Petty Aunts and Stolen Broccoli

Who owns a recipe?

How do you know?

Does it matter?

The answers to these questions are not absolute or universal, but rather rooted in beliefs about skill, expertise, knowledge, and the value of food and cooking. Consider how the characters in this absurdly catchy (and recently viral) TikTok music video would respond to the questions above:

To Helen, a recipe is a tangible, possessable object, one which can be quite valuable. And she most certainly would agree that a recipe’s ownership matters – she has held a grudge against Caroline for 8 years! And Helen’s interlocutors agree that this accusation is one of high stakes. Doris comes to her friend’s defense in ALL CAPS, certain that Caroline, or any woman of faith, would never commit so grave an offense as to steal a recipe.

But the conflict itself reveals how difficult it is to know who owns a recipe. As food scholar KC Hysmith explained in a follow-on TikTok:

“Recipe accreditation relies on a code of semi-formal ethics shared throughout the food industry from culinary professionals and home cooks to expert food writing publications and budding food bloggers. This ethics was built upon a system of understanding handed down by generations of women who used recipes and cooking knowledges as a form of communication, agency, and social acumen.”

@foodherstory

like @lubalin says, be careful who your friends are, bc US copyright law isn’t one of them. #foodhistory #recipe #broccoli #casserole #homemade #fyp

♬ original sound – Lubalin

Hysmith’s response indicates that recipe theft is considered a violation in part because the stakes of women’s culinary accomplishments have often been high. When women are permitted power and control in few sites outside the domestic kitchen, one’s contribution to the neighborhood potluck can shape self-image and social standing.

But not everyone agrees with Helen’s conception of recipe ownership. The video’s creator, Lubalin, and his intended audience would have strikingly different answers to the questions that opened this blog post.

Lubalin’s hashtags of #oldpeoplefacebook and #boomer (and faithful pronunciation of typos), indicate this is a generational joke, a high-production-value music video drama that caricatures boomer ‘irrationality.’ Of his ‘Turning Random Internet Drama into Songs’ video series, Lubalin said, “at some point I thought, what if you took something really silly and then spent days carefully crafting something beautiful around it? How funny would that be?”  Lubalin sees Helen’s accusation of Caroline and threat to Doris as humorous, and belittles the exchange as ‘silly.’  He made an extremely catchy and well-produced video in response to this Facebook exchange, because he assumed that TikTok users (a majority of whom are Gen Zs and Millennials), would laugh along with him.

But the joke of this video only lands if you think recipe ownership is a silly thing to squabble over; if every viewer of the video had, like Helen, held a grudge against a recipe thief in their own lives, the video likely wouldn’t have found such success. Lubalin and his imagined viewer do not consider recipe authorship to be a major concern, worthy of interpersonal conflict, and this video’s millions of views and likes indicate to me that beliefs about recipe ownership are shifting over time and generation.

In another corner of the internet, an anonymous Gen Zer or Millennial lashed out at an ‘old-fashioned’ conception of recipe ownership in November 2020 with a recipe card on PostSecret, a long-running art project and website sharing images of secrets mailed in by strangers on postcards.

The grandchild is so enraged by their “vindictive” aunts’ beliefs about recipes ownership that they took revenge by using an internet art project as a recipe WikiLeaks.  This is an even more explicit generational rebuke of recipe ownership – and it very much resonated with PostSecret’s audience.

This recipe was nicknamed ‘Petty Aunt Pie’ by the many PostSecret followers who, in support of the grandchild, followed the recipe and baked the pie.  A young couple even got engaged while baking the ‘Petty Aunt Pie’ and sent in a photo, which was then posted on the website, along with several photos of fan’s completed pies. 

This recipe postcard sparked significant community response, and those who agreed with the grandchild’s belief that recipes should be freely available to all (preferably online) baked an Apple Cream Pie as a means of protesting the aunts’ desire for exclusive control over the recipe.

These two internet moments, while couched in humor, are sites of conflict: a contest between two conceptions of recipe ownership, battling out over time online and on kitchen counters. One position (that of Helen and the aunts), holds that recipe authorship matters, and that the author has a right to exclusive control and ownership over that recipe. The other position (that of Lubalin and the Petty Aunt Pie bakers) considers recipes to be collective goods – something to be shared by all online in a recipe tech utopia.

Whose side are you on?

Head Photo: Screenshot of TikTok by Lubalin. Apple Pie photos: Screenshots from PostSecret via the Wayback Machine.

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