Monthly Archives: December 2020

Where Credit Is Due

I’ve been doing some work for a company that is building a virtual holiday community. Not a community for virtual holidays, but a virtual community where folks might enjoy some of the social aspects of the winter holidays that they’d otherwise miss during Covidtide. It’s not just for Christmas; the site opened with a celebration of Diwali, with Indian dance lessons, meditation sessions, and fireworks. There are virtual restaurants—”bring your own everything”!—where friends might gather around a virtual table, with backgrounds simulating the restaurant’s decor, and pages of recipes from the cultures whose holidays are being celebrated.

My job has been to edit the text in the various sections—and, since I have some experience in writing them here, in editing the recipes that were contributed by the writers of each section. This isn’t cookbook-level editing; I’m not making and taste-testing each dish. I’m looking for spelling errors, making the format consistent from dish to dish, and reading with the eye of an average home cook to check for ambiguous or missing instructions. Call me crazy, but in a pastry recipe, I think there should be some indication of what to do with the dough after it’s prepared. Like, say, put it in the oven. And maybe tell me how long to leave it there, or how I should know when it’s time to take it out. I sent a lot of them back to the site-runners with notes like, “Ask for clarification…” or “Don’t put this up until we get the oven temperature!”

In one section, many of the recipes seemed extremely vague—the sort that might have been found on a tattered, grease-stained piece of paper handed down from somebody’s great-great-grandmother. And then, all of a sudden, there were several that were really detailed. Down to a listing of Nutrition Facts: how many calories per serving, how much sodium, and so on. The sort of thing virtually no home cook would include in a recipe, even if they had access to the information. The hairs on the back of my neck would have raised, if they weren’t too long for that sort of thing since I’m so overdue for a haircut.

I did some quick web searching and, sure enough, found the exact recipe on a well-respected cookery-instruction site. (I won’t say which one, but it rhymes with “Snood Let Jerk Plot Bomb.”) I did some searching on the next recipe, and it showed up on another site, too.

I sent the site-runner—my employer and friend—a heads-up that those couple of recipes should be pulled, and why. I kept searching. It turned out that every single one of the recipes in that section was found on another site. Even the vague ones. I was heartsick, and so was my friend.

So, of course, we’ve had all the recipes pulled, at least until we can check their contributors, and provide proper links to their sources. It’s sad, but it’s necessary, and it’s only right.

It’s not that I think recipes shouldn’t be shared. Heaven knows most recipe sites offer a way to save and print the ingredients and instructions. But if you end up sharing such a recipe, don’t do it without proper attribution. That’s just not cool. Food isn’t intellectual property, but the compilation of ingredient lists and instructions is. Even if the recipe was originally typed up from a tattered, grease-stained piece of paper handed down from somebody’s great-great-grandmother. Nana and Aunt Sylvia and the test cooks at ATK—they all deserve to be recognized. Credit where credit is due.

A Little Holiday Treat

It’s a little odd that in a year in which we’ve done more cooking than usual we’ve posted even less here. But, hey, everything about this year has been strange, so I guess that our erratic posting habits shouldn’t be such a surprise.

Since she’d used all of her available leave time helping to care for me as I recovered from surgery, Christmas Eve was a workday for her—though the evening commute only took a couple of seconds; her office is our former guest room. We’d already carefully planned a not-extravagant menu, unlike that year when making dinner took so long to prepare and contained so many courses we barely finished before Christmas morning. A little shrimp cocktail, some crab-stuffed mushrooms, and clam chowder and fresh-baked biscuits: it all had easy prep and cleanup, and was incredibly tasty.

I’d taken the rest of the semester off from teaching in order to concentrate on recovery, and there were no late-night rehearsals and performances for theatre projects, so for the first time in forever our holiday marshmallow-gifts and Christmas cards were prepared and shipped early; we even had a little time to bake some cookies for us, and as gifts for helpful neighbors. Nana’s molasses cookies are fabulous, but the recipe is a family secret I’m not sure I even have access to. Snickerdoodles are reliable, as any recipe from America’s Test Kitchen should be. I finally realized the secret to making Peanut Butter Blossoms: however pretty they might be, ignore the Hershey Kisses and use high quality dark chocolate. About the Almond Linzer cookies she was so excited to try, perhaps the less said the better, save that any recipe with dough so fussy ought to deliver cookies that stuff themselves with jam.

It’s now the Monday after Christmas, when some Grinches have already taken down their decorations and left trees by the curb, but I’ve got one belated Christmas treat to share. (Or maybe it’s early for next year; you decide.)

Not so long ago—in fact, on the Monday after Thanksgiving—just as I was about to leave for my Cardiac Rehab session, I received an email from a composer-friend. Although we’ve known each other, and admired each other’s work, for more than twenty years, it was only this summer that we collaborated for the first time, when we wrote the closing number for a virtual version of the youth theatre program on whose faculty we serve. John’s email said, “Want to write a Christmas song?” It had attached the recording of a piece of music he had in mind—and with which I fell in love immediately.

Writing the lyric was as much fun as I’ve had in a very long time, and receiving the recording made by a terrific actress we know was maybe the happiest thing to happen this year. I hope that the expiration date for Christmas songs hasn’t passed in your holiday celebration, and hope even more that we will all share a peaceful, happy, healthy, and creative 2021.

Maybe It Will Snow. Music by John O’Neill, lyrics by Clay Zambo, performed by Gabrielle Stravelli.

I hope, too, that the New Year will be sweet and not so prone to breaking as these temperamental cookies.

Do not be fooled into thinking this is the only sample that cracked into many pieces. We lost nearly as many as we saved.