The Best Damn Meyer Lemon Cake

by Lori on March 3, 2011

Something’s been bugging me for a while.  And while I really don’t like to use this blog as a soapbox or a platform to postulate the intent or activities of others, a pattern has emerged and it raises a question in my mind that begs for an answer, if there is one.  I touched on it in a previous post and encountered the same situation with the recipe I’m featuring today.

How much does a recipe need to be changed before someone calls it their own?

Those of you who regularly read this blog, which by the way I appreciate more than words can express, know I have a group of cookbooks that I refer to as old.  By this I mean that they were published in the 1970s or earlier — which really isn’t that old but stay with me on this — and I enjoy delving into them when researching or resurrecting recipes.  I am continually impressed to see a significant number of recipes would more than likely be found in the recipe box of many home cooks today.  (The only exception to this would be the various recipes for aspic — that gelatinous meat-flavored stock or consomme used to mold meats and vegetables into the equivalent of a jello salad.)  Quite a few have staying power, which I would assume puts them into the category of heirloom-type recipes.  That is to say they are handed-down between generations of families and shared amongst friends.

So, when I recently browsed the Saveur website and landed on a recipe called The Best Damn Meyer Lemon Cake, I was intrigued by the title and by the fact that anyone would go so far as to label something as “the best.”  As I read through the recipe, I had one of those moments where my subconscious tapped my conscious mind on the shoulder and said, “Psst.  Go look back in that old cookbook from the Pasadena Junior League” which I did.  Low and behold I was staring at a recipe published in a cookbook from 1976 that was nearly identical in ingredients, proportions and method to The Best Damn Lemon Cake recipe that was originally published in 1982, which used regular lemons.  Interesting.

For the purpose of this discussion, wouldn’t it seem logical to conclude that someone in Pasadena theoretically beat the highly-acclaimed author of the 1982 cookbook to the punch?  Technically, the publishing dates alone validate this thought.  Is it reasonable to assume the Pasadena woman who submitted the recipe for Very Lemon Bread– odd title, but still — probably pulled that from her own recipe box or that of a friend well before the cookbook’s 1976 publication date?  I think so.  But there are clearly some unknowns here and the chicken and the egg question notwithstanding, it seems that something isn’t quite right. 

Whose recipe is it?  Can there be a Very Lemon Bread one year and The Best Damn Lemon Cake six years later with virtually the same ingredients and slight measurement adjustments? Is this just the luck of the draw as to who got there first in terms of publishing the recipe?

In all fairness, I have not been able to get my hands on the cookbook (my library doesn’t have it and I don’t plan on purchasing it) published in 1982 that contains The Best Damn Lemon Cake recipe to see if an explanation about the recipe’s origin was provided, so my argument has a hole there.  I’m searching other nearby libraries because my curiosity is peaked.  But this comparison and the similarities between the two are one of many that I have come across over this past year, and it almost always involves baked goods and recipes found in some of my old cook books. 

But my question still remains: How much does a recipe need to be changed before someone else puts their name on it, claims it as their own and possibly makes a profit from it?  I am no closer to an answer and more puzzled than before.  In a time when everyone seems to have a blog, attribution of my own work and that of others is a big concern.  It was something that was drilled into my head back in college; you always cited your sources lest you be labeled a plagiarist or copycat.  But clearly not everyone feels the same way or follows the rules.  Altering another recipe by a tablespoon here or there and calling it your own seems like it could result in an unpleasant trip down the copyright infringement path, if you ask me.  I am not sure if that was the case 35 years ago.  There was no information super-highway back then; many things may have gone unnoticed.  There were cookbooks and newspapers with featured recipes, and I’m sure many home cooks tweaked and swapped recipes and called them their own.  I have to imagine cookbook deals were by no means easier to wrangle and maybe the candidate pool was much smaller than it is now. 

So while it may seem strange that I am actually featuring the latest recipe that ruffled my feathers, it is by no means reflective of the recipe itself.  I would have made the Very Lemon Bread from the California Heritage Cookbook, but as I said, the recipes were so similar, so I went with the one that had slightly more melted butter in the batter, which has never steered me wrong in the past.  This is indeed a delicious, modest-sized lemon cake and definitely worth your time while the Meyer lemons are still in season.  It packs a moist, lemony punch in a not overly sweet kind of way.  Coating the pan with bread crumbs resulted in crunchy, toasty bits on the bottom of the cake that eventually soften slightly during the 24-hour resting period.

I don’t know if there’s a who’s-right-or-who’s-wrong question in this instance, because it seems like everyone has their hands in this one.  You can expect an update to this post very soon because I’m taking on the Very Lemon Bread recipe this weekend for the purpose of comparison.  In the meantime, I’d like to rename this recipe and call it The Old Lady From Pasadena’s Very Best Damn Meyer Lemon Cake Bread.  I think she needs a little attribution of her own after all these years.

THE BEST DAMN MEYER LEMON CAKE
Recipe from Saveur who adapted it from Maida Heatter

1 tablespoon butter (solid), plus 8 tablespoons melted
2 tablespoons fine dry breadcrumbs
1/2 cup whole blanched almonds (I used slivered almonds)
1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon fine salt
1 1/3 cups plus 2 tablespoons sugar
2 eggs
1/2 cup milk, at room temperature
2 tablespoons lemon extract
Zest and juice of 2 Meyer lemons

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees F.  Grease loaf pan measuring 8 1/2″ x 4 1/2″ x 2 3/4″ with 1 tablespoon of the butter and dust it with the bread crumbs.  Invert and tap out excess crumbs; set aside.  In a food processor, grind the almonds until very fine, about 1 minute; set aside.  In a bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, and salt and set aside.

2. Put the remaining butter into a large bowl and add 1 cup of the sugar.  Mix with an electric mixer on low speed until combined, about 1 minute.  Add the eggs, one at a time, beating just long enough to incorporate, about 30 seconds.  Add the flour mixture and milk in 3 batches, beginning and ending with the flour.  Beat until mixed after each addition, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula, about 3 minutes total.  Mix in the lemon extract.  With the spatula, fold in the lemon zest and ground almonds.  (The mixture will be thin.)  Turn batter into prepared pan and bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean and dry, about 60-65 minutes.

3. Transfer the pan to a cooling rack.  Prepare the glaze: Combine remaining sugar and lemon juice in a small saucepan over medium heat and cook, stirring until the sugar is dissolved, about 2 minutes.  (Do not boil.)  Brush the glaze over the hot cake.  (The excess liquid may pool along the sides of the pan; it will absorb completely as it sits.)  Once the cake has absorbed all the liquid, turn it out of the pan and allow it to cool upright on a rack.  Once it’s cool, wrap the cake with plastic wrap and let it stand at room temperature for 24 hours before serving.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Anonymous March 3, 2011 at 11:42 pm

My hubby and I had a similar conversation about this after I complained about a top rated tilapia recipe on AllRecipes that is exactly the same as one I have in a Hospice Cookbook from my hometown, he compared it to code, computer code and his point was that there truly are no new codes, they all build on older codes.

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Lauren @ Healthy Food For Living March 4, 2011 at 12:10 am

I am on the same exact page as you! Just the other day, I stumbled upon another blogger's post for a recipe that was pretty darn close to one I had posted months ago… and the author did not link back to my post. I would love to assume that the honor code applies to recipes, but apparently it does not. I decided to chalk it up to the "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery" philosophy, but if I ever decided to write a cookbook, I sincerely hope that people would give me credit where it is due.

That being said, this meyer lemon cake does look damn good ;).

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Anonymous March 4, 2011 at 12:22 am

I am an academic so I write books and articles for a living. What you have described from Cook's Illustrated sounds like blatant plagiarism. It is a legal offense as well as an ethical one.

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Lemons and Lavender March 4, 2011 at 1:09 am

Anonymous commenter #1, I agree and it's pretty much the same with recipes. Honestly how much can some of the standards really change?

Lauren, we can only hope! Sadly there are a lot of subtle changes and new ownership of old recipes. And the cake is damn good, by the way!

Anonymous commenter #2, I didn't reference Cook's Illustrated in my post, and I haven't found any impropriety with them. The responsibly cite their sources from what I've seen thus far. Thank you for commenting.

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Tracy Mehlin March 4, 2011 at 5:09 am

I think many recipes are derivative works, building on the basic ideas of what came before.
Which is perfectly fine. The lemon bread recipe's author drew on her experience of reading and making other recipes and I think it would be hard to prove her creation was truly original.
I also think no manifestation of a recipe, the actual food made, can ever really be identical from one batch to the next, one cook to the next. There are so many variables,like which brand of butter was used and the quality of the tap water, not to mention the age of the baking powder. (Cooks Illustrated recommends you buy new baking powder every 6-8 months! Who knew?)

Copying the basic recipe with your tweaks with attribution or "inspired by …" is ethical in my book. And apparently it's legal to copy a published recipe as long as the description and explanation is your own. (http://www.copyright.gov/fls/fl122.html)
@Anonymous #2: are you kidding? You think academic standards should apply to cooking? That would never work. We'd have pages of citations for every step in the process!

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Rochel @ barefootandcooking March 4, 2011 at 5:51 am

Interesting discussion. I know from a legal point of view there is no copyright on an ingredient list. However, the preparation/method/instructions does have copyright protection. So to be legally clear one has to rewrite it "in your own words."

Personally, however, as a blogger I always mention it if the recipe is directly from, adapted, or inspired by a particular recipe elsewhere. I don't think it makes me any less of a recipe developer to learn from anyone else.

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Anonymous March 4, 2011 at 7:12 pm

Thank you for this very interesting and topical post.This is a question that I have thought about for a long time. Although I agree with the idea of recognizing the original source whenever possible it would be very difficult to go all the way to claim plagiarism. When I was in pastry school I began to realize that the chemical processes that occur in baking limit the variations of the ingredients to begin with. Although it may seem that there are endless combinations available to a baker I am sure that you would find that if you look at all of the lemon cake recipies that have been written any possibilities of ingredient combinations and substitutions begin to narrow greatly. I would also think thatif you reviewed all of the lemon cake/bread recipies that have been written over years and years you would probably find the same recipe attributed to different people many times over. To a degree it is the very nature of baking(or cooking) as most people in these fields tend to like to share recipes and that makes it even more difficult to be completely original or claim a recipe as your own. I tend to make changes to most recipes that I use as I adjust ingredients to suit my tastes. While I would mention the original source I also feel that if the changes make a noticable difference in taste I think that you can call it your own. Otherwise you would need to be a food scientist in order to make a truely original recipe.

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Lemons and Lavender March 7, 2011 at 5:32 pm

Tracy, Rochel and Anonymous,
Thank you for commenting and sharing your thoughts and experiences. Your insight is valuable and I appreciate your willingness to share it here. Excellent comments!

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Diana March 31, 2011 at 2:24 am

What cookbook is it that you're trying to find? I might have it, and even if I don't, my local library branch has a huge cookbook collection. I'd be happy to help if I can!

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Lemons and Lavender March 31, 2011 at 7:10 pm

Hi Diana,
I can't remember the actual name of the cookbook now. But the name of the woman is listed under the recipe name at the end of my post.
I have learned a lot from the comments above as well as from another source. It's not so much the ingredients as it is the method that seems to make the difference. Sometimes I create a recipe (or think of an idea), look around on the internet to find that someone has already done it. To avoid any kind of accusations, I let it go or try to put another spin on it. But when it really comes down to it, every recipe is really a variation of another. There seems to be very few "true" new recipes.

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Anonymous April 9, 2011 at 8:00 pm

Very interesting & informative conversation. THANK YOU for posting this(and the recipe too).
As a former food blogger I cannot understand the need to make people think that a recipe belongs to you if you did not create it. If you were inspired by someone else's recipe then say it. I have twisted many recipes to our liking but ALWAYS sourced. Sometimes you have no idea and think it may be an original but mostly likely it isn't. Thanks to the internet you can find almost anything. Love your writing style and the recipes too. I have lemons and am ready to hit the kitchen running. I've always loved a good lemon dessert.

Thank You,
Cyndy

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