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Cooking (and Contemplating) New England

Recipe Thieves Caught Red-Handed!


Having spent many happy hours sleuthing the sources of historic recipes, we were interested to read Priya Krishna's "Who Owns a Recipe? A Plagiarism Claim Has Cookbook Authors Asking" in the New York Times recently. The story covers many aspects of this currently controversial issue. But as with much food journalism, it truncates the historical dimension of the subject. "Recipe plagiarism has been around since the first American cookbooks" reads the caption to a picture in the article of renowned bookseller Bonnie Slotnick.


Well, plagiarism in English-language cookbooks has been around a lot longer than Simmons and American Cookery. Like so many aspects of American culinary culture, even this nefarious practice was imported from elsewhere.


For those interested in knowing more (it's an entertaining thread in food history, to be sure), we trace the origins of many recipes in two of our books: Northern Hospitality: Cooking By the Book in New England (University of Massachusetts Press, 2011) and United Tastes: The Making of the First American Cookbook (UMass Press, 2017). Here's a passage from our commentary in Northern Hospitality on the historic recipe, "To Roast a Goose," as it appears in E. Smith's The Compleat Housewife: "This recipe first appeared in the fourteenth edition of The Compleat Housewife, eighteen years after the author's death. In an amusing reversal of the fact that Glasse [The Art of Cookery] in her first edition of 1747, draws a good deal of her material from the earlier editions of Smith, all sections added to the post-1747 editions of Smith appear to be heavily indebted to Glasse. Most of the elements of this particular recipe are found in Glasse's three different sets of directions for roasting a goose." 


Having your goose cooked (or roasted) in eighteenth-century Britain, it would appear, involved two notable authors, Glasse and Smith, in a thievery duel--Glasse stealing from Smith, then a deceased Smith stealing from Glasse.


One more example, this one reaching across the Atlantic to Simmons and that first American cookbook. Simmons plagiarized an orange or lemon tart from Englishwoman Susannah Carter's The Frugal Housewife, (London, 1765, Boston ed., 1772; the link is to the 1796 edition online at Google Books), or perhaps she took it from an earlier work, namely the E. Smith, The Compleat Housewife (London, 1728; the link is to the 1729 edition online in Googe Books), which Carter also copied. Certainly, Susannah Carter's recipe is stolen from Smith. Carter uses Smith's exact phrasing, beginning with "Take six large Lemons, and rub them very well with Salt" (Smith) and "Take six large lemons, rub them very well with salt" (Carter), and continuing in like manner through the recipe. (The Carter recipe is on pp. 92-92 in the Google Books 1796 edition).


There are many clear-cut examples of plagiarism, as in the Smith/Glasse goose and the Simmons/Carter/Smith orange or lemon tart. But there are also plenty of borrowings that are not direct plagiarisms but are clearly "taken" neverthless. For example, Smith uses an icing for her citrus tart that is taken from Gervase Markham's tart icing in his work of the previous century, The English Hus-wife (London, 1615; the link is to the 1623 edition online at Google Books).


What can be learned from recipe--and sometimes whole cookbook section--plagiarism? Is it theft? It seems to us that the answer is a clear "yes" as to theft when verbatim phrasing is lifted, as it often was in centuries past and, in the NY Times example, is even today. It's a more ambiguous "yes" when influences are traceable but wording varies. What's interesting, in our view, from a historical perspective is the influence exerted by certain cookbook writers and their recipes over long periods of time and across great distances--as in the many borrowings in Amelia Simmons's book from her British forebears.


Is it theft? Yes! Is it fun to know that recipes have such lasting power to influence culinary culture? Also, yes!  


By the way, if you end up looking at Markham's The English Hus-wife (which we certainly recommend that you do), you might want to glance at one of the early entries in the book, "A Preservation Against the Plague." It involves dissolving a dram of "methridate" (a medieval, multi-ingredient, supposed antidote to poison) in warmed ale, probably no worse a cure than Ivermectin or hydroxychloroquin for the current plague. Is Markham's reference to methridate where our former president got the idea for his cure?

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