Books & Print

Who Owns a Shepherd’s Pie?

Isabella George

My mum makes a mean Shepherd’s Pie. It sits, pride of place on the chopping board, oozing over the dented sides of the decades-old pie dish. The combination of ingredients is shrouded in mystery, never revealed, even to her closest family. The revered pie sits in my mother’s house, in my mother’s dish, on my mother’s chopping board. For all intents and purposes, it is entirely my mother’s work. Except it isn’t. 

The protection of recipes is a somewhat elusive branch of copyright law. Typographical layouts can be copyrighted, yet lists of ingredients cannot be. A collected set recipes in the form of an entire cookbook can be protected, yet individual recipes are not afforded the same rights. From a legal standpoint, traditional recipes passed from generation to generation have no right to be definitively attributed to one individual. A recipe that is entirely my mother’s work could easily be copied and pasted into another’s repertoire, and there would be very little she could do about it. 

This, of course, has glaring negative implications. The work of a chef or home cook has no right to be protected, and therefore their original works cannot be guarded as their own intellectual property. From a professional standpoint, this means that a restaurant cannot protect its menu, a chef cannot defend their signature dish, and an idea that could be years in the making could be stolen overnight. But from a cultural point of view, this legal ambiguity could have deep ethical implications. A traditional dish from a unique cultural moment could be re-appropriated and commercialised by a foreign presence, a culinary travesty that we have seen happen all too often

Why is it, then, that such a huge swathe of the publishing industry remains unprotected? One answer could be the phenomenal vastness of the food world. Beyond the professional cooking industry, every kitchen across the world has their own version of a dish. Perhaps there can be no precedent of protection for culinary writing because there simply are too many original ideas. Or, perhaps, it is because there are no original ideas at all. Cooking is often a hereditary practice, an intellect passed between generations, with modifications made by each new hand that the knife or the ladle passes through. Recipes such as these have no finite version, and exist as a matter of communal memory. This hereditary mythos is central to the magic of the kitchen, and is something that is fundamentally incompatible with legally defined copyright.

Originality is an evasive flavour. To seek something original, one must disregard what has come before and try to form something entirely anew. Originality, therefore, cannot find a true and permanent home in the kitchen. We may modify or re-interpret, be inspired by or appropriate from, but the possession of the recipe is not something that belongs to any individual. Therefore, though my mother’s shepherd’s pie will always belong to her, it also belongs to a far older and far broader tradition. It is to this ancient and expansive kitchen that every shepherd’s pie belongs.