Cooking the Books by Pen Vogler

Pen Vogler

Cooking the Books


Who owns a recipe? Although the publishing and legal worlds in the USA and UK today agree that you cannot copyright a list of ingredients and instructions, the food world is full of fights over rights. Some restaurants and chefs, particularly in the USA, scrap over the rights to signature dishes created by the cook in the restaurant’s kitchens. The Indian courts are currently arbitrating two competing claims to the original recipe for butter chicken. Scuffles over the alleged appropriation of recipes regularly break out on social media.

The question of who owns a recipe turns out, unsurprisingly, to have emerged when people began to benefit, financially or reputationally, from recipes. It has troubled the culinary world since the radical business model of cookbook publishing was developed around 1600. Before this, training for (male) chefs was a matter of kitchen apprenticeship. Women bequeathed their domestic secrets to the next generation in household books containing handwritten recipes circulated among their social circle – a practice that continued even after published cookbooks became available. Rebecca Price’s Receipt Book, proudly bound in leather in 1681 when she was just twenty-one, contains recipes gleaned from neighbours, family and the housekeeper, and one ‘taken out of

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