Dare Not to Speak the Name: The Foul Art of Plagiarism in Cookery Books

Poor Hannah Glasse. Literally!

Except for Martha Stewart, Glasse may be one of the few cookery book writers who did hard time for financial woes. Author of The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747), this eighteenth-century cookery-book writer lived a life that her contemporary Jane Austen might have invented for a character in one of her novels.

You know, young illegitimate daughter of a moneyed gentleman marries n’er-do-well rogue, bears eight children, and ends up on the scrap heap, faced with the need to make money to survive. So, instead of turning to prostitution, she wrote a cookery book that sold and sold and sold, even in the New World where her words seasoned the pots of squirrel or venison bubbling away on remote Virginia plantations.

But no matter. Human nature being what it is, the lure of lucre soon landed her in the Marshalsea debtor’s prison. Afterward, the authorities transferred her to Fleet Prison, where she spent months, longing no doubt for a steaming bowl of eel soup or a piece of eel pie. Altogether she included twelve recipes for eel in her book, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy.

Mushroom Pickle receipt from Ann Cook
Mushroom Pickle receipt from Ann Cook

One misstep that she didn’t go to prison for was plagiarism, although Ann Cook in Professed Cookery (1754) raked Glasse over the coals for plagiarism and a multitude of other sins, snarling in a poetical “Note to the Reader” that Glasse stole recipes “from ev’ry Author to her Book, Infamously branding the pillag’d Cook,/ with Trick, Booby, Juggler, Legerdemain,/Right Pages to bear up vain Glory’s Train./Can this be Honour to the British Nation,/To gild her Book with Defamation?” (p. iv) All in all, Cook devoted 68 pages to tearing up Mrs. Glasse and her work.

Mushroom Pickle receipt, from Ann Cook
Mushroom Pickle receipt, from Hannah Glasse

Martha Stewart also got called on the carpet for plagiarism, a practice not at all unique in the writing of cookery books, at least not historically. What is plagiarism?

To plagiarize is different than copyright violation,  a complex topic and not one to be tackled in a short blog post. Might we say that underlying plagiarism lies ego, sense of self, and individualism?

Merriam-Webster defines it as:


 noun \ˈplā-jə-ˌri-zəm also -jē-ə-\

: the act of using another person’s words or ideas without giving credit to that person : the act of plagiarizing something

Over the centuries, since cookery books first developed, rampant plagiarism allowed cookery ideas and techniques to spread widely.

In The Cookbook Library (2012), Anne Willan suggests that, in her opinion anyway, four manuscript and four printed cookery books form the canon of the Western cookery book, the ancestry and provenance, if you will. Simply put, many ideas contained within modern cookery stem from those first books and the traditions upon which they were created. Here are the four + four:

Manuscript books

Forme of Cury (1390s)

Le Ménagier de Paris (1393)

Kitāb al-tabīkh (10th century)

De re coquinaria (4-5th century)

Printed Books

De honesta voluptate et valetudine (Platina,1474)

Küchenmeisterei (1480)

Le Viandier (Taillevent/Guillaume Tirel, 1486)

Boke of Cury (1500)

Plagiarism and copyright infringement mean different things, according to the times and the place. The first law related to copyright – Copyright Act of 1709 – did not cover the snitching of recipes and claiming them as one’s own. As the saying goes, it’s complicated, the practice of writing cookery books without trodding on the turf of another writer. After all, what’s new in the kitchen and under the sun? Not a whole lot, really. Newton had the right idea, which Anne Willan manifests in her theory of the four + four: all cookery writers stand on the shoulders of giants. Or at least on the rim of the pot.

But the truth is that, at least in the West, authors often overlook attribution in recipes. Mary Cole, the English author of The Lady’s Complete Guide: or Cookery in All Its Branches (1788) clearly stated her sources, mentioning somewhat sardonically that Mrs. Glasse included a recipe, “To Dress a Saddle à St. Menehout” on page 69 of The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, giving no attribution. Mrs. Cole indicated that she derived her recipe from Mrs. Mason’s Ladies Assistant, page 165.

One reason for the increasing propriety when it comes to recipes has roots in the shift to individualism, a trait that grew out of Romanticism. I might add that such concern for the individual actually began with the love stories of the Age of Chivalry, seen in such works as the lais of Marie de France.

Take, for example, Martha Stewart’s Entertaining, a lush, flower-filled book of dreams, which epitomizes modern cookery books as aspirational literature. At the time, the early 1980s, Martha ran a catering business out of her restored historic home in Connecticut and handled much of the work herself. Later, her magazine – Martha Stewart Living – encouraged homemakers male or female, but mostly female, to carve Halloween pumpkins to look like pirates or horses, to accomplish the whole myriad series of tasks that make a house a home. She could be called the Mrs. Beeton or the Hannah Glasse of the 21st century, for her work brings back the art of household management, bestowing upon the word “housewife” a respected gloss and a glimmer of the value owed to the work produced by housewives. That housewifery could be creative as well as drudgery shines through every book, every magazine article.

Backlash? Of course. For while, the cool, the in thing was to hate Martha Stewart, because she “set a bad precedent for women,” as Claire Holm wrote in the Milwaukee Sentinel on November 9, 1994. And then there’s Just Desserts, an unauthorized biography by Jerry Oppenheimer, thrusting pins into Martha with quotes from bilious co-workers and others on whose toes Martha allegedly trod. Martha’s like liver – either hate or love, but no in-between.

But I digress.

Early in the 1980s, 1982 to be exact, Martha Stewart, a vibrant and ambitious woman, waggled her finger at the feminist movement and published said Entertaining, a glossy tome that eventually propelled her into fame. One of the recipes she included in this frankly beautiful and inspiring book, Strange-Flavor Fish, sounded and looked like something easily made for the Chinese dinner featured in Stewart’s book.

Martha Strange Flavor Fish
Martha Stewart’s recipe for Strange=Flavor Fish – note the ingredients.

Never mind that later cookery writer Barbara Tropp accused Martha of recipe theft.

A few critics even claimed that some of the recipes [from Martha Stewart’s Entertaining] were plagiarized, or taken from other published sources without permission. Stewart dismissed accusations that she plagiarized on purpose. She claimed that she had been collecting and adapting recipes for years from many places and had not taken exact recipes from other books. But author Barbara Tropp proved that Entertaining included several recipes from her book, The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking. Tropp and Stewart reportedly resolved the matter without going to court.” (Martha Stewart, by Ann Kerns, p. 61)

In later printings of Entertaining, Martha credited Tropp, via a small slip of paper inserted inside the books, attributing the recipes to her.

Barbara Tropp's recipe for Strange-Flavor Fish - note the ingredients
Barbara Tropp’s recipe for Strange-Flavor Fish – note the ingredients

Around the same time that Martha’s Entertaining enraptured a lot of people, Hannah Glasse came under scrutiny. Jennifer Stead applied a textual microscope to The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy and concluded that Glasse relied heavily on a previous cookbook, The Whole Duty of a Woman (1737), and others for many of her recipes. Fiona Lucraft applied the same treatment to John Farley’s work, concluding that his major muse likely was Mrs. Raffald.

And the discussion will no doubt continue on for some time to come. The rights to individual work reflects the intellectual history of the times, and how changes occur in thoughts, attitudes, and perceptions. It’s a thin, red line between adapting, inspired by, and outright verbatim plagiarism.

For more about plagiarism and cookery books:

Davidson, Alan. “Acknowledging Sources.” Food in Motion: The Migration of Foodstuffs and Cookery Techniques. Oxford Symposium on Food and Drink Proceedings, 1983, p. 2-7.

Dodds, Madeleine Hope. “The Rival Cooks: Hannah Glasse and Ann Cook.” Archaeologia Aeliana, Series 4. 15: 43 – 68. 1938.

Lucraft, Fiona.”The London Art of Plagiarism.” Petits Propos Culinaires 42: 7 – 24, 1992 and 43: 34 – 46, 1993.

Mennell, Stephen. “Plagiarism and Originality – Diffusionism in the Study of the History of Cookery.” Petits Propos Culinaires 68: 29 – 38, 2001.

Stead, Jennifer. “Quizzing Glasse: or Hannah Scrutinized.” Petits Propos Culinaires 13: 9 -24 and 14: 17 – 30, 1983.

Targett, Peter. “Richard Johnson or John Farley?” Petits Propos Culinaires 58: 31 – 33, 1998.

© 2016 C. Bertelsen



64 thoughts on “Dare Not to Speak the Name: The Foul Art of Plagiarism in Cookery Books

  1. This is an excellent post, great insight into the early world of cookery books. I used some of these sources for a recent book on seafood history and on more than one occasion authors would copy a recipe word for word from an earlier work.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very interesting materials! I’ve been curious about plagiarism and copyright laws regarding recipes lately because I’ve recommitted to my own blog and it’s mostly about food.
    How many ingredients does one need a o change, add, or substitute before one can print the recipe (or post it, as it were) as one’s own. And how many ways can one say ” chop the onion in a fine dice?”
    Anyway, I enjoyed your post very much. Well researched, with very good photos and references. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Fascinating article. I have a collection of cookbooks, as I’m sure do most of us home cooks, and I often see similarities among so many recipes, even across different cultures. I’m sure plagiarism goes on much more often than we realize. My thought is that there are only so many ways of cooking certain things, like fish or chicken, so that they taste good, so there are likely instances of inadvertent plagiarism. Even when I cook and follow someone else’s recipe, I always give them credit and always tweak the recipe to give it some kind of uniqueness that’s my own. I’m sure most people do this……that’s probably how a lot of people have learned to cook. This was a great post! I truly enjoyed reading it and it definitely made me think.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. On the subject of eels… Londoners particularly in the East end of the city love them… As a child I watched live ones being chopped up and scraped into huge buckets of jelly at the market. I however have never quite fancied eating them… Jellied eels look gross but Pickled Herrings though are my favorites!

    Liked by 6 people

  5. Yeah, there’s pretty much nothing that hasn’t been done before. Sometimes I think I’ve made up a new recipe and then when I’m looking for something else new, I’ll find my “originals” were actually not so original since there already there in somebody’s book. Being creative is part of the fun of cooking, but taking it to the next level and trying to publish it would be a disaster. Now with every combination being a Google away, I’m sure there are so many more people to claim, the recipes. Thanks for sharing the history.

    Liked by 7 people

  6. Great read! If you ask me the recipe/cookbook world is unregulated. One reason is that people don’t consider recipes intellectual property because women cooks aren’t taken seriously as business women. (Nonsense of course). Coincidentally, I’ve just written about “Deliciously Ella” copying recipes and denying it outright! She gets away with it because she can pretend to be just a girl having a nice time cooking, when actually she’s making lots of money. Hope it’s of interest. https://darlingnowcom.wordpress.com/2016/07/17/did-deliciously-ella-borrow-a-recipe-from-my-new-roots/

    Liked by 7 people

  7. The subject is covered even more fully in p108ff of “The Official Foodie Handbook” (1984) by Ann Barr and me, as we had the help of Richard Olney, who had been suing Richard Nelson.

    Liked by 6 people

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