Getting credit for the recipe

The origins of recipes are often murky at best – think pasta carbonara and the $250 Neiman Marcus cookie – and eerily similar recipes pop up from cookbook to cookbook with little or no explanation of the recipe’s history. The issue of recipe plagiarism aside, the concept of who should get credit for a decades-old recipe that has been shared by thousands of people is something people will probably argue about in perpetuity. Writer Bobby Finger explores this idea for Eater where he ponders a Joanna Gaines brownie recipe featured in NYT Cooking.

After reading the recipe, Finger scrolled down to the comments section where someone posted that they had been making essentially the same brownie since 1992, and that the recipe came from Southern Living Magazine. Intrigued by this comment, Finger decided to dive deeper into the peanut butter brownie’s origins. He purchased a secondhand copy of the Southern Living 1992 Annual cookbook, where he found a recipe for Frosted peanut butter brownies that shared a nearly identical ingredient list to Gaines’ recipe, although it did call for crunchy vs. creamy peanut butter and a larger quantity of sugar.

Looking at the version published in Magnolia Table, Volume 2, Finger noted that Gaines gives credit for the recipe to her friends’ mother, and even named the brownies after her: Lucy’s peanut butter brownies. Finger then asked Julia Moskin, who wrote the intro to the NYT recipe, why she decided to credit Gaines with developing the recipe when Gaines herself said she got it from a friend. “The definition of ‘developing’ a recipe is hard to pin down, even in the culinary world,” Moskin replied. All of this research left Finger wondering who should get credit for the recipe or if there is even a need to pinpoint the developer of a treat that has obviously been working its way around US kitchens for 30 years.

When writing this synopsis, I searched for the Southern Living recipe in the EYB Library. It was not indexed (I added it), but in my search I found these Peanut butter brownies from Taste of Home Magazine (pictured above) that were also nearly identical to the Southern Living Magazine recipe – down to the number of large marshmallows specified (10). The headnote to the Taste of Home recipe – allegedly from Judy Sims of Weatherford, Texas – states that “A friend gave me the recipe for these layered brownies, but I added my own touch–chunky peanut butter.” Sure Judy, that was definitely ‘your own touch’. Something about that headnote prompted me to recall the fake quotes attributed to ‘citizens’ from the satirical website The Onion. Does Judy Sims even exist?

Of course Judy may be a real person, and perhaps her friend did give her a recipe to which she added ‘her own touch’. Maybe the friend did not divulge that she got the recipe from Southern Living. I have a few battle-worn cards in my recipe box that I copied from a magazine or newspaper but failed to note the source. If I shared these recipes with a friend, there would be no way to know where the dish came from even though I did not intend to obscure the recipe’s origin.

I prefer to think that is what happened here rather than that Judy’s friend passed off someone else’s recipe as her own. It also leads me to consider whether, in this case – where no money is riding on keeping the recipe secret nor is there an issue of cultural appropriation – is it a huge problem if someone wants to claim this recipe as their own? Or is this but one example of a larger problem about taking credit for the work of others? Do the attendees at the potluck who are devouring Judy’s brownies care who developed the recipe?

I do not claim to have the answers to these questions, but now I’m hungry for brownies. Maybe I will try one of these recipes and who knows, I might even add ‘my own touch’.

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  • Vanessa  on  January 14, 2022

    The question of recipe ownership or authorship is linked to monetization. When cooking was something just done at home, crediting the source was a way to remember the person who gave that recipe to you.

    Now, recipes have come way up in the world … they are considered IP and ‘the work of others’!

    • Darcie  on  January 14, 2022

      That’s the funny thing – here in the US, courts have consistently ruled that recipes are not IP for copyright purposes, although stories, layout, and other items attached to the recipes can be copyrighted. This makes it pretty easy to copy a recipe, change the instructions somewhat, and the original recipe holder can’t do anything about it. You can see this in the recent Makan controversy, which arose not just because the recipes were the same, but because the stories seemed to be copied wholesale as well.

  • averythingcooks  on  January 14, 2022

    I’ve been wondering about this for a while. Recipe contest publications (ie T of H) always do make me wonder. I have a favourite sheet pan style cookie recipe that comes from 1 title of an older series of (very popular) Canadian cook books….and I have a recipe (called by a different name) cut from a “prize winning” publication with a different name for the cookies …..but they are IDENTICAL in ingredients and method. How do contest determine that it is original?? Or does it even matter to them? I always laugh when I say “my mother’s (insert recipe)” because I’m pretty sure it came from Canadian Living, Homemakers, Chatelaine etc OR from one of the many church, school etc cookbooks composed of member contributions that were often created as fundraisers. I would never consider entering any of these for all the reasons you discuss here.

    And it seems that certain recipes suddenly become popular and appear everywhere. Every time I see “lobster mac & cheese” (which is a lot even on my modest 170’ish title bookshelf) I wonder who was actually 1st? And does it matter if it’s just “make my slightly unique mac & cheese and throw in some lobster…..does anyone “own” that?

    • Darcie  on  January 14, 2022

      I think some of these publications share recipe databases – I have noticed the same recipes (from the same contributors) on Taste of Home’s site as well as Reader’s Digest. The layout, etc. of the Reader’s Digest site is identical to Taste of Home, and both are owned by Trusted Media Brands.

  • BeckyBakes  on  January 14, 2022

    What drives me crazy is when I see one recipe that says, ‘1/4 cup of sugar’ and another that says ‘4 tablespoons of sugar’. It’s the exact same recipe where some just changed the volume used to measure.

    • Darcie  on  January 14, 2022

      Sneaky, isn’t it?

  • nwaterman967  on  January 14, 2022

    I think there is what is legally required but also what is ethically the right thing to do. I have more respect for people sharing recipes when they credit where they got the recipe or where their inspiration came from. It only takes a sentence or two but it greatly increases my trust in that person. It also can be quite interesting to hear about what they changed in the recipe.

  • Rinshin  on  January 14, 2022

    I agree with nwaterman967. The ethical thing to do. I have contributed quite a bit of recipes to Half are my own creation that I worked to get to the taste I was trying to imitate from something my family or I’ve tasted in our travels, products, etc. I indicated all of this in introduction to these created recipes. I put them out there so that they can be shared. Other half are from other sources and I indicated where they came from all in introduction. I am not sure if introduction is part of recipes in anymore.

  •  on  January 14, 2022

    Reminds me of the episode of Friends where Phoebe gives her grandmother credit for Nestle Tollhouse Chocolate Chip Cookies!

  • ken  on  January 14, 2022

    Excellent discussion. Thanks for the thoughtful article.

  • tmjellicoe  on  January 14, 2022

    My family has a spaghetti sauce recipe Mom pulled out of a magazine from the 1970’s. We’ve shared it with many people and I once attempted to “gain permission” from the magazine to share with friends and family and was informed they had zero knowledge of the recipe in their archives. So now it is Mom’s/Auntie’s/Grams’ recipe depending on who makes is. We have each made alterations over the years so I guess it is ours. The original called for four, yes four, teaspoons of salt. We don’t do that.

  • Zephyrness  on  January 16, 2022

    Like others here I have a family recipe Mine is for oatmeal raisin cookies that my grandmother was making at least 60 years ago. I am sure she didn’t create it, but I don’t know where it came from. I’ve made a slight tweak to it, and possibly she did too at some point. I have seen similar recipes from older cookbooks, usually of the “heartland” or “grandma’s best recipes” type. So it is my Grammy’s oatmeal cookie recipe. I can’t do better.

  • GrandmereB  on  January 18, 2022

    I have come to the same thoughts as you about recipe origins. I have seen many recipe contest winner have a recipe that is almost identical to another recipe I have seen or used.

  • TeresaRenee  on  January 21, 2022

    I try to credit my recipe sources and acknowledge my tweaking because I certainly don’t actually create any recipes.

    I grew up making Eiffler Red Brownies thinking that Eiffler was some kind of cooking term like bechemel. Eventually I found out that the Eifflers were my grandparents’ former neighbours and had shared their recipe with my grandmother.

    The chocolate zucchini cake recipe that my friend got from his mom appeared years later in a Bon Appetit anthology cookbook. It was pretty funny to realize that my super-exclusive “Darrell’s mom’s chocolate zucchini cake“ was available to everyone and had been for years.

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