkins said, which is pretty wild to consider today. 

Recipes may stand awkwardly outside of what is considered meritable in consideration for intellectual rights, but cookbooks absolutely do count. They are under copyright laws because how we collect and order ideas matters. The parts may be considered ubiquitous, but the sum most definitely is not. Attribution of a recipe is tough because how many truly original recipes exist that don’t have some degree of similarities with many other recipes, a variation on a variation, going back millennia. It’s hard to pinpoint originality in cooking is the argument. But how those recipes are assembled shows vision and intent, and therefore is covered. 

Many of us tweak the recipes we come across, sometimes to an unrecognizable end; food availability and cooking techniques can change everything. But does a pinch of that and a shift out of this constitute a version of something or a totally new recipe? Can we ever make a recipe wholly our own? Kinda. So do we still need to credit the source? I’m not sure you don’t.

So is it just a tweak, a modification, or a full explosion to the handful of essentials, or starter recipes, that manage to cross the divide and may now be considered new and singular? As the old observation goes, you’ll know it when you see it.

Issues around power, influence and cultural appropriation play an enormous part in this conversation. White people stealing culture, materials, and identity from talented and the far less known and the far less powerful is nothing new. Music, art, and food traditions have all been looted. 

“When you feel like your stories, your work, your investment ends up benefiting people who are already higher up in the hierarchy of fame, it tempts me to go to a place I don’t want to go, which is to hoard knowledge,” said Leela Punyaratabandhu, who has written three Southeast Asian cookbooks.” 

Koshering a recipe will undoubtedly and fundamentally change a recipe. For better or worst. Where does that fit into this discussion? 

And, enter the fray around origins, similarities, politics and identity around many Palestinian and Israeli recipes at your own risk. 

Giving credit is arguably a split decision in American Jewish cooking circles – it may come to blows over the nerve of someone saying they invented any recipe, the goal for many is to have a straight line between them and King Solomon’s head chef. But pity the fool who does not give proper attribution at a family buffet.

The mainstays of the Ashkawnawzi repertoire might be a pretty standardized set of recipes, but there is a reason every other new Jewish deli and cookbook since the early 2000s is called ‘Bubbe’s This’ and ‘Zaide’s That’ — it’s not purely for the nostalgia, a recipe becomes a standard after decades, generations, where no-one wanted to tweak it anymore.

Decoding Recipes

This Is Not How Bubbe Made It: Decoding Recipes

We are currently in the season of latkes, hallowed be thy name. I’m continuously amazed at how many recipes appear daily — and it’s potatoes, onions, oil. Yet, still, every day. Although, one woman’s omission of a few tablespoons of salt or adding chilli flakes may just make her the hit of the temple cookbook with bragging rights for three generations and a respectful nod to her prowess whispered at her shiva. I dream of this for myself. 

As Ann from Massachusetts pointed out on Nov. 29, 2021, in the comment section of Krishna’s article:

“Can’t tell you how many recipes I’ve deleted from my recipe app which are identical in ingredients and directions. Only the name of the recipe was different. ‘Spicy Molasses cookies’, ‘Warm Spiced Molasses Cookies’, ‘Ultimate Molasses Cookies.'”

Testify, Ann. I have hundreds of similar brisket recipes, and yet I’m always on the lookout for, say, a slight variation on those 200 versions. Give me dozens more of tomato and carrot-free brisket recipes, heavy on the molasses, warm spices, figs and prunes, and call it what you want, because I’m all in. On all of them. Spiced Molasses Brisket? Yes. Spicy Molasses Brisket? Yes. Ultimate Molasses Brisket? Yes, please. 

My grandmother taught me her prize recipes because she was sure of a few things about her granddaughter: I would always credit her, and I knew her versions would always be better than mine. It may be why I’m the only one with her pie crust recipe. Long will Grandma Helen reign.  

And long live public domain, along with appropriate credit.

Our two cents? Here at the New Jewish Kitchen, recipes are only truly great when passed along. Whether from learning alongside someone who teaches you a dish you love, or eating a life-changing meal at a restaurant and trying to recreate it later. You may find your signature fare in old cookbooks, online, or from television, but not giving that origin story credit, at the very least, takes away half the fun. 

Then go forth and make that recipe your very own, to your taste, or what your kids and extended family prefer. That’s the recipe. And that’s the joy.