Cookbook Etiquette

Let me preface this post by saying that it is not a rant.  I am not complaining.  I’m just somewhat confused.

Here’s the story.

In November of 2008, I received an email from a friend who’s in the food industry.  Here’s what the email said:

I’m working on a project and am asking my food savvy friends for help. I am
searching for recipes for a few specific dishes, with these caveats:

1. the recipes must be authentically Southern, although appropriate updates
and variations are fine
2. they must be from unsung cooking hero home cooks, although recipes that
wound up in restaurants and diners are fine if they originated at home
3. the cook must be willing to talk to me and share the recipe and the back
story.

I responded that I might be able to help, and she later wrote that she was working for Molly O’Neill on a “big cookbook project.”  Frankly, I didn’t even notice that comment.  I talked to my friend for about 15 minutes, and then I gave her links to two recipes on my blog, recipes that I had made many times and which were well-received.  That’s the last I heard of this; in fact, I totally forgot about it.

In early November, Andrea Weigl of the News & Observer posted this on Twitter: “Congrats to @VarmintBites, Kavanah and Gabe for their recipes appearing in @onebigtable.”  I had no idea what she was talking about.  I didn’t know what @onebigtable was.  After a couple of messages back and forth, I learned that I had two recipes prominently featured in Molly O’Neill’s new cookbook, “One Big Table.”  Needless to say, I was excited, but I had no clue what those recipes were and how they made it into Ms. O’Neill’s book.  I learned that the recipes were for my Strawberry Shortcake for a Crowd and for the Four Berry Cobbler that I’ve made many times.  Through the power of Gmail archiving, I realized then that it was through my friend, two years earlier, that these recipes made it into Ms. O’Neill’s book.  When Andrea Weigl showed me the book, and how well done it was, I was extremely proud and tickled.

But then, the lawyer part of me started thinking, and this is what this post is about.  Yes, I shared those recipes with my friend, but that’s all I did.  Ms. O’Neill never contacted me.  No one from the publisher contacted me.  No release.  No forms.  Not even a “head’s up” or a thank you.  This may simply be a type of journalism where authorization is not needed, but shouldn’t there be some approval process prior to publication?  If not, shouldn’t there at least be some form of acknowledgment?

I am not complaining, as once again, I’m very appreciative of having not one, but two, recipes included in this marvelous book (yes, I’ll be giving copies for Christmas, although Amazon only let me buy 3 copies).  It’s cool to have your name and recipes featured in such a work.  And let me be clear, this was not a case of Ms. O’Neill lifting these recipes from my blog without my permission.  I readily suggested these two recipes to my friend two years ago, but I certainly didn’t think they were worthy of publication.  Was that act on my part sufficient to move forward with publishing the recipes and my comments?

In the end, what is the appropriate process here?  If not legally required, should etiquette have demanded some follow-up from the publisher?  Help me here, those of you in the cookbook industry!

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14 Responses to Cookbook Etiquette

  1. burgeoningfoodie says:

    I have mixed feeling about this. While I too would be happy to have had my recipe published by someone well respected, it comes across as kind of sneaky that it wasn’t put out there before it was done. What if it really bothered you? It is sorta like throwing a surprise party and not knowing if that is something they would like.. at least to me. The thought was nice, but the other party should have taken the social graces to clear it with you first before going ahead. I think that since it gives you pause that you should pass (if not already) a note of thanks to whomever and somehow firmly but politely state that the absence of not being asked permission just as a formality would have been appreciated.

  2. ruhlman says:

    While I can see how such a thing could happen in a massive project like this, it’s inappropriate to not acknowledge the source of information of this sort in a book you publish under your name and profit from. I know and like Molly, respect her work, and again, can see what a nightmare it would be to get all these permissions and give all the acknowledgments, but well, if you’re gonna publish other peoples stuff, you need to acknowledge it as such.

  3. Varmint says:

    And I want to be clear on another fact. I’m given tons of credit for each recipe. They’re titled, “Dean McCord’s Strawberry Shortcake for a Crowd” and “Dean McCord’s Four-Berry-Cobbler.” Some of the language used in the headnotes to the recipe comes straight from my blog. Some must have come from the talk with my friend.

    And I also appreciate how massive this project was and how much of a logistical nightmare it would have been.

  4. Debbie Moose says:

    I certainly know how big projects get. But when people have been kind enough to provide recipes to me for books, I let them know and thank them profusely. (I hope I did so for you for the Fan Fare recipe!) Not only is it Southern politeness, but it also can create interest in the book. It’s not always possible to send review copies to everyone who participated, especially of a large book, but acknowledgment is good. If your recipes hadn’t been clearly credited as yours, that would have been a whole ‘nother thing.

  5. didaniel says:

    Every recipe donated — and cooks were told the recipes were being donated — for my “Farm Fresh North Carolina” guidebook (out in March!) was accompanied by a written release form, which I then turned over to my publisher. Because I tweaked pretty much every recipe based on my recipe tester’s feedback, I also sent each cook the final version of their recipe as it would appear in the book. I’m floored that you weren’t told the recipes were being published and that you weren’t asked to give permission in writing.

  6. Mark Petko says:

    Being a photographer and experiencing issues similar to this I am torn. You admittedly may have missed the red flag clue. Possibly due to the ‘friendly’ nature of the original discussion.

    “I responded that I might be able to help, and she later wrote that she was working for Molly O’Neill on a “big cookbook project.” Frankly, I didn’t even notice that comment.”

    Was this mention of ‘working on the cookbook’ at the same time as asking for help or in a different context?

    You willingly participated. Lead to links and were heavily accredited (or at least enough to feel proud enough to give away some copies). If you were told, clearly and specifically ahead of time that these would be published I assume you may have gone the same route…giving your gift for free, to a friend, with a little name recognition as compensation.

    I often am less likely to chase unsolicited usage if at the very least the image is clearly marked, noted, or linked to with my name or website. It may not be legally correct but with the ‘freedoms’ that the internet allows I find it better to choose my battles wisely. (depending on the commercial potential of the taken image).

    Likewise, I feel a couple of freebie copies from the publisher or author for you to have or give away could go a long way and would speak to the appreciation of using your content for commercial purposes.

  7. MB says:

    Something is wrong here. The lawyer in you is correct to question this cookbook.

    Also, isn’t that cobbler recipe a take from Mr. Neal’s? If so, that should be mentioned if it isn’t. I have gussied up that recipe to my own liking and I always tell people that ask for the recipe that the original one is Mr. Neal’s and offer them a copy of both.

  8. Varmint says:

    Mark, you are absolutely correct. I willingly participated two years ago, and at the very least, provided implied consent for their use of my name and recipes. I do not think that this is a legal issue at all, and once again, I am tickled pink on my recipes being included. I think there are less than ten people in this book of 600+ recipes that had two recipes included. I’m very honored. But once again, I just thought that at some time in the two year period from where they talked to me that there would have been some follow up; something that said, “We’re actually going to use these two recipes, and we wanted to make sure that this is OK with you.”

    My response would have initially been, “Now could you remind me how you found those recipes?” But then I would have said, “Great. No problem. I’m honored.”

    And no, I have not received a complementary copy of the cookbook, which I thought was a bit unusual, but when you have over 500 recipe contributors, that may not be standard procedure. Heck, it may be part of book’s marketing plan — anticipate that each of the contributors would buy a handful of copies for their friends and families. Worked like a charm for me!

    MB, they gave full credit to Bill Neal and his book, so not a problem there.

  9. I think your confusion is understandable. It just sounds to me like the machine slipped a cog somewhere.

    I would be dancing in the aisles if one of my recipes ended up being touted someplace nifty, but if I had to learn about it explicitly from a 3rd party I’d be more than a bit boggled at the same time, and I’m not anything close to a lawyer. Recipes in our family have ended up being published at least three times in the past, and it’s always fun to experience that, but we always were informed formally.

    I posted a recipe for quail on my blog and the original was not my recipe, but even after I’d changed it significantly I felt obliged to post the original recipe and list my changes. I’m an inveterate tinkerer and it is rare for a recipe to *not* get any changes from me, but I don’t want my changes to reflect poorly on those kind folks whose recipes I use.

    It seems to me that there are very very few original recipes (most everything I know as a cook came from influences from somewhere) and the more I know about cooking, the more I tend to want to chat about how I learned *that*, because it gives me a sense of being part of a continuum of cooks.

    By the way, Congratulations!

  10. Jeff says:

    I don’t mean to derail the discussion here, but how many changes does one need to make to a recipe to call it one’s own?

  11. Varmint says:

    It is clear that a listing of ingredients is not protected under US copyright law. When you start to give instructions, then it may be protected.

    Legal requirements are altogether different than ethical ones. If I take Thomas Keller’s chocolate chip cook recipe from Bouchon at Home and print it on my blog, word for word, including the instructions and headnotes, then I’ve obviously violated the copyright. If I re-write the instructions and leave out the headnotes, then I’m probably OK from a legal position. However, if I call the recipe my own or don’t give credit to Keller, then that’s just improper. Even if I make minor changes to the recipe itself, I think it’s incorrect to call it your own unless it’s material.

    One of the reasons I have trouble with one of the recipes published by Molly O’Neill is that she called it “Dean McCord’s Four-Berry Cobbler.” It’s not my recipe, it’s pretty much Bill Neal’s. But she decided, without my permission or anyone else’s permission, to call it my recipe. I just don’t like that.

  12. Jeff says:

    I need a personal ethics check. When I make your shortcake recipe for strawberries, I skip the kneading step and use a full cup of buttermilk. Even though I re-wrote the directions in numbered steps, the changes are minor, and I still consider it your recipe. I do a blueberry shortcake too, and for the shortcake, I reduced the amount of buttermilk, added skim milk, lemon juice, lemon zest, fresh chopped thyme, and sprinkle raw sugar on top before putting it in the oven. Even though I originally started with your recipe as a baseline, I feel like I have done enough to call this new creation mine. Would you consider me ethically-challenged if I were to donate this to somebody’s cookbook project without mentioning you?

  13. Varmint says:

    I wouldn’t worry one bit about it. Come on, it’s a big biscuit, macerated fruit, and whipped cream!

  14. PTuorto says:

    I agree 100% with your concern and confusion. We were recently told (by a friend no less) that a photograph from our wedding will be on next month’s “Southern Bride” magazine. I know the photograph is our photographers to use but a heads up or consent email would have been nice. Recipe’s are even trickier since the line between stolen and modified is so thin, but ultimately Molly should have atleast emailed to let you know.

    P.S. How cool is it that Ruhlman weighed in!?

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