Blog Like You Cook

Having written some local cookbooks (Food for Life, the Healthy Gourmet, Food for Love, Cook like a Chef, Take a Biscuit and more) and having been a content consultant for publishers and brand marketers, hitting Google and finding a plethora of identical recipes within seconds was mildly upsetting for a while.

Imagine being given recipes developed and written by grand masters like Elizabeth David, Julia Child, Maggie Beer, Delia Smith, August Escoffier and our own Annette Human, SJA de Villiers, Annette Kessler and our beloved Lannice Snyman by a generous food blogger without having to invest in a costly book? What luck!

And the original recipe authors do not even hound the generous blogger for royalties as they have devised other ways to make money. In fact, most of them will just shrug if told that their latest recipes have gone viral in food blog land.

But then as the old ego subsided, I realized that food blogging holds a bright future for writers and readers. It’s free, easy and fast to write something and whip up a post (says who?!) and within seconds after you save your post, traffic starts streaming by. And so my first blog post was borne.

I loved the instant gratification and the visitors and comments. Exciting, thrilling and heavy emo and ego stuff … but within days I realized it’s not only the space for serious food writers, it can be the portal for those in pursuit of breathless ego thrills. Eventually the penny dropped: the pay-off for some people who put their work on the Internet is not royalty payments.

It’s about the instant gratification in seeing the number of visitors and their comments. And then finally, several months after my first blog, I realized that cut-and-paste seems to be the new muse and tool for loads and loads of cyber content.

That is perhaps fine as everybody deserves a place in the sun, as my mother to this day, tells me. But hell, for an out-in-the-open capitalist like me it’s hard to wrap my head around the new currency – the curl-toeing thrill to be virtually-popular.

Which brings us to copyright enforcement

One of the saddest social (and spiritual) negatives about the Internet is that the prosecution of theft of intellectual or creative property has ducked under the radar of most country’s laws. With the speed and scope of Internet connectivity and content, laws (and language vocabulary!) simply cannot keep up.

By the hour more and more opportunities naturally appear, leaving the Internet wide open to abuse and manipulation while enthusiastic users become sitting ducks for those netabusers. In the end it honestly just boils down to the personal ethics and responsibility of Internet authors or bloggers or posters or any other term you wish to use to describe a person who puts information on a blog or website and then encourages and entices visitors to trust and use the information that they posted.

In the real world, high work ethics often drive most modern chefs and recipe book authors. Icons like Marco Pierre White, Jamie Oliver, Heston Blumenthal, Gordon Ramsay and Ina Garten revere most the abovementioned oldies as their inspiration and ethical guides.

The golden thread that ties all those historical and contemoprary food icons together is one, single overriding objective: their recipes should work. It is impossible to estimate how much money recipe book authors invest of their own money to buy the ingredients to test their recipes and how many hours they toil and fuss and obsess over ingredients, measurements, cooking times and temperatures over and over again until it’s nothing less than perfect and publicly publishable.

And in case you suspect any ego, think ethos instead. Recipe book authors know that every person who buys their book will prepare some recipes from it and that means they invest their faith, time, effort and money in the author’s work. So even before we get to copyright, here’s hint number one: some people who read your blog will cook your recipes!

Your recipes should speak the truth

If you are a new blogger every old blogger will tell you that nobody is going to police you or your recipes so you can sit all day long looking for recipes. If you find one that looks nice you can cut and paste and post it and call it your own. And if you chose well, the traffic will stream by and the compliments will flood your inbox …

Understandably, the enforcement of a code of ethics and responsibility with regards to the quality and validity of content does not happen in the virtual world as in the real world. Many real food magazines have test kitchens and vigilante editors that can manage the inflow of work: virtual magazines don’t and there is probably not a web editor alive that is willing or able to read and monitor the excessive volume of posts put up every day let alone test recipes!

The up-end is that a lot of Internet content that many will deem rubbish falls through the cracks. In food-blogland a recipe may look great but if it does not work it is nothing more than trash, sad to say. And I suspect it lands in a post because the blogger who cut-and-pasted it assumed the source tested the recipe!

It was posted on another blog, after all, so why will it not work? And so the one recipe that does not work after another do the rounds. Fortunately, as time goes on, food blog readers and bloggers will get the message and figure out a system to stop it or report each other but for now, each blogger has to live by their own rules and ethics.

A dangerous comfort zone for food bloggers is to think we’re delivering great content just because we get Brazilions of visitors to our blog. In a focus group we held last week, 80% of the group says they just surf around food blogs for ideas on what to cook for dinner but do not cook exactly from recipes.

When prompted to tell why they do not cook from the recipes, 30% said they ‘cook like that’ – take ideas and make it their own and the rest said from own and experience of their friends and co-workers, Internet recipes are ‘disgusting’, ‘dangerous’ and ‘not to be trusted.’

When prompted to discern between food blog recipes and food websites, 68% said from experience and word-of-mouth, web sites offering recipes offer recipes that ‘usually work’ whereas blog recipes ‘need something still’ and when prompted the replies were ‘seasoning’ or ‘more or less liquid or sauce’ and ‘must eat their own food’.

Another comfort zone is the comment zone. Bloggers know that if we comment on other blogs, it links and improves traffic to our blogs. So, we sit every day and comment on other blogs and I am sorry to say, we are not always honest and about never frank and objective. I think it’s because there is the mother in all of us: we want to encourage the slow child to do better so we tell her she is doing well. And the up-end of giving undue praise?

That poor slow child never learns to improve as she thinks what she does is great as it gets her the best of compliments from mommy. That’s another thing my mother to this day reminds me: the softest hand can hurt the most.

Undue praise hurts in the long run as it keeps the person trapped in a make-believe world where there is no progress. In the real world you may not be around all the time to boost her – and somewhere down the line the slow child may be extremely hurt by a person who will be honest in their appraisal.

Honest appraisal of our work is what keeps us humans edgy. It’s what keeps us new and fresh and hungry for doing better all the time. Believe me, if we who make a serious living in the entertainment industry and food industry not hear our critics, we’d be in serious trouble.

In fact, I am often blown away by the insight and appraisal received from readers of my books or viewers of our television shows, not only from professional critics. The biggest names in the publishing and television business taught me but I learnt most from the volk – our ordinary readers and viewers. The lesson? Invite honest critics. Listen to them. Give it to them. And you will prosper. Amen.

Just because there are no critics surfing our blogs to appraise them or because the vast majority of the ordinary visitors to our blogs do not usually leave comments (true), it does not mean we should not take our recipes seriously!

So, if you want to share what is the essential you, then listen to your heart and your belly in the still of night and hear what it says about your work. That is the voice of reason and truth and it’s your Conscience speaking. Trust it, it’s not as bad as you think (the bad one is guilt) and will lead you to greatness.

It’s good to be constantly aware that out there is a fan, a follower, a visitor or a subscriber who believes you and wants to cook like you so he or she will go and buy the ingredients, return home, cook your recipe and serve it expectantly waiting to hear applause …

Tell yourself all the time “Somebody trusting me is going to cook this …” and see how your work improves. Even if you cut and paste – test the recipe and make a note of any changes. And tell your fans that your recipes are tested.

Make it your signature! You will not lose any traffic if your post recipes that work and neither will you lose any sleep. In fact, both will increase – your traffic and your sleep quality!

Let your image tell the truth

Yes, image was a big issue with the focus group mentioned earlier. They were 89% in agreement that they visit blogs with great images. The same percentage reported that if they did cook an Internet recipe they were convinced by the image to do so. The majority of those who cooked from images followed the recipe to a T and still, the results were rated from ‘disappointing’ to ‘nasty.’

Here is what we know if an “OMG-lick-the-screen-check-my-DISH!” got you to cook its accompanying recipe: It hit your aspirational spot and you wanted to serve food that looked like that and you probably fell for the Salome trick, the old-as-the-hills lure: great looks only.

And nobody is blaming you. We all harbor the natural human aspirations of wanting to nurture and please and share and be praised and appreciated for it. And by happy co-incidence, that profoundly deep human desire lies at the heart of food blogging if you accept Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

It purports that our needs to belong, to love, to be loved, to be respected and to be accepted into a group of kindred souls figure rather prominently in our lives and therefore, society. That’s what (I believe) drives most food bloggers. It certainly drives me to blog; to deliver recipes with value so that readers of my blog who also try the recipes, can love them and appreciate my time and effort and value me for my skills as a recipe writer.

Sure, many bloggers blog for fun and others for profit some even for celebrity but if the profits, fun and fame are at the expense of a reader’s effort and time and money invested in ingredients to cook the fun recipes, reflection and correction should be considered.

However, this is not to say that gorgeous images hide a flop recipe! But it is to say that we may not all be able to cook the recipe so that it looks like the image, but the very least expectation is that it taste like it looks!

Forget not ever that the litmus test for a recipe albeit from the latest magazine, recipe book, website or blog space is how it tastes, smells, feels in the mouth while forget not … to nourish the body. Looks feature somewhere in the equation, but if it fails the taste test, it fails the test – even if you blog for fun!

But actually, if you blog for fun, you should really consider fun and light content. It pulls in highways of traffic and requires less time and money invested from your side because writing recipes is not ‘fun’.

It’s hard work requiring dedication to detail. If you’d like to share your food passion without the mission to write and test recipes, then provide tips, food jokes, seasonal charts, food trends, what’s going on in the restaurant world or even what your friends are cooking (if they have great recipes).

You can even look for the best recipe or posts of the week amongst us local bloggers and list those with their images on a Friday – just test the recipes first! Then, if you have gorgeous images that you’ve taken yourself or bought or borrowed with permission, the image will tell the truth!

Let your words be true

Many bloggers enthusiastically copy or cut and paste work from other bloggers or recipe books or magazines. And for now, they get away with it except of course should another blogger get wind of it …. I say ‘for now’ as network neutrality will be remodeled and then content will be guarded and protected like books of old.

But until then the one danger zone for the blogger who cuts and pastes is the watchdog-network. They are the other bloggers themselves and their friends who have keen eyes, support fairness for all and have tenacious memories.

Miranda, if you’re cheerfully going along blogging and thinking it’s OK to take advantage of other’s work, putting it up on your blog and just adding a hot hyperlink to their work, you are so wrong, darling. Even the words ‘adapted from’ can land you in the dishwasher, honey.

Here is how it works: the author of a recipe cannot claim copyright to the list of ingredients or a unique titles unless she or he has registered a trademark against it. But anything else in the recipe is the author’s intellectual property and nobody may copy it without their permission. A good example is how food24 credits and uses their bloggers recipes with their knowledge and permission and they prominently and transparently show the source on the page.

So Miranda, if you want to use as is, a recipe or image or a saying or some written copy or article or paragraph on any other blog or website in the whole wide world, you need to beforehand ask permission from the owner of the blog or website in writing.

Just giving them a credit and a link is not legal or correct. Besides, you can get into such big trouble because those readers that link through from your blog to theirs can actually spill the beans on you and you do not want that trust me!

Getting permission to use is not only spiritually and legally correct, it will also improve your network of friends in terms of ‘interlinking’, so to speak. You can virtually ‘feed’ each other with visitors!

And in my experience, food bloggers and website owners are usually nice and decent and generous and the real ‘givers’ of the world so chances that you will get good support and resounding permission is great. So elevate you image and get permission. So worth it …

However, if you want to take the credit for the recipe, you have to change the copy, method, hints and tips; not a little and not just the words. I notice a lot of bloggers just replacing some words with a synonym. Not good enough and here is the tricky area where a nasty blogger or publisher or website owner can go for you, Miranda.

The law is not very clear on this and that is a dangerous thing … for both parties! But if you are one of those parties Miranda, you’re gonna hate it, trust me. And so will your bank manager as you will need to hock your car and house and old Britannica collection as legal costs are really high. My advice is to play it safe and don’t just change a word or two in a sentence for instance “Line a cake tin with parchment paper and grease it well,” to “Line a cake tin with baking paper and grease it well.”

You need to do something like “Prepare the cake tin by lining it with baking paper and then butter or spray the paper with non-stick spray.” If you change the copy like that but keep the list of ingredients exactly as is, you still need to name your source (Not only ‘It’s Nigella’s best chocolate cake’, for instance.)

It has to be “Adapted from or inspired by Nigella Lawson’s recipe book Feast and either the publisher’s name or the ISBN number and in fact, the safest is give the whole kaboodle and end of any risk or loss of face to you. A schlepp, really. So for all this schlepp you may as well change some of the ingredients and change the title accordingly.

Then you have a recipe that is your own and you never have to cringe again if somebody mentions your fabulous recipes on your blog, knowing actually, they are not your own.

The bottom line (for me) is to make a choice before you write a post: use an existing recipe as is and get permission from the author and publishers or write your own. And Miranda dear, you do not have to do it from scratch. It’s perfectly acceptable taking a famous chef’s recipes, changing the ingredients and adding your own flair and words.

You are perfectly entitled to that and if I were you, Miranda, I’d do one of these two. It’s safer and gives you peace of mind and your readers some authenticity. And once you are writing your own work, you will know what it means to ask for others to respect your work and give credit where it is due but be prepared to be copied! Seriously and by then you have to decide if you want to shrug like the authors of old or if you want to pursue and sue.

Most just shrug as the www.copyrightfromwong job is still far too large and wide to do properly. And while Internet copyright issues remain inside the grey legal area and have not been determined by a new module of Internet access and content quality, regrettably the term ‘inspired by’ often slyly applied, does not entirely hide plagiarism.

There are many websites with applications to use to check on plagiarism – Google for them and you will find plenty then you can check on virtually anything you want. In the end, nothing we do will remain a secret, really.

Finally, darling Miranda, if you’re gonna do it … do it well, girl! Terms like ounces and pounds and mortgages and elevator and package and frosting are clearly from a source outside South Africa.

Our terms are grams, mls, bonds, lifts, icing, packs and lekker local so please change those terms to make your work look more authentic and softer on the local eye and ear. Some recipe authors still use spoons and cups but it’s also not so considerate any more. If you can, rather use the metric measurements.

Not a great idea any longer in 2011 as our decor-design sistas have changed the size of cups and spoons! And, brands and products are sold in grams and mls and in store, it makes life very easy for quick mental conversions or just memorise things or making your lists easier: no mental gymnastics required!

My real food author buddies tell me that even measurements like 65 and 125 grams or mls are dated. It is now 50 mls and 100 mls and they are right. Just yesterday my favorite butter sticks usually 125 grams came out in 100 grams!

In closing if you want to write a food blog or improve your Blog writing skills, remember this about your recipes: they reveal who you are. So do it well.

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