Recipe Blogs as Remix

I find most food blogs at best unoriginal, and at worst insulting. For those who aren’t perusing the foodie Internet regularly, these blogs are typically run by an individual who has left their (insert career here) to pursue cooking and (being a mom/making candles/running a farm) full-time. In many cases, these blogs read more like a catalogue of one family’s dinner than anything that comes close to resembling a more traditional recipe book intended for an audience to use. And perhaps for a cultural historian that information would prove useful and interesting. But, the stated function of these blogs is usually to provide instructions for creating a meal, and in many cases they aren’t adding anything new to the conversation.

For the most part, receipes are not protected under U.S. copyright. No one can, say, copyright a particular list of ingredients. What can be protected, though, must be a “substantial literary expression” according to the U.S. Copyright Office. Thus, if I take a list of ingredients from another blog without alterations, it’s not in violation as long as I write up the steps differently, take photos of the food, or explain my process. In a nutshell this is remix culture, where the arrangement of information creates a new piece.

But to distinguish a good remix from a bad one requires an examination of intention and addition. If the intention of the recipe is only to document one particular individual’s experience recreating a dish, that’s not a clearly delineated inventive process. The majority of the work is just mimicry. However, if the individual is taking a recipe and creating it within their own particular set of limitations—whether that’s altering, adding, or subtracting something—then the argument should stand that the remixed product and the documentation of that process is a form of invention. To further analyze this process, I aim to trace this development in the form of one particular recipe from one particular food blog I enjoy, Deb Perelman’s smitten kitchen.

I chose this particular recipe—Spring Chicken Salad Toasts—for a number of reasons. It’s one that is fairly simple, uses a variety of ingredients that are easily accessible just about anywhere in the US, and it’s got a clear origin point, i.e. Perelman adapted it from another recipe. Because I first found this recipe through her blog, I want to start with her version. The full blog post is available here.   

Immediately, the viewer is struck by the gorgeous photos of the ingredients, full of symmetrical lines and bright, spring colours. These images are communicating more than just what ingredients the viewer should have on hand—they are also setting the tone for this recipe. For a meal that’s intended to celebrate springtime, the images are playing up that desire for freshness and greenery after a winter of stews and soups. They also communicate an important bit of technical information; while the second photo shows small piles of the vegetables for the salad, it also gives the cook an idea of the size and shape of the slicing Perelman’s done for this recipe. This communicates incredibly helpful information to the cook, especially the cook who hasn’t made something like this before.

The next set of pictures do exactly the same thing, giving the cook an idea of the size of tearing Perlman’s doing to the cooked chicken. It’s followed by an image tagged “assembly,” indicating to the viewer that, yes, all these ingredients just get mixed up in a bowl. The last two shots on the page are final shots of the meal fully assembled, and the toasts are presented in a way that’s inviting and appetizing without being overly fussy.

Besides the images on this page, Perlman also writes a short introduction that explains why she chose this recipe and, a key component, why she changed particular ingredients and steps from the recipe that inspired her. This is such a key element because it illustrates her own inventive process. Without the context, the reader is left guessing at the reason behind the changes.

Her writing itself also speaks to the larger theme of the piece, as evidenced by the first lines: “If taking cubes of chicken and other things chosen for their ability to hold up in a deli case and suspending them in a thick dressing of mayo and seasonings is the winter coat of chicken salad, this is the cardigan, which is to say, I hope everyone is as happy to see it as I am. I live for cardigan weather.” By reinforcing that idea of this recipe as something larger than itself, something that speaks not just to a need for nourishment but a desire to celebrate a changing season (and with it, changing ingredients), Perelman situates her work into a broader context. Food in this case isn’t just about eating; it’s also about communion and celebration of a particular time and place. These are those literary elements that are copyrightable; she’s crafted an original idea out of a simple list of ingredients.

To further illustrate this, I want to take a look at the original recipe she adapted this from. It’s posted on the healthyish blog of Bon Appetit magazine, originally titled “Chicken Salad With Crème Fraîche And Rye.” There are obvious elements in common with Perelman’s adaptation, including the toast, the presentation of the salad, and a few of the ingredients such as creme fraiche, cucumber, and scallions.

However, the major flavor components of each are vastly different. Perleman’s emphasizes the biting tang of horseradish while the BA version is more subdued with lemon and fennel. The BA version also only has one picture and one short sentence: “We’d serve this dressed-down chicken salad for brunch, pack it for lunch, or make it as a light dinner on a hot summer night.” There is no call for celebration here; the recipe has a much more utilitarian approach. It was originally published in Jessica Koslow’s cookbook Everything I Want to Eat: Sqirl and the New California Cooking, and perhaps that version is more artistic in its presentation. But for the individual dealing in online recipe collecting, the Bon Appetit version offers little beyond the basics.

Finally, I want to turn to my own process with this recipe as a way to illustrate how adaptation and remix in recipe creation can be called original. While my argument rests on the idea that Perlman’s adjustments count as inventive, by using myself as a test subject I can better illustrate the physicality of the steps and mental processes necessary for creation. To that end, I created a version of this recipe for dinner one night, along with my own adaptations.

First off, finding good rye bread in the city of Wichita is nearly impossible, as well as chicken that is both skin-on and bone-in, and Persian cucumbers. Immediately I had to make some substitutions, including altering the type and amount of chicken to buy, the bread I ended up using (a version of the “dense health bread” Perelman recommends), and a regular cuke for a smaller one. From there, I had to adjust the cooking temperature and time for my finicky oven. Perelman also doesn’t write out each of the steps for slicing and dicing the vegetables, as well as when to create the horseradish creme fraiche, which I did while the chicken was cooking. I had to de-seed the cucumber as well, and determine how much of it made sense to use for my personal preference since I didn’t buy one of the smaller varieties. I also didn’t stick directly to her measurements—I never measure salt and pepper, for instance, because I use spice grinders, and I added at least a teaspoon more horseradish to my creme fraiche then she calls for. Because the amount of chicken I used also skewed the recipe, I blended in additional vegetables for balance.  I intended to garnish my dish with parsley and dill, but realized at the last minute dill was all I had. Each of these decisions required me to think about the flavor and balance of the dish, and also forced me to analyze how best to proceed in cases of differing opinions.

Perhaps the most monumental change I made was for my partner. Because he is avoiding bread altogether, he ate his meal over a bed of arugula and spinach. In fact, I ate the leftovers this way as well, and felt like this further emphasized the spring-y feel of the meal, while lightening the caloric load. I have since adapted the horseradish creme fraiche into a dip for veggies, and by changing the use of individual components have furthered the reach of the original recipe.

From here, I have posted a copy of this analysis online (meta!). By continuing the tradition of adaptation and remix, I am adding to the conversation about recipe creation and sharing those thoughts with the larger public. Indeed, the blog post itself brings this analysis full-circle. Am I now one of those individuals whose posts are no longer useful or relevant to the creation of recipes and meals because it focuses on the theory behind receipe-creating itself? Have I left my job as a graduate teaching assistant to pursue cooking and being unemployed full-time?

I say no. By situating this discussion in the context of academic analysis, I am pushing the “low-brow” art of recipe-writing into the realm of scholarship. That, in and of itself, is a form of original creation that is wholly my invention, inspired by Deb Perlman’s original post.

My own first-round version of Spring Chicken Salad Toasts.

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