Half a Loaf

When bakers break up, who gets custody of the recipes?

How to protect a creation that can take weeks or years to perfect? This has ever bedeviled inventors, but has been particularly vexing for people who try to make their living by cooking. Recipes are practically impossible to copyright. Famous examples of chefs who spawned a thousand imitations include Johanne Killeen and George Germon, who claim to have invented grilled pizza or at least to have been the first to popularize it. I will gladly go many miles to Al Forno, their Providence restaurant, to enjoy it. But even though they published the recipe in their first cookbook and get credit on Wikipedia, they haven’t gotten a commission from the hundreds of chefs who put grilled pizza on their menus, or royalties from the Web sites that print their original recipe—let alone from the thousands of sites that feature recipes for grilled pizza.

Intellectual property in the age of the Internet has been a thorn in the side of every writer, but cookbook writers feel like so many Saint Sebastians, regularly seeing their recipes printed word for word on Web sites without attribution. Barbara Kafka, the author of many books including Soup: A Way of Life and Roasting: A Simple Art, first brought this to my attention. About 30 of her recipes, she said, appeared unattributed on the provocatively named otherpeoplesrecipes.com, and she’d seen plenty more very familiar but nameless recipes on other sites. Before the Internet, writers who discovered their recipes in other books could demand credit in later printings, as Barbara Tropp, author of The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking, did with Martha Stewart’s seminal Entertaining. Many years ago, I raised my own minor ruckus when I discovered a recipe I had published in this magazine in the galleys of a new book by a very famous baker. The recipe was for almond biscotti (biscotti di Prato), in the days when the very word was new to American cookie culture, and I made 18 batches before getting the glass-crunchy texture I was determined to achieve. “Adapted from” my recipe, the introductory note said. What followed was a recipe identical in ingredients, instructions, and timings. Flattered though I was by her claim that this was the one cookie she could never be without, I protested. The author devised a new version with butter (my recipe was fatless save for eggs and nuts), leaving my biscotti to remain my small contribution to the ages.

Those days seem very quaint. Uncredited reprints in books can require redress or, at the least, acknowledgment, because other authors can profit from purloined work (we won’t go into the current state of the cookbook business). But the already elastic rules of “fair use” get very stretchy on the Internet. Blogs are generally written with no view (or realistic hope) of profit in mind; sites that do sell advertising can easily lift recipes whose attributions have already been shorn. Angry authors are left to start their own blogs (as Kafka has), placing book-buying links front and center, and hope for the brass ring—a TV show.

Reserving rights to a recipe is even harder once a dish goes onto a menu. Chefs constantly look to other chefs for ideas. Daniel Boulud’s sea bass roasted in paper-thin potato slices that look like fish scales was one of the most copied dishes of the 1980s; Nobu Matsuhisa’s miso-marinated black cod that of the 1990s; David Chang’s irresistibly fatty Berkshire pork shoulder at his Momofuku Ssäm Bar, in New York, will probably be so flattered. Those dishes don’t get credit on other people’s menus, let alone spin royalties. Chefs who want to turn their names into money look elsewhere: TV shows, magazines, product lines, licensing and franchise agreements, and today’s kitchen jackpot—a Las Vegas location.

If nothing is new in food, as someone invariably points out in such discussions, think of the challenges that face anyone dedicated to the staff of life. Flour, water, and yeast are Old Testament elemental. The idea of patenting a bread seems antithetical to the generous spirit that moves most cooks and, I would add, nearly every baker. (To my mind pretty much everything besides bread is a dietary supplement.) Since The Italian Baker was published, in 1985, I have watched several of Carol Field’s recipes and techniques for previously unknown Italian breads spread across the land like the sloppy, barely yeasted, unmanageably wet doughs that, as her book taught, result in the lightest, best-flavored bread. She’s seldom credited, of course.

An early Field adherent has long been my favorite baker in New York: Jim Lahey, who opened the Sullivan St Bakery in 1994 selling breads no one in the city had made before. Some of them he discovered by going to towns Field mentioned, like Genzano, south of Rome, where he found the bread that inspired his filone (“fat thread,” a word sometimes used for baguettes)—a holey loaf shaped like a small dachshund or a 1920s floor-model vacuum cleaner. Like most of his signature breads, it’s dark and crisp-crusted, with a light, airy crumb and a bare tang. With its unmistakable circular slice, the filone soon turned up in discerning restaurants’ bread baskets, and so did pane pugliese, a flatter loaf made with the same dough; Lahey named it in honor of the southern Italian region famous for its bread (no loaf in Italy is called “pugliese”). Sullivan St became the name to look and ask for, and the bakery’s one retail outlet, in SoHo, became the place to go for the incredibly airy, oil-brushed, lightly salted pizza bianca, which is even better than that of the bakery in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori, Lahey’s model and mentor. (“Sullivan” seems to have good associations with good bread: the big bang of American bread was the opening of Steve Sullivan’s Acme Bread, in the Bay Area, in 1983.)

Outside of restaurants, though, the bread could be hard to come by. So at the end of last year, I was delighted to discover a small storefront selling all the familiar Sullivan St breads and two cookies that, like everything Sullivan St makes, are exemplary: biscotti pratesi (almost as good as mine) and ossi di morti, shatter-light meringues with almonds. The location, at 72nd Street and Broadway, was convenient to my brother’s apartment, where I stay, and perfect for buying and packing a loaf of the incomparable sesame bread—not just scattered with but rolled in a dense bed of sesame seeds—just before going to the airport. The name was unfamiliar: Grandaisy, with a pretty pale-blue daisy logo on the bags. The clerks reassured me that indeed, the bread was the same.

Sort of. When I recently ran into Lahey, a longtime acquaintance and an inexhaustible source of pungent, often profanity-strewn, quotes, I told him how happy I was finally to be able to buy Sullivan St breads every time I came to New York. “Those aren’t Sullivan St breads,” he said drily. Whaat?

The explanation, I learned when I went to see Lahey at his new Sullivan St Bakery headquarters in the far-west reaches of Hell’s Kitchen, was a romantic breakup that devolved into a rocky professional partnership that ended in a complete business split. Now there were two bakeries with two different names selling breads and cookies identically named and to all appearances utterly identical, one owned by Lahey and the other by his former partner, Monica Von Thun Calderón. Talk about confusion in the marketplace! I was certainly confused. I wondered how the Siamese twins had been parted, and how the twin breads would taste when reunited and compared.

I was put in mind of a much better-known baking breakup, which coincidentally has put two more bakeries on the Upper West Side selling very similar products: that of the two founders of Magnolia Bakery, which shot to fame after its way-too-cute cupcakes provided consolation to the women on Sex and the City. The television exposure started a cupcake craze in which tourists make pilgrimages to the West Village original (it’s a wonder there aren’t Japanese tourists dressed as cupcakes, or at least as Samantha). In a non-cute spat that delighted tabloids, the two women parted ways, and one of them opened a rival bakery called Buttercup Bake Shop. The owner of Buttercup (Magnolia has changed hands) did not want to talk to me about the split. But I noted with interest that when I asked for Magnolia Bakery on a call to 800-GOOG411, the free voice-activated directory-assistance service, the first listing I got was for Buttercup. (Maybe Google really is omniscient: Buttercup is the much better baker.)

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Corby Kummer is an Atlantic senior editor. More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

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