15 August 2014

Post Facto: A receipt for your recipe? Cooking and the question of credit

This month's Sunday Guardian column:
Can you copyright a kathi roll? Payal Saha thinks you can. Saha, who started the first Kati Roll Company in Greenwich Village in 2002, and now owns three outlets in New York and one in London, has filed a lawsuit against a rival called Kati Junction that opened in February 2014. She alleges that it has "unfairly appropriated her recipes, her menu, her layout and her colour scheme".
Reading the New York Times story reminded me of how grateful I was to discover Kati Roll Company as a graduate student in New York, reminiscent as they were of the plump but flaky Kolkata-style anda-paratha rolls I had grown up eating. But therein lies the rub. I liked the rolls at the Kati Roll Company not because they tasted startlingly new, but because they tastedlike they should. And they did so precisely because they drew on the memory of what founder Payal Saha, like me, had grown up eating as "a native of Kolkata". Saha did not invent the kathi roll. "Her recipes" were really replications of tastes she knew well.
And yet, I'm sure there is something distinctive about Saha's kathi rolls — just like that classmate's mum whose kadhi still lingers on your tongue, or the chaat-wallah you favour over the others on his street. But the chaatwallah would be unlikely to claim his recipe as an individual invention.
Recipes, like so many other things, are misunderstood by modernity: by a modern intellectual regime which insists on the clean separation of an original from its copies. Our insistent desire to credit an individual point of origin obscures the fact that recipes, like all cultural artefacts, emerge from a culinary tradition.
Any restaurateur or cookbook writer gets their recipes from several sources: chefs once watched, cooks once employed, columns once read, grandmothers, friends, and of course, other cookbooks. She might rejig them. But it seems highly unlikely that a single person can be the fount of a whole book's worth of completely new recipes.
But we persist in believing that they must. Is it any surprise, then that cookbook publishing, almost from its very beginnings, is plagued by the taint of plagiarism? Hannah Glasse's The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy (1746) was among the most successful cookery books of the 18th century (and one of the most successful books in general). But scholars have found that at least 342 of Glasse's 972 recipes were "borrowed" from earlier texts; most from the 1743 edition of The Lady's Companion, by Hannah Woolley. To be sure, what Glasse did unto others was later done unto her — her book was heavily plagiarised for the next 50 years. 
Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management, first published 1861, has been accused of lifting sections wholesale from others. But she did sometimes use memorable imagery. Here she compares the mistress of the house to the commander of an army.
Something similar, argues her biographer Kathryn Hughes, was true of the legendary Mrs Beeton. The real Isabella Beeton was not the venerable old matron of popular imagination, but a 21-year-old with just six months experience of running a house when she started writing her 1861 Book of Household Management (BOHM). First serialised in the Englishwoman's Domestic magazine published monthly by her husband Samuel Beeton, Isabella's detailed recipes and instructions for everything from dinner plans to servant management would make her a brand name that survives to this day. But it is clear that she drew liberally on all the successful cookery books of her time, those by practical Englishwomen (Eliza Acton, Elizabeth Raffald, Maria Rundell) and those by fancy French chefs.
The accusations of plagiarism flung at Mrs Beeton's book in later eras have led descendants to defend her, saying that she only claimed to be a compiler. But publishing a "Mrs Beeton's BOHM" is quite different from the compilation of a "household book", as was done by many ordinary 18th century women, like Martha Lloyd. We only have access to Martha's recipes because she was Jane Austen's good friend. Since the Lloyds and Austens combined housekeeping for years, the recipes were published in 1977 alongside Jane's literary and epistolary references to food and cooking, as A Jane Austen Household Book.
Quite unlike the clever Mrs Beeton, who might credit two recipes to an earlier cookbook only to reproduce ten others without credit, Martha's "book" is as much a record of recipes as of their sources. The name of physician Dr. William Olliver clings to his recipe for the biscuits still produced as Bath Olivers. Raspberry vinegar is credited to a Mrs Lefroy, and a fish sauce that "will keep good for a year" to Jane's brother Captain Frank Austen, whom Martha would eventually marry at the ripe age of 62. A Mrs Craven, Martha's aunt by marriage, contributed a recipe for gooseberry cheese in her own hand, appending the line "Good luck to your jamming".
In Martha Lloyd's household book I recognise the origins of my mother's cookery album from the 1980s, with a notepad for recipes where each page has a "From" slot, and convenient pockets for folded recipes, hurriedly noted down on the phone from a friend, or newspaper cuttings. It is a record as much of recipes as of a life of connections made over food.
I once read that in Thailand, a person composes a small cookbook before his or her death, to be distributed as a keepsake to family and friends. 20 or so recipes, for things he or she particularly liked to eat, or make. Now that's a custom that understands what cooking really is: something that's meant to be passed on. And hopefully, no one who's ever received a keepsake like that will ever pretend that their recipes come out of nowhere.
Published in the Sunday Guardian, 10 Aug 2014.

1 comment:

Darshani said...

I don't know about this store or the lawsuit but my guess is that the Chef is suing for copy of color scheme/ menu layout/ the store design rather than the theft of recipes.

It is a lot of work to design and create a unique restaurant. Once it gets successful, the copycat can steal the looks and get customers without doing the hardwork. Copyrights on color schemes are common.