Well once again I missed all the cool monthly blogging events - I swear I am gonna start doing them two weeks ahead. Of course I say that now – but you know I am fibbing!
So instead of blogging, I have been thinking. (Pauses while the jokes fly – no, there is not smoke coming from my ears - and you can’t hear the gears grinding! hardee har har.) I recently read this post on The Fellowship of FSFE. The summation (for those of you who hate page hopping) is that a German chef living in Rome is asking for a cookyright on his food creations. In this case, every time you cook one of his dishes, you must attribute the recipe to him.
It reminded me of magic - magicians are very concerned about who gets credit for what trick. When you publish an effect you should document your influences, references and sources if you can. And if you don’t, there will be hell to pay with the fellow members of the community. Lord forbid if someone else published a similar effect in a magazine 50 years ago and you did not remember reading it 20 years back. (The technical term “effect” is used by some magi instead of “tricks”. Makes it sound more technical and less like a practical joke, I guess. Or maybe it makes them sound more like performers instead of prostitutes. Your call.)
I book marked this page and let everything percolate. It was an interesting concept. How could you “copyright” food? I mean, pasta is pasta; tomato sauce is tomato sauce. Can what one chef do to the base recipe be so different that it deserves to be attributed to him alone? Even if a person puts together ingredients in what he believes is a novel fashion, what is to say that other people are not using the same ingredients to create foods in a similar vein?
Somewhere in the back of my brain, I remember a lecture from an anthropology class. It was about the dissemination of technology among cultures. One theory held that all technology was developed by one group of people and then was spread through contact with other groups. Kind of like a venereal disease or something. Another theory held that people who were exposed to similar problems would come up with similar solutions without any contact with each other.
Cooking is really a type of technology. It takes raw ingredients and using existing processes, produces a final composite product. Originally, we learned those technologies from those around us – extended family and neighbors. People who traveled would bring back information from outside sources and that information was incorporated into the local “vocabulary”, but by and large, each isolated group created food that fit the locale that they lived in using what was on hand and in season.
The advent of modern means of idea transmission, starting with the printing press, has broken down the walls of isolation that separate these small pockets of cooks. The internet has accelerated these processes even more. How many of us own woks? I do. And I know my mother didn’t or my grandmother. I also know that if I want to learn all about Indian vegetarian cooking, I can just hop on over to Indira’s site and read away. When my mother was a young woman, there was almost no information about real Indian cooking here in the States. The closest she could come to the real McCoy were things like tinned curried powders which people incorporated into recipes, but usually in a very Western manner - things like curried chicken salad or Country Captain.
Now that everyone has access to the same database of ideas and influences, how can anyone say that they invented a way of cooking that may have been developed independently by some other person on the other side of the globe? Look at the telephone; Al Bell may have won the patent, but Elisha Gray was working on the same thing at the same time. If he had been a little quicker, we may all be talking about “Pa Grey” instead of “Ma Bell”.
How can you even assume that something such as “cookyright” could be established much less enforced? Ideas that have been forgotten are constantly being recreated. Old techniques are being revived and new applications being found. How about the science experiment with frozen nitrogen ice cream? That “fun” idea has spawned everything from Dippin’ Dots to high end cuisine. So who came up with the original idea for the ice cream? Do we see him credited when someone is talking about their use of the idea? No.
I have tons of recipes in my file, all written on stained 3 x 5 index cards that were collected from years of church recipe swaps. If I take one of those recipes, modify it and then publish it on my blog - how can I give proper credit? I have no idea if that original recipe was created by the person who gave me the card or if she got it from some lady’s magazine 30 years ago.
Now, I want you to go take a gander at Food Hacking. The gentleman who runs this blog sites sources and influences, but does not claim that he is the sole owner of the ideas. He says those ideas are public domain.
Is food more of a meme than an idea that can be categorized, quantified and claimed? Cooking and food preparation are central to our every day lives. That is why we obsess on it, why we worry about what we are cooking for dinner or the quality of the last restaurant experience. Every book and magazine we read, every television show we watch, every meal we eat leaves a lasting impression that effects how we approach our next meal. When we create a “new” recipe, we are standing on the shoulders of those that came before us.
To our German friend, I’ll grant you a “cookyright” as long as you credit every single cook that worked on the recipe before you - from the person who invented pasta to the sous chef who tasted it and recommended a pinch more salt. Get crackin’ dude – you have your work cut out for you!