Snail porridge not by Heston: homage or plagiarism?

I’ve recently confessed my confusion about how to make sense of the case of the homophobic baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple (because it’s obviously wrong. Unless it’s not, because one could grudgingly respect an asshole who’s willing to forego money for the sake of sticking to his (wrong) beliefs?). Apart from the philosophical conundrum it presents, I was intrigued by the legal implications of the case, which seemed to rely on whether the (non-existent) cake in question could be considered a work of art, in which case it would magically be protected by the rights to freedom of speech. Or not baking. Whatever floats your homophobic boat.

But the question of cooking or baking as “art” (ambiguously placed scare quotes because I think that plenty of cooking and baking is a form of artistic expression when a plate of food has that effect on its destroyer, but not so universally that the whole pursuit should be converted to being thought of as art rather than fodder). Like fashion, art is pleasant but unnecessary. Food can be both those things, but its primary function is to keep us alive, no matter what Bourdieu says. (Eat caviar if you must, and because you can, but don’t try to persuade me that you can’t survive without it, or that your display of “cultural capital” isn’t contributing to the unnecessary depletion of a fish that’s been around since the dinosaurs.)

But we’re here to talk about snail porridge, first “invented” by Heston Blumenthal, that wacky self-trained cook, celebrity chef  (you don’t need to actually be a chef to a celebrity one – it’s how the world works now) and proprietor of the 3 Michelin-starred The Fat Duck in Bray, UK.

This week Jay Rayner ate at some spot which was not The Fat Duck, but which featured a snail porridge which he hoped “to God [is] an homage, because they look exactly the same” as the one at The Fat Duck, suggesting that this was not clarified on the menu.

Heston’s snail porridge
Impostor snail porridge, not looking quite as good as the original. But it is also a worse shot, with poor lighting. So this less attractive photo doesn’t actually serve as evidence of much…

The reason any of this is relevant to the question of free speech is because the only time the uncredited replication of a recipe, dish or any other assortment of food on a plate can be thought to be not just an homage but plagiarism is if the “original” is understood as an *artistic* expression rather than a plate of food.

But what distinguishes food as art, and therefore makes it aesthetically and legally precious?

I could but don’t want to get into the academic dreariness of describing that distinction and its attendant consequences, except to say that I salute Rayner’s choice to simply point out that the dish he had was similar and/or inspired by Blumenthal – because snail porridge is not “common” knowledge like apple pie, the fact that the sky is blue(ish), the equation , or that Kennedy was inaugurated in 1961.

Not because I don’t feel strongly about copying without attribution, or any other variation of plagiarism, any of which are always a shitty and frankly shameful thing to do. But it’s also the case that simply calling someone out publicly for doing something derivative, and which also happens to be inferior to its inspiration, is a more human response than to go into attack-dog mode of “you stole so-and-so’s idea so you’re rubbish and should be condemned”.

It’s a tricky zone, and perhaps if I were chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten I would be aggrieved by the fact that almost every restaurant that cares about placating a chocolate craving has a “molten-“, or “lava-“, or “fondant-” chocolate number on its dessert menu, which was apparently created by him (by mistake, as most great desserts are) but which now seems to belong to the culinary commons.

It’s blindingly obvious that anyone with integrity who puts snail porridge on a menu should mention Heston in some fashion, because there are probably only two menus in the world featuring such an abomination of a classic breakfast staple (the porridge, that is). And you if you “season” anything with live ants in this day and age, you should clearly credit René Redzepi, because no one else would have come up with such a silly idea.

There are two quick take-homes here: 1) By all means be inspired by others, but it’s polite and correct to acknowledge any idea and/or sentence which doesn’t spring directly from your own brain (because we grow from “standing on the shoulder of giants” rather than pretending to be them), and 2) If you do find someone guilty of not acknowledging what is clearly someone else’s idea, it’s perfectly fine to simply point this out, ideally to the person in question, and/or on a public platform like Rayner did, without being a total dick about it. (The assholes will emerge in comments, fear not.)

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