The question of who owns a recipe comes with a large dash of uncertainty.
According to the law, no one does. Recipes generally are not protected by U.S. copyrights, since a list of ingredients required for a dish or the basic instructions for preparing it are considered mere factual information and therefore aren’t covered.
But in practice, some cookbook authors give credit for various dishes, sometimes naming them after their original sources, or describing how the recipe came to their attention.
Not so Martha Stewart, according to a former employee. In a new CNN documentary series, “The Many Lives of Martha Stewart,” Connecticut caterer Sarah Gross says Stewart took credit for a cranberry nut torte that she had shared with her employer, publishing it in her first book, 1982’s “Entertaining.”
Gross went to work for Stewart when the future domestic icon was just getting started as a caterer who also sold baked goods at a local gourmet market. Gross brought Stewart the recipe, which the company began making regularly, she said.
“I might have brought in my cranberry nut torte,” Gross recalled in the documentary. “Because that was impressive and that was interesting. I’m pretty sure I brought in the cranberry nut torte.”
Stewart wound up publishing a recipe for a cranberry tart with a walnut-laced crust in “Entertaining,” the book that helped her find a national audience. Gross said she wasn’t certain that Stewart had deliberately failed to credit her. “It became so much a part of the repertoire that who knows if she even remembered that it was my recipe,” Gross said.
The documentary includes a clip of a TV appearance to promote the book in which Stewart served the dessert, which was garnished with Christmas-themed holly leaves. When the interviewer asked her where the recipes had come from, Stewart didn’t name names.
“Lots of these are recipes that I’ve been making all my life,” she replied. “And a lot of them are just created for the book.”
Elsewhere in the documentary, others described working at the burgeoning empire as Stewart started becoming a household name. Michael Skott, who was the photographer for “Entertaining,” gave an interview in which he expressed admiration for Stewart but hinted that she was often the face of the work of her employees.
“She worked hard for it and she was driven, but everything was a team effort,” Skott said. “And there were a lot of people that worked with Martha when I worked with her that also came up with ideas. How it worked that it ended up being Martha’s idea? Well, that’s another story.”
Gross did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment, and a CNN spokeswoman said Gross does not plan on commenting further. A representative for Stewart, who did not participate in the documentary series, did not respond to an email.
Some cookbook authors pay freelance recipe developers for help, or, in the case of best-selling authors such as Yotam Ottolenghi and blogging team Kate Allinson and Kay Featherstone (“Pinch of Nom”), even employ them as part of a team.
It’s become more common in the years since Stewart wrote “Entertaining” for some authors – and even restaurant chefs – to name their sources, even if they are employees. “It’s vital that we recognize how every recipe has an origin and an author, be it a professional developer helping a product appeal to mass audiences, or an ancient innovator whose contributions have been accidentally or willfully washed away,” Emily Saladino, an editor and former line cook, wrote in a 2021 column for The Washington Post titled “Why it’s important to credit the people who created the recipes we love.”
In “Entertaining,” Stewart named Gross along with several other members of her “kitchen staff” in the acknowledgments, specifically thanking her for her “crudites.”
Those who feel their work has not been sufficiently publicly recognized have little recourse. “It’s really frustrating for creatives,” says Angela Langlotz, a trademark and copyright attorney. “People call me and say, ‘What can I do about this?’ and I have to say nothing, because it’s not protectable. The law does not give us a remedy.”
Langlotz notes that many online recipes are accompanied by lengthy stories, which do fall under copyright laws. “The novella is protected,” she said. “But the ingredients and instruction aren’t.”
In 2020, former employees of Sqirl restaurant in Los Angeles took to social media to complain that their boss, chef and owner Jessica Koslow, often took credit for recipes they wrote that appeared in media articles and in her cookbook. And in 2021, the publisher of London-based chef Elizabeth Haigh’s then-upcoming book, “Makan: Recipes From the Heart of Singapore,” withdrew the book from shelves. Some of the stories and recipes had been plagiarized from a 2012 memoir by Sharon Wee, Wee had complained on social media.
In the CNN documentary, Gross also recalls parting with Stewart on a sour note. After she had been working for Stewart for an unspecified amount of time and making no more than $10 an hour, Gross said she met with Stewart and her then-husband, Andy, and asked to be recognized for her role. “If I was going to be giving my heart and soul – and by that point I felt like I was – I needed a title,” she says.
Andy’s reply, according to Gross, was negative: “Andy says, ‘Martha is going to be as big as McDonald’s, and we’re not giving any of that away.’ ”