A friend sent me this chart of foods and we got into a pretty lengthy discussion about how some of them aren’t that surprising. I’ve heard the origin story of nachos several times: a guy nicknamed “Nacho” working as a cook at a club in Piedras Negras, Coahuila threw together some fried tortillas with shredded cheese and sliced jalapenos. General Tso’s chicken is another one that doesn’t surprise me. It’s so obviously an Americanized version of “Chinese” food I’m surprised it goes back as far as the 1970’s—although there’s a dispute over who actually invented it. The same is true of chicken tikka masala.
Others really do surprise me, though. Sticky toffee pudding only dates from the 1960’s? It seems like such a traditional English recipe I still believe it probably originated as a home-cooked dessert long before it made its way into the restaurant that claims to have “invented” it. That would be the Sharrow Bay Hotel on Ullswater, but, again, there’s a debate, with other parts of England and also Quebec claiming to be the point of origin.
And that gets me into what’s really confusing: how do you invent a food? Sure, you can invent a recipe, but this is the thing that I think must give most law students, and even a lot of lawyers, headaches when they start dealing with copyright issues. You can copyright the form that an idea takes but you can’t copyright an idea. With recipes that means you can copyright the exact wording of a recipe—and I know there have been some plagiarism fights over cookbooks—but you can’t copyright the idea. Nashville’s own hot chicken can trace its origins back to Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, but the Prince family that still operates the place can’t copyright the idea of hot chicken which is why there are so many knockoff versions of it.
And that’s just talking about recipes whose origins are known. Nobody knows who invented most dishes. Whoever told me when I was a kid that Spaghetti was the name of a guy who traveled with Marco Polo and brought pasta from China to Italy was either seriously misinformed or outright lying.
All recipes are also just really combinations and recombinations of existing ingredients. With that in mind, and for your holiday entertaining if it sounds like something you’d like, here’s a recipe my mother invented she calls “garbage snacks”. It’s something she threw together for a party, combining stuff she just happened to have around, and, while the idea is hers, the wording here is mine:
Combine shredded cheese, finely chopped turkey or chicken lunch meat (thin-sliced works best), and diced black olives with mayonnaise. Exact amounts can vary as long as the end result is a fairly solid paste.
Spread on Triscuit crackers. Again the exact amount can vary but about a tablespoon is enough.
Bake at 350 degrees for fifteen minutes, or until the cheese melts and all the ingredients come together.
For such a simple recipe they have a very distinctive flavor that people seem to either love or hate. Personally I love ‘em but that’s true of all recipes. Tastes vary.