Food & Drink: How to annoy Delia

Claiming someone else's dish as your own isn't just easy, it's perfectly legal
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The Independent Culture
I'VE JUST HAD a great idea for a recipe. You take a pig's trotter, bone it out, stuff it with a mousse of chicken and sweet-breads, and serve it on a sauce of morels. It's brilliant. I haven't been this creative since I invented the upside-down apple tart.

What do you mean, it's not original? If someone has done it before, it's nothing but a coincidence. Pierre Koffman? Really? Well, yes, I probably did glance at his cookbook. But it's still mine.

Legally, you know, all I have to do is change the wording and it's mine. So I can take Delia's Thai fish cakes and turn the lime juice into lemon juice and the green chilli to red, and call it Terry's fish cakes. Bingo! People make Terry's fish cakes throughout the land. Terry is rich and famous. Everyone loves Terry. Except Delia.

But where did Delia get the recipe? There is little to suggest, in a Surrey birth and Kent childhood, that she inherited Thai fish cakes from her mother. Come to think of it, where do her recipes from? Come to think of it, where do everybody's recipes come from?

They used to come on the sides of flour, cocoa and cereal packets. Before that, they simply existed in the songlines of generations, evolving and devolving through daily demonstration and the spoken word.

Ever since recipes got into print, they sort of stopped evolving and became tyrannical lists of perfectly measured ingredients and specialist techniques. Every time I add three tomatoes instead of four, cut the sugar by half or add a few capers that aren't listed, I look over my shoulder to see that nobody is watching. The guilt is tremendous. One food magazine actually warns readers against changing a single measurement or degree of temperature. You're just not allowed.

We can all cook a few things from memory, but how good are we at flying solo on a new dish, without the safety net of a cookbook? Let's assume you've already done sausages and mash twice this week, and you have a few chicken pieces in the fridge.

Sure, you can look up chicken in that cookbook you were given for Christmas. It's likely to say Chicken with vermouth, tarragon and cream (Nigel Slater), or Chicken and jellyfish noodle salad (Henry Harris), or Spit-roast chicken leg stuffed with ox-cheek and black pudding ( Jean-Christophe Novelli). But what if you don't feel like any of those tonight? (Besides, you're running a bit low on dried jellyfish.)

There is an alternative, and that is the original, do-it-yourself, no- looking-things-up dinner. Now is the time to create your own recipe as you go.

Come on, you can do it. Just toss some olive oil or butter, or both, in a frying pan and brown the chicken. Look in the pantry. Oops, nothing. Then look in the freezer. Bung in a can of tomatoes, some saffron, maybe some frozen peas, and simmer gently for an hour, and you've done it. Made dinner! On your own! Without Jean- Christophe! Not only that, you've come up with an original ( your name here) recipe.

This is not to say that you can't follow a recipe if you want to. I'll look up 20 different recipes for osso buco before I even start thinking about cooking it. So whose recipe does it end up as? Mine, via Marcella Hazan, Ada Boni, Francesco Giusti, Giuliano Bugialli, Antonio Carluccio and Valentina Harris. They are paths along which I tread, but they are not the destination. Nor are there are any Mr Ossos or Mr Bucos to thank - just Italy, a million cows, and evolution. Some recipes simply belong to the collective kitchens of the world.

But do be careful. When someone asks you where you found the recipe for your fabulous chicken, tomato and peas, they don't like it if you say: "Well, actually, it's mine." They think you're really up yourself. Such independence also upsets people who make a living writing cookbooks, in the same way that happiness and serenity are anathema to those who write self-help books. Besides, if it's any good at all, the bastards will pinch it.