Category Archives: Writing

Is It OK for Non-Italians to Open Italian Restaurants?

Because I’ve written a book that debunks myths about Italian food in America and also discusses the sociopolitical issues surrounding Italian immigration to the United States, I’ve often thought about the term cultural appropriation as applied to Italian food in this country.

As of late, there is a push to open pizzerias selling “true” Neapolitan pizza, certified by an organization in Italy, the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (AVPN). According to them, if you are not making this “true” pizza, you are not making pizza. The problem with this ideology is that the pizza that the 16 million+ Italian immigrants who left Italy 100 years ago made doesn’t qualify as “real” Italian pizza even though they and their descendants made pizza famous throughout the world. Yes, that’s right, the pizza made by the most famous pizzaiolo, Gennaro Lombardi of the first pizzeria in the United States, Lombardi’s, opened in 1905 in New York City does not count as “real” Italian pizza. Neither does Frank Pepe’s in New Haven, opened in 1925 by an immigrant from Naples. Mind you, some of the most popular pizzerias in Naples do not fall under the AVPN guidelines, like Da Michele. However, according to the AVPN, a pizzeria that follows their criteria but opened by a person of non-Italian heritage, is “real” Italian pizza. (The criteria include using certain types of ingredients and ovens, among other things. Ironically, tomato is one of the ingredients and it did not exist on pizza until after 1492. In fact, Frank Pepe’s famous white clam pizza, without tomato, would be closer to the original pizzas of Naples than “true” Neapolitan pizza with a tomato sauce, as the Neapolitans used to put small fish on the pizza dough.)

How is this applied in the “real” world?  I’ll demonstrate. Let’s say I’m Person X.  A non-Italian person is Person Y.

Person X–my great-grandparents, their daughter–my grandmother–and all of her siblings, all born-and-bred natives of Naples who immigrated to the United States because of the adverse conditions created by the Italian government in Italy in the last half of the 19th century to the early 20th century, made pizza and opened pizzerias in the United States, and then their granddaughter and daughter–my mother–and her husband, my father, made pizza in the United States. This is all MEANINGLESS, according to the current ideology and food media coming from Italy.

Person Y, who is not Italian at all, with no basis for understanding Italian culture and cuisine, takes a vacation to Italy, watches a pizzaiolo make pizza in Naples, looks out at the bay of Naples, drives down to the breathtaking view of the Amalfi Coast, comes back to the United States, follows the AVPN guidelines, opens a pizzeria selling “true” Neapolitan pizza.

Voila. The non-Italian is the “true” Italian, and what am I?

(In addition to pizza, there is also a push to re-brand Italian food in general to what is currently available in Italy today, essentially discrediting the food the immigrants brought here 100 years ago and made famous throughout the world.)

Maybe my point is better illustrated if I’m using a different cuisine as an example. I would not be so presumptuous as to travel to Japan and sample ramen at a few well-known ramen shops, come back to the United States and open a ramen shop. I might fall in love with ramen (which I have) and try to re-create it at home, which is perfectly acceptable. However, calling myself expert enough to open a restaurant and profit from it, I wouldn’t presume to do. However, that is exactly what many people are doing today with pizza, traveling to Naples for a week, hitting the most well-known pizzerias like Sorbillo or Di Matteo and claiming to know enough about pizza to bring it back to the United States as if it’s a unique discovery and not a part of a thousand-plus-year-old culture that the Italian immigrants brought here 100 years ago.

I wonder do these “Neapolitan tourists” know anything about the history of discrimination and marginalization of Italian Americans in the locales where they are opening their “true” Neapolitan pizzerias?

Who? Oh, yes, us, the Italian Americans. I know, I know, we are not a vocal group. You see, we cannot pronounce words and we are too busy in organized crime to read a book or defend ourselves. (I’m being sarcastic here.)

I know, I know, I should just eat a slice of “true” Neapolitan pizza cooked by John Doe and fugetaboutit.

But, I can’t do that. I can’t do that and the reason why is best expressed in this essay by Dakota Kim in Paste:  “We’re Having the Wrong Conversation About Food and Cultural Appropriation.”  I think she hits the nail on the head with the bolded words about the lack of real thought about the racial, ethnic and class issues involved in food production and consumption.  There is a privilege in taking a trip to another country (something many Americans cannot afford to do). Many Americans are immigrants who left their home country, not because they wanted to, but because conditions were so bad that they had to find a new home. Many are not immigrants but exiles. And many cannot go back to their home country even to visit. Historically, immigrant populations have not been treated well in the United States, and as each new group assimilated, it went through a period of discrimination, some more or less, some that still continues. These immigrant groups keep a part of their traditions alive with food through the generations. Food is an integral part of a person’s identity, and yes, that means ethnic identity. Can someone take a trip to Italy, for example, for a week or a month, and eat four, five, six, ten pizzas and know everything there is to know about making a pizza, everything there is to know about the Italian history and culture, about being Italian? And what if they open pizzerias in areas with a history of discrimination or marginalization of Italian Americans?  This leads me to the question that is the subject of this essay:  If you are not Italian, is it cultural appropriation for you to open an Italian restaurant?

As Kim mentions, well-known chefs take advantage of the American business model, and the power structure that exists that the elite have the money and therefore, the time to travel and the connections to invest in their business ventures and publicize their restaurants.

The danger of this, though, is that it can redefine the food and culture in the minds of the American people and can sometimes rewrite history, which is something I discuss in my book, Authentic Italian: The Real Story of Italy’s Food and Its People. Hence, why the media can get away with saying that (the derogatory term) “red-sauce” restaurants are not “authentic” Italian cuisine and only the cuisine of contemporary Italy is.

Part of me says, this is America, you should be able to open any kind of restaurant you want. If I want to open that ramen restaurant, I should be able to. If Person Y wants to open a pizzeria serving “true” Neapolitan pizza, bada bing. But the other part of me says, yes, this is cultural appropriation, and no, you shouldn’t open a restaurant if you don’t have a connection culturally to the food you are serving. While I say this, I do recognize that we live in the United States, and this is the land of the free, free market and free speech. Americans are free to open any kind of restaurant they want to, and I am free to criticize them. In the end, it is up to us as consumers, as individuals, to research the restaurants we frequent, to vote with our dollars, to be mindful of the food we eat and the cultures behind it.

–Dina Di Maio

***All writings and photographs are the intellectual property of me, unless I’ve noted otherwise, and can only be used with permission. If you are inspired by this blog, please use professional courtesy to note it.***





Dina’s 10 Favorite Book Stores in New York City

I love book stores–almost as much as I love bakeries. And I have some favorite ones in New York City. Here they are in no particular order:

  1. Amazon Books–Of course, I like Amazon books because I published my book through Amazon.
  2. Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks–This is one of the coolest book stores in NYC. Bonnie sells only cookbooks and she has many classic cookbooks as well as antique cookbooks. She’s very friendly too and will help you find what you are looking for.
  3. Bluestockings–This is also a very cool book store for the radical. I liked and attended the feminist book club here.
  4. Rizzoli–The classic New York book store known for its art and fashion books. It also has a good newsstand of European magazines as well as foreign language books. 
  5. Barnes and Noble–My original favorite NYC book store. I particularly like the Union Square location but also used to like the old Astor Place one too.
  6. The Strand–A NYC institution. Tons of books, especially hard-to-find ones and ones about NYC. I remember the days when you used to have to check your bags before you went through the turnstile here. Glad you don’t have to do that anymore.
  7. Idlewild–This is a book store for the global traveler and language lover. They have travel and language books, as well as language classes.
  8. Kinokuniya–This is a Japanese book store. I love the stationery department downstairs and also the Japanese craft books and cookbooks.
  9. Pauline Books and Media–This Catholic book store has a chapel for a calm escape from the city.
  10. NYU Book Store–I like to check out the book store at my alma mater. Great selection of scholarly books.
  11. Casa Magazines–OK, they have only magazines here, but it’s a great collection of foreign language magazines.

–Dina Di Maio

My Book, Authentic Italian, Is Now Available

Authentic Italian

Authentic Italian: The Real Story of Italy’s Food and Its People

by Dina M. Di Maio

Available from

Pizza. Spaghetti and meatballs. Are these beloved foods Italian or American?

Italy declares pizza from Naples the only true pizza, but what about New York, New Haven, and Chicago pizza? The media says spaghetti and meatballs isn’t found in Italy, but it exists around the globe. Worldwide, people regard pizza and spaghetti and meatballs as Italian. Why? Because the Italian immigrants to the United States brought their foodways with them 100 years ago and created successful food-related businesses. But a new message is emerging–that the only real Italian food comes from the contemporary Italian mainland. However, this ideology negatively affects Italian Americans, who still face discrimination that pervades the culture–from movies and TV to religion, academia, the workplace, and every aspect of their existence.

In Authentic Italian, Italian-American food writer Dina M. Di Maio explores the history and food contributions of Italian immigrants in the United States and beyond. With thorough research and evidence, Di Maio proves the classic dishes like pizza and spaghetti and meatballs so beloved by the world are, indeed, Italian. Much more than a food history, Authentic Italian packs a sociopolitical punch and shows that the Italian-American people made Italian food what it is today. They and their food are real, true, and authentic Italian.

Fiction: The Dough Rises

I don’t remember when I wrote this story, but it’s been at least ten years, I’d say.  I sent it to a number of journals, including ethnic and food-related ones, but it was rejected.  It’s a story about nostalgia, about slowing down to appreciate the good things in life before they are gone, including the people in our lives.  It’s also about an Italian American family and what else?  Food.

The Dough Rises

by Dina

Grandma covered the balls of dough with a tablecloth to let them set.

She washed her doughy, floured hands in warm water.  Linda watched her dry them on a red and white-checkered dishtowel.

“It’s all done.  OK.  I put this here and then I’ll get this.”  Grandma talked to herself as she patted the dough and put the towel aside.  Nothing new to Linda.  Grandma talked to herself all the time.  Or objects nearby.  Or TV personalities.

The teapot whistled.

“You gotta wait,” she answered it.

She put the doughy bowl and other utensils in the sink.  Then she poured herself a cup of tea.  “I need something sweet,” she said.

Linda was standing behind her at the stove, waiting for her to move.  She wanted to get to the microwave and cook her frozen lasagna for lunch.  She brushed behind Grandma, who asked, “Where you wanna go?”

Linda said, “I just need to get to the microwave.”

“Oh,” she said, moving over to let Linda by.  “What are you cooking?” she demanded.

“Lasagna,” Linda answered.

“Lasagna in the box.  That shit,” Grandma said.

“Well, it’s quick,” Linda said. “Besides, I’m eating light, you know.”  Linda lifted the plastic cover off the lasagna and popped it into the microwave.

“Yeah, I know.  Everybody’s on a diet.  Your mother too.”

“Mm.  Last week she was on that soup diet you told her about, wasn’t she?”

Grandma’s eyes widened.  She nodded.  “Yeah, she didn’t eat anything I cooked.”

“Well, she’s always running in and out of the house with her work and all,” Linda said.

“Yeah, yeah,” Grandma said, waving her hand. “Everybody runs.”

“Is she still on it?”


“The soup diet.”

“No.  She said it makes her sick.  But I like it.  The cabbage and the tomato.  I put in a little olive oil.  It lasts for days.  It’s the best diet.”

“Did you lose weight on it?” Linda asked.

Grandma shrugged and nodded.  “Yeah.”

“How much?”

“Hey, not much.  I ate the soup and whatever else I wanted.”

Grandma laughed.  Linda laughed.

“You’re crazy, Grandma,” Linda said.

“Yeah, crazy.  You gonna eat calzones?” she asked.

“Uh, I don’t know.  They’re awful fattening.  Maybe I’ll have a bite.  I gotta pick the kids up, and I was gonna meet Donnie for dinner, but maybe we’ll come over here.”  Because her aunt was working late, Linda had to pick her cousins up from school.  She had to take Enzo to soccer practice, and Maddy had to go shopping for art supplies for a class project.  That would take all afternoon.  Then, she was supposed to meet her boyfriend, Donnie, to go out for dinner.  They had planned this dinner a week ago, but Linda had been too busy.

“A bite?  You better eat one.  I spent all day with this here.”  She pointed to the dough.  “And my leg hurts, too, standing there all day.”

“Yeah, I’ll eat one,” Linda said.  She resented the fact that Grandma made this food when she was trying to cut down.  It tasted so good though.  “Did you take your pill?” she asked.

“Which one?”

“The one for your leg.”

Grandma shrugged.  “Hey, if I take it, if I don’t take it, what’s the difference?  It never helps.  I gotta cut the prosciutto, and I wanted you to go to the store for me.”

Linda looked up.  She really was too busy to go to the store.  “What do you need?”

“I need some reegut,” Grandma said. “Your father didn’t buy enough.  I says to him, ‘Bob, this is all you bought?’  He says, ‘How much you need?’  I says, ‘More than this.’  He told me he’d get it later, but then he had to go to work.  I says somebody’s gotta go to the store for me.  I can’t go.  If I could walk, I’d go myself.”

Linda wanted to defend her father—to tell Grandma he wasn’t cheap on purpose.  He just never had two pennies to rub together.  Momma and Dad have it much harder than Grandma ever did, Linda thought.  Supporting the whole family and putting me through school, I think Dad has other worries besides how much ricotta goes into calzones.

Grandma laughed to herself.  Linda looked over at her.  “What’s so funny?”

Grandma shrugged.  “Nothing.”


“Well, I was just thinking about your grandfather.”

“Oh,” Linda said, not sure what to say.  Poppy had been dead for a long time and it seemed difficult for Grandma to talk about him.

“Just your grandfather used to make calzones on the weekend for the kids, ya know.  We shopped at the outdoor market on Saturday morning.  We’d get the meat and the cheese together.”

“I’ll get the cheese,” Linda said, feeling guilty.

The microwave beeped.

“Oh, the thing is done,” Grandma said. “Beep, it says.”

Linda took out the lasagna and put it on the table in its paper container.

“Don’t you put it in a plate?” Grandma asked.

“Nah, it’s quicker to eat it like this,” Linda said.

“Oh, everything’s gotta be quick today.  You and your mother.  Yous never sit,” she said.

Linda ate her lasagna.  She could smell Grandma’s chamomile tea.  It nauseated her.

She thought she might say something to Grandma, but she figured she wouldn’t understand.  The world was different today.  Women had to work.  There was no time to cook, especially not the traditional elaborate meals her grandmother made.

When she finished eating her lasagna, Linda rinsed out the container and put it in the recycling bag.

As she left to do her errands, she saw Grandma sitting at the table reading coupons in the newspaper.  Her grandmother sat, drinking her chamomile tea, waiting for the dough to rise.


            At a quarter to six, Linda shuffled into the house with the kids behind her.  She smelled frying oil.  It smelled so good that she wondered if she could get calories from absorbing smells.

“I got the reegut,” she said, plopping the container onto the kitchen counter.

She had bought one container.

Grandma said, “Like father, like daughter.  Cheap, cheap.”

Maddy said, “I have to do my model.”

Linda surveyed the table.  It was covered with the piles of dough.

“Why don’t you use the table in the cellar?” she told her.

Maddy said OK.  She squeezed herself out of her pink backpack and ran to the cellar door.  “Enzo,” she said, “why don’t you do it with me?”

“What do you have to make, Maddy?  I’ve got my own homework to do,” Enzo said, pulling off his backpack and looking for a place to put it.  He slid it onto one of the kitchen chairs.

“Why don’t yous both go downstairs and do your homework?” Linda suggested. “It’s quiet down there.”

“But I need help with my model,” Maddy said.

“What do you have to do, again?” Linda asked.

“A cell,” Maddy said. “It’s gotta have the different parts of a cell.”

“Oh, OK.  Well, I’ll be down in a little while to help you,” Linda said, taking papers out of her briefcase.  She was in the second year of the MBA program and had enough to read herself tonight without having to work on a model with her little cousin.

Sitting down at the table, she picked up the phone and dialed Donnie’s number.  “Hey,” she said when he answered. “What are you doing?”

Donnie said, “I just got in.”

“You wanna come over?  My grandmother made calzones.  She wants you to come.”

“I thought we were going out.”

“Yeah, I know,” Linda whispered into the receiver. “But she made this and now I feel obligated to eat it.”

“All right.  I’ll be there in a little while.  I miss you.”

Linda smiled and said, “I miss you too.”

Grandma took out the big yellow and green bowl that had been her mother’s.  She put the chopped prosciutto, mozzarella and parmesan into it.  Opening the ricotta container, she sliced the thin plastic covering with a knife.  With a spoon, she scooped it out and put it into the bowl.

Linda watched her mix it with the big wooden spoon.  It was six o’clock, and she was hungry.  She usually ate earlier.

Enzo came upstairs.  His eyes searched the room like he was looking for something.

“What’s a matter, Enzie?” Linda asked.

“Are we gonna eat soon?”

Grandma answered, “Yeah, yeah.  Very soon.  I’m putting them in now.”

“We’ll eat in a little while.  I’ll be down in a minute to help your sister.”

“Is Momma home?” Linda asked.

“Yeah, your mother’s upstairs.  She just got in a little while before you did.  She said she went to take a shower.  How many showers does she take?  She gets up in the morning, takes a shower.  She comes home at night, takes a shower.  Too much showering makes your skin look wrinkled,” Grandma said, filling the dough with the cheesy mixture.

“Well, she works and gets dirty, I guess,” Linda said.  Her mother worked at a T-shirt factory long hours.  I think she’s entitled to showers, Linda thought.  She knew that the blue-collar working class life wasn’t for her.  Her mother knew it too.  That’s why Linda was working on her MBA.  She was the first grandchild to graduate from college.  Next, she’d be the first with a master’s degree.  Things sure had changed for the women in the family, Linda thought.  First her grandmother, the housewife and mother.  Then her mother, the breadwinner.  Then herself, the professional.

“I wonder where’s your brother,” Grandma said.

“Oh, he’s probably over at Charlie’s,” Linda said.

“Mm.  I hope he comes home.  I got all this here,” Grandma said, pointing to the calzones.

Linda stood up to bring her briefcase into her bedroom.  Grandma took a calzone and placed it into the frying pan.  She waited for it to brown.


            Donnie arrived at a quarter to seven.  Linda was sitting at the kitchen table, eating a calzone.  Looking up at him, she pulled the cheese from her mouth.  “Hey, sit down,” she said, motioning to him with her hand. “Have a calzone.”

“Yeah, Don, have a calzone.  I got so many of them here,” Grandma said.

“Thanks, Grandma.  I’ll have one.  I love these things.  I haven’t had one in so long since my grandmother–” Donnie said, cutting it short after Linda shot him a look.  He hadn’t had calzones since his grandmother died.  He washed his hands at the sink and dried them on a paper towel. He grabbed a calzone off the platter and put it on his plate.

Donnie had been Linda’s boyfriend since high school.  He had wanted to get married but she hadn’t.  I need to get my degree first, she had told him.  Really, Linda wasn’t sure she wanted to marry him.  After going to college, she met men who were more intelligent and sophisticated.  They could talk about books and plays as well as sports and cars.  But she was comfortable with Donnie.  He was familiar to her and she did love him.

“Where’s Tommy?” Donnie asked.

“I don’t know.  Probably at Charlie’s,” Linda answered.

“Yeah, well.  I gotta tell him I got the Giants tickets.  I think we’re going this weekend,” Donnie said.

“What do you mean ‘I think we’re going’?  Didn’t you buy the tickets?” Linda asked.

“Yeah.  So we’re going,” Donnie said, biting a chunk of calzone.  Little crumbs of crust fell from his mouth onto the plate.  “Kids downstairs?”

Linda nodded.  “Yeah, they’re eating down there.  Maddy’s got a project to do, and Enzo’s helping her.”

Donnie nodded.  “What she gotta do?”

“A model of a cell,” Linda said.  Donnie didn’t answer.

“I gotta fix Tim’s bike tonight,” Donnie said, between mouthfuls. “We should go out tomorrow—go to a movie or something.  I hardly see you anymore.”

Linda shook her head.  “I can’t.  I’ve got so much work to do.  I told you I wouldn’t be able to.”

Donnie sighed and nodded.

“It has to be this way for awhile,” Linda said, looking up.

Her mother, Suzie, came into the kitchen, wearing a blue robe.  “Ma, what did you make here?”

“I made calzones,” Grandma said.

“For who?”

“For who?  For you.  For everybody.  Who I make them for?  Myself?”

“Yeah, but I’m on a diet.  I don’t eat this stuff,” Suzie said.  She took a calzone and bit into it.  “Mmm.  This is delicious,” she said with a mouthful.  “You made enough for an army.  Who were you expecting?”

“You.  And the kids,” Grandma said, shrugging.

“Since when do we eat this much?” Suzie asked.  Sitting down, she asked, “Donnie, how are you doing?”

“I’m fine, Mrs. Restivo.  How are you?”

“Eh, I’m here,” Suzie said. “Where’s your brother?  At Charlie’s?”

“I guess,” Linda said.

“Don’t that kid ever come home anymore?  What does Charlie have over there?” Suzie asked.

“He’s got cable,” Linda answered.

“Oh, cable,” Suzie said, sighing.

“Did you see my husband today?” Suzie asked her mother.

“Yeah, he bought me the reegut, but he didn’t buy enough.  I told Linda, ‘Your father’s cheap.’  But he went to work,” Grandma said.  She turned around from the stove, rubbing her leg.  “I gotta sit.  My leg hurts.”

Suzie got up and helped her to the table. “What’s a matter, Ma?”

“I don’t know.  My leg.  I need my pill,” Grandma said.

“Lin, go get her pills,” Suzie said.

Linda got up and went into Grandma’s bedroom.  On the nightstand next to her bed, there were some pill bottles, a sleeping cap, a clock radio, a pair of rosary beads, and a picture of Poppy in his Marine uniform.  The pills weren’t up there, so Linda looked on Grandma’s dresser.  There were some pill bottles next to her perfume bottles.  She found the right pills, took them, but paused to look at an old photo of Grandma and Poppy at a picnic.  They were both so young.  Poppy had his arm around Grandma’s waist.  They were both squinting from the sun.  Poppy wore an undershirt, and he had a cigarette in one hand.  They were both smiling.  Faintly, Linda could see the picnic table in the background.  She could make out a bottle of wine.  They looked so happy in that picture.  A simple picnic, a sunny day, Linda thought.

“Did you find them?” Suzie called.

Linda yelled back, “Yeah.”


            After Donnie left to fix his friend’s motorcycle, Linda drove the kids to her aunt’s house.

When she got back, her mother was shutting off the TV in the living room.  “I gotta go to bed,” she said. “I gotta get up early tomorrow and sew some shit shirts.”  She kissed Linda on the cheek.

“Good night, Momma,” Linda said.

“Good night, honey.  You got a lot of stuff to read?” Suzie asked.

“Yeah, more than enough,” Linda said.

“Linnie, you know I’m proud of you,” Suzie said, holding her daughter’s cheeks.

“I know,” Linda said.

Suzie looked at her daughter’s face.  “It’s Donnie, isn’t it?  You love him?  I know you love him.”

Linda smiled and nodded.

“Donnie’s a good kid, but … I loved your father too.  But it’s been nothing but a struggle since we’ve been married.  You just can’t raise a family like you used to be able to.  But you have plenty of time and a good head on your shoulders.  Things are gonna be different for you, Lin.  Get rid of that Donnie, and you’ll be all right,” Suzie said, her hand resting on Linda’s shoulder.  Her mother had never liked the idea of her dating Donnie.  She felt he wasn’t on Linda’s “level.”  Her mother had said many times, “He’s a nice boy for now.”


            When Linda walked in the kitchen, she put the teapot on to boil some water.  She needed plenty of coffee if she was going to get all this reading done tonight.

Grandma was washing dishes.

“Grandma, you can leave them.  I’ll do it,” she said, even though she didn’t have time to wash dishes.

“No, it’s OK.  What have I got to do anyway?” Grandma said.

Linda got down a Statue of Liberty mug.  She opened the jar of instant coffee and spooned some into the mug.  When the water boiled, she poured some into the mug and went upstairs to read.

An hour later, she came down for a refill.  Surprisingly, the lights were out except for the small light above the stove that they used as a nightlight.  Linda could see its glow as she walked through the living room.  She heard someone shuffling and then heard Grandma speak.  Peering her head through the doorway, she saw Grandma sitting at the table, her back to Linda.  Usually, Grandma had the TV on and talked back to the late night talk show hosts.  But not tonight.  Her work was done.  She had made the calzones, fed the family, washed the dishes and now had time for a calzone herself.  Now she sat eating one alone.

“You always liked them.  Remember when we’d make them for the kids?  Then we’d take the kids to the park.  It was a nice time, Joey.  It was a nice time.”

Without refilling her coffee cup, Linda turned and walked back upstairs.


To Be Alone…Or Not To Be Alone

Given that Hurricane Sandy destroyed some landmarks like the boardwalk at Seaside Heights, I’ve been thinking about something lately.  That something is enjoying life before it’s too late.  This summer I tried to recruit numerous friends to take a day trip to the Jersey Shore, specifically the boardwalk at Seaside Heights.  I also tried to get someone to accompany me to City Island for seafood and to Totonno’s in Coney Island for coal-fired pizza.  I didn’t want to go by myself, so I wound up not going because I couldn’t find anyone to go with.

Now, the boardwalk is destroyed, changed forever, and Totonno’s has had major damage, as well as City Island.  If these things do get repaired, will they be the same?

When I think of living life to the fullest, I think of my friend Mona and our New York City adventures.  She is a woman of my own heart and enjoys life and loves going out and doing and learning things.  Unfortunately for me, she lives in Atlanta, so I can’t share my NYC adventures with her anymore.  I remember a conversation we had where we were both in agreement that it was hard to find people to hang out with, that we both liked going to numerous and diverse events and often found it hard to meet likeminded people who were socially active in the same way we are.

I remember back when I was at NYU, I wanted to go to the New Yorker Festival.  I asked so many people if they wanted to go, and all said no.  So I didn’t go.  Well, I felt that I had missed out on something, so I vowed not to let being alone dissuade me from doing things I wanted to do.  So what followed was a string of my doing things on my own (see my very first blog post on the chocolate Bruno).  This included restaurants, bars, clubbing, events, fairs, festivals, lectures, parties, any and all kinds of events.  I’d rather go alone than miss out, and that is what I’ve been doing since then.  (Of course, I’m not always alone, but if there is no one to go with, I still go.)  And I have a lot of fun and many adventures and meet interesting people.  I know that if I went with someone else, I wouldn’t meet half as many people as I do.  But I do have to wonder, are my interests so different from so many other people’s that I’ve wound up going to many events alone through the years?

They say everyone loves a parade, but I can’t ever get anyone to go to one with me–except Mona, who went to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and St. Patrick’s Day parade with me.  I love parades.  I dressed up for the Easter  and Halloween parades and marched.  I love being a spectator at the Columbus Day parade and I’ve caught others like the Scottish, Polish and Veteran’s Day parades.

I love ethnic festivals like the Giglio in Brooklyn and San Gennaro in Little Italy (both of which Mona came with).  I love the festive music and the parade down the street.  There’s a Peruvian church nearby that has beautiful processionals.  I’m not Peruvian, but I love the music.  It brings tears to my eyes, and I love being part of it.

I let myself slip this summer.  I should’ve taken the train one weekend and had Totonno’s myself.  I should’ve taken the bus up to City Island and had seafood.  I should’ve gotten the Zipcar down to Seaside for the day.  Hurricane Sandy was my kick in the pants, like the New Yorker Festival of years ago.  I can’t let life slip by–because it is so fragile, and those good things in life may not always be there to enjoy “someday.”  Carpe diem.

Are Recipes Copyrighted? and Other Legal Concerns for Food Bloggers

Everyone remembers the episode of Friends where Monica tries to recreate Phoebe’s grandmother’s chocolate chip cookie recipe only to find out it was the Nestle Toll House recipe.  Food bloggers are on edge, wondering if they are opening themselves up to legal action if they reprint published recipes or if they change an ingredient or two and call a recipe their own.  I suspect a lot of grandmas and aunts who were of cooking age in the years preceding the internet used recipes off food packages and from newspaper clippings and called them their own.  In the present day, we live in a litigious society where everyone wants to profit off of everything, so it’s no surprise people are worried that they will get a cease and desist letter for publishing grandma’s banana pudding recipe.  (Did Grandma get it from a Nilla wafer box?)

According to the U.S. Copyright Office, copyright law doesn’t protect recipes that are “mere listings of ingredients.”  It says copyright protection may extend to “substantial literary expression—a description, explanation, or illustration” that goes along with the recipe.  So let’s say for example, a famous chef has a recipe for salmon in his cookbook.  The listing of ingredients—salmon, dill, butter–would not be copyrightable.  However, if he includes a paragraph about how he came to develop the recipe, his words may be copyright protected.  How he writes his directions may be copyrighted.  And definitely, a cookbook—a combination of recipes—is copyright protected.

OK, let’s get to the legalese.  In order for something to be copyrightable, it has to be original.  How many recipes really are original?  It’s the age-old question of where does pasta come from—Italy or China?  Just about every part of the world has some kind of food in a pastry pocket—think empanadas, calzones, samosas, dumplings, knishes….  Who came up with chocolate chip cookies or brownies?  What about pasta sauce?

David Lebovitz wrote for the Food Blog Alliance that “basic” recipes are “fair game” because the basics aren’t likely to vary much.  But how do you define a “basic”?  At one point, chocolate chip cookies were novel.  Now, they are a dime a dozen.  So are chocolate chip cookies “basic”?  Cake pops are all the rage, but is a standard recipe for cake pops “basic” (and a key lime pie cake pop or red velvet cake pop “original”)?  (An aside—is anything red velvet “original” given that it’s the most popular comfort food right now?)

When attributing recipes, Lebovitz outlines three food world rules to follow:  Use “adapted from” if you’re modifying a recipe, use “inspired by” if you used someone else’s recipe for inspiration or use the recipe as your own if you change three ingredients.  He mentions this last one with caution.

Steven Shaw, a lawyer, from eGullet, would like to see a system where recipe creators get licensing fees.  He thinks that “serious recipes really are a form of literary craftsmanship.”  I disagree.  I would say recipes that are online, in magazines,  in cookbooks and in newspapers are lists of ingredients followed by standard directions.  Unless you’re making quail in rose-petal sauce with the same emotion as Tita, I don’t see the literary merit in a recipe.  I don’t want to see the food writing/restaurant world become like the music industry.

From a professional standpoint, I have read that chefs often borrow from one another, taking on one idea, tweaking, adding to or changing it to make it their own.  I would like to poll chefs in the industry and see what their thoughts are.  I suspect most chefs would not want to copyright recipes because I suspect most chefs get inspiration from each other.  I think they would find dealing with licensing fees for recipes a nuisance.

Now, I think there is a different issue between recipes and food creations, that is, food as art.  Some chefs are protective of their creations.  I remember Francois Payard’s Payard restaurant and the lovely dessert creations in the front bakery.  Customers were not allowed to take photos of the cakes.  I’m guessing this was Payard’s way of protecting his food creations, creations that looked like artwork.  There are chefs like Payard that create edible works of art, like Jesus Nunez of Gastroarte.  (Chef Nunez was recently on Iron Chef.)  Can Payard’s cakes and Nunez’s food creations be copyrighted?  Not yet, but maybe they should be.  In order for the “food art” to be copyrightable, it has to be original and “fixed in a tangible medium.”  Unfortunately, because food spoils, it usually doesn’t pass the “fixed” test unlike other media that are used for art.

Before I close the discussion on copyright law, I do want to mention that copyright is one branch of intellectual property law.  There are also trademarks, patents and trade secrets.  Trademarks exist to identify the source of goods or services, and a trademark must be used for commercial activity or it will lose protection.  Food products, even the name of a recipe, can be trademarked.  As I mentioned in another blog post, the Doughnut Plant trademarked the blackout cake doughnut.  Trademarks also include trade dress, like the shape of the Mrs. Butterworth bottle.  Patent law protects inventions.  With the popularity of molecular gastronomy and food science, patent law does come into play.  Chef Homaro Cantu patented edible paper.  At his Chicago restaurant, Moto, he specializes in product development, and his patented inventions appear at the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum and Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.  The innovative chef appears on the Discovery Network’s Planet Green show Future Food.  Trade secrets are things that companies want to keep secret like the formula for McDonald’s secret sauce or Coca-Cola.

I think David Lebovitz’s guidelines are good ones to follow on your food blog if you are adapting a recipe from a cookbook or another food blog or if someone’s recipe inspires you to create something similar.  I wouldn’t worry too much about old family recipes, as I’m sure the same recipe for tuna casserole appears in every church and fundraising cookbook across the country.  Yes, there is a chance it comes from the back of an egg noodle bag.  As far as titles of recipes–titles are not copyrightable, and they can only be trademarked if they are being used in commerce, so chances are you could have a similar title for a recipe.  Photographs are definitely copyrighted, and I would ask permission to use someone else’s photo.

*This does not serve as legal advice.  For your particular situation, see an attorney.

Cool Food Blog

Paper and Salt is a very cool food blog for fans of literary history and food.  The latest entry is one of Henry James’s favorite desserts:  vanilla ice cream with brandied peaches.  I want to try Hemingway’s bacon-wrapped trout and corn cakes.  Great bits of history with fun recipes to try.  It would be fun to have a literary food history potluck.  Who’s in?