Sharing much-adapted recipes while giving credit where it is due

Since I'm a rather reluctant cook—producing meals because I or my family need to eat, not from a sense of creative purpose—I have a lopsided relationship to recipes, whether found in a cookbook or online.

Those few recipes that hit the sweet spot of "easy to prepare" yet "delicious to eat" while simultaneously "nutritious and healthful" are, almost literally, treasures. I cherish them. I wouldn't want to live without them.

If I share a recipe on this blog, it's because I find it life altering in its perfection for these needs/wants. I probably won't do this very often.


On the other hand, the search for appropriate recipes is a frustration to a non-cook like me who's just trying to get a meal on the table.

"Easy" and "simple" are often slapped upon a series of steps that I find arduous (lots of chopping), painful (washing lots of vegetables under cold water), disgusting (slimy hands-on handling of meat), or terrifying (flaming cooktop vs. the safety of my nicely enclosed slow cooker or oven.)*

Even seemingly more straightforward tags like "gluten free" are often attached to recipes that abound in other taboo ingredients or inclusions I can't conscientiously allow in my family's diet.

As a parent whose kids have always benefited digestively by avoiding dairy, the addition of a celiac diagnosis for another much-loved family member has compounded the difficulty of satisfying everyone without almost literally poisoning someone else.

Which is to say, I almost never find a recipe that doesn't require a little modification for my purposes. More often, recipes require a lot of changes before I can even attempt them.

All of which brings me, at long last, to my point today.

Bear with me. Really, I'm getting there.

There's a fair amount of angst amongst internet recipe creators about ownership and giving credit where credit is due.

I get it. Attribution is important. It's a laudable goal. I completely support the rights of those who create content to be acknowledged for, and compensated for, their work. I don't steal music. I only post my own mediocre photos (or my husband's much better ones) to this blog.

On the other hand, I also totally get why recipes are not protected by copyright law in the same manner as many other written works.

Here is a really nice explanation of how US copyright law applies to recipes.

A list of ingredients and the basic steps to combine them are too far removed from the tangible reality of what a recipe really is. It's like protecting the rights to a complete assembly instruction manual vs. declaring you own the act of rotating a screwdriver to drive in a screw…

When I use a recipe, it ends up looking like this after a few attempts:

recipe Waffle Gluten Free

Gluten Free Waffle frozen - 1

Resulting waffles, frozen, because I hear people like to look at pictures of food

If I find a recipe online that I'm going to try, I print it out. I'll use it "as is" if it will print on one page. If I'm using a cookbook from the library, I photocopy the required pages for a given recipe.

I need a print out to use while cooking—I've come far too close to destroying my iPad trying to skip this step and use a virtual recipe in the actual kitchen. I've tried for decades to switch to a digital recipe collection, and failed completely at every attempt. I would never subject a library book to my kitchen shenanigans.

Cookbook binder - 1

If I use a recipe and like it, or if it's going to print out on multiple pages or with multiple photos illuminating nothing confusing, I cut and paste the text into an editor.

I'm bound and determined to create a document that formats a recipe how I like to read it.

I'm very text-oriented. I only want a photo if it clarifies a step. Best example: bread dough stages.I find photos of completed dishes superfluous, not inspirational. For my use, pictures are routinely discarded.

I also strip away narrative content because it's a distraction. It might have led me to try a recipe, but I don't need to read that again. I've already been convinced to make the dish. If something seems important, I might move it to the end and add an Author's Note section.

For the past year or so, I've started appending the link to my document when I find a recipe online. It never occurred to me to do that even a few years ago. I wasn't publishing anything, and I'm not the friend people ask for culinary inspiration.

Odds are, if a recipe becomes a part of my life, I'll never want to reference the original source again. Eventually, I will have the essentials of the original recipe as text in my computer, and I will have added many notes, and adjusted many ingredients. I will have made the dish dozens of times, optimizing the process for my skills in my kitchen.

It's a tricky thing to say when the recipe stopped being "the originator's" and became "mine," but I believe that does happen eventually. How would you quantify that shift? Any change at all? 10% changed? 25%? Or in years that have passed? Or oceans and continents crossed?

If I'm this free and loose with a recipe, I can't imagine how much more innovation is introduced by serious cooks.

All of which is to say, excluding acts of outright theft perpetrated by scoundrels who copy and paste content wholesale to their own sites, I think there is room for interpretation about where your content ends and another's begins.

If I post a recipe here, I will make every attempt to accurately state its origins, but I may make mistakes. I may not remember my own source, but I might recall the story of how a dish grew to prominence in my own humble kitchen.

My personal stake in this subject is simply feeding my family nourishing food at a level of effort I can afford to undertake, and keeping track of how I did it.

Sharing a recipe represents my sincere wish to save another person a little effort, perhaps making his or her life better in that moment.

I'm curious to know how this topic resonates with others. Is there more that should be said? Am I wrong if I share a recipe whose origin I don't know?


*We can talk about my weird fear of the stove top some other time. My husband assumes I was burned at the stake in a former life. But, seriously, the gas stove is ON FIRE, INSIDE MY HOUSE. How can that be right? Someone should EXTINGUISH that!

4 thoughts on “Sharing much-adapted recipes while giving credit where it is due

  1. I don’t think sharing personal knowledge is ever wrong, knowledge should be shared. I was once privileged to use a sword, owned by my karate sensei (teacher) on a kind of long-term loan. I returned it to his family when I no longer trained at his dojo. That sword had been in his family for generations, and modern sword-makers can no longer replicate how it was made. That knowledge has been lost… completely. And we’ll never get it back. The swords that were made that like that, and still circulate amongst those that know them are almost priceless. Now, I know a cake is hardly the same thing, but it’s cultural; and it’ll mean something in years to come.

    My mother makes an amazing coconut-fudge cake, with ridiculously serious amounts of butter and sugar. We estimated its calorie-value once. It was frightening. “Life-altering” as you say, but not particularly healthful… unless you’re going to climb Everest later in the day. That’s a recipe she got from watching her grandmother. It was never written down, until I begged her to do it, and write it down for me when my family and I emigrated from the UK to Canada. She did, and gave it to my wife, swearing her to secrecy; and much to my irritation, she’s kept to that oath.

    My mother is almost 90… there’s a danger that one day, my kids will be saying, “Remember Nanny Godden’s fudge cake? That was amazing…” and never be able to taste it again.

    Knowledge is meant for sharing.

    Especially if it tastes good.

    • I appreciate your knowledge, but I’d REALLY love to share your cake! 🙂

      I think I’d ask mom if her recipe could be shared with at least one member of the next generation now. Do your kids like to bake?

      My husband misses his Babushka’s fried potatoes like nothing else he’s ever eaten, but no one can duplicate them. Not even his mom! Whatever the trick was, it died with her. Certainly not the greatest aspect of her loss–she was a magnificent lady in many ways–but a pang that echoes on forever.

  2. My eldest daughter loves to bake, the youngest likes the product. My son likes other people to bake. I pretend I don’t like anybody baking, then eat pieces of cake when everybody else has gone to bed.

    Nobody has made my mother’s coconut fudge cake in years, not even my mother. But I am going back to England in a few weeks, and you never know what might happen in celebration.

    My wife won’t even tell me WHERE the recipe is, much less WHAT it is. I think, rather than the intent of secrecy, she’s trying to save the human race from a 2000-calorie-a-slice cake addiction.

    My best friends’ wife once “took a piece to work, to share with friends.” She used to take the London Underground train network… the cake never survived the journey.

    But you’re right, the younger generation need to be informed! And besides, they’re much slimmer than me, so can probably handle it.

    • Sounds like it would be worth a trip across the pond just for this cake if your mother were willing to oblige with the baking. 🙂

      I’m the only grown up I know who insists upon a birthday celebration for myself every year. Most of that is to ensure the presence of a good-sized, delicious chocolate cake.

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