Plagiarism is nasty business. Not only does it presume willful lifting of another’s work; it suggests a larger taint on one’s character.

But what about plagiarism’s kinder cousins?

Adapting and deriving, for instance, are far lesser crimes – if they’re crimes at all. And what of the attribution that’s simply unknown or plainly wrong?

Nowhere are these issues more clouded, absurd or intriguing than in the kitchen.

Take the case of my mother’s Chocolate Angel Pie, a mousse-like concoction that sits in a billowing meringue shell. When I was growing up, that pie was linked with my mother. It was “her” pie. Not that she claimed its authorship, but she was its leading purveyor.

This essay is excerpted from Joan Silverman’s “Someday This Will Fit: Linked Essays, Meditations, & Other Midlife Follies.” (Bauhan Publishing, 2019, $19.95) Silverman lives in Maine (part-time). Cover courtesy of Bauhan Publishing

Actually, I think the recipe came from a package of Baker’s Chocolate. But no matter: This is the stuff of which family legends are made, and who in the family would dare quibble? Besides, not everyone could master this delicate confection.

As time went on, the recipe filtered down to us. My brother and two cousins became the next generation of bakers, each working with the same instructions. Somehow, though, none of the pies turned out the same.

My brother was the only one who accurately reproduced my mother’s efforts. He got all of the highlights – taste (semi-sweet), texture (finely whipped) and color (deep taupe). My cousins, though excellent bakers, made great-tasting facsimiles that were decidedly wrong. One was too pale next to the hearty tone of the original; the other was flecked with chocolate bits, textured beyond the recipe’s scope.

These are hardly criticisms of a pie that can’t be ruined, but they illustrate an odd fact: Three attempts to quote an original source can lead to three distinct results. Despite the use of identical ingredients, and the same formulation, my cousins’s pies were more paraphrase than quote – delicious approximations, not replicas.

Of course, my mother would have been pleased by all of these efforts, their intent so obviously flattering. If asked, she might even have coached the aspiring imitators. But in the annals of replication, only my brother has ever succeeded in baking a true copy. Our cousins are, alas, failures in the art of theft.

At some point, it seems odd to attribute three different pies to one recipe. Yet it was that one recipe that led three cooks down different paths.

Whose pie is this, anyway?

In my view, it was my mother’s pie by way of a recipe that she found. Chances are, she altered some detail or other, and the resulting pie was the one with her moniker. That’s how many family recipes come into being – verbatim, with a little tweaking.

But given the real differences between the original pie and these failed wannabes, why shouldn’t my cousins claim their versions to be their own? This would hardly be plagiarism; if anything, it would be a show of deference – an acknowledgement that not all Chocolate Angel Pies are created equal.

In the end, the origin of a pie is of little consequence, except for the matter of bragging rights. Within families, those rights escalate into stories, then legends, and the recipes become a shorthand between generations. It is unlike the commercial world, where a recipe might be one’s trademark, and its theft the grounds for litigation.

Fortunately, most pies are made to be eaten, not chewed on by the law.

Joan Silverman lives in Maine (part-time), and reviews books for this and other publications. The above piece was excerpted from her book, “Someday This Will Fit: Linked Essays, Meditations & Other Midlife Follies,” newly released by Bauhan Publishing.

Chocolate Angel Pie

SHELL:

2 egg whites

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup chopped nuts (optional)

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F.

Beat the egg whites, salt and cream of tartar in an electric mixer until foamy.

Add the sugar gradually. Whip until stiff.

Fold in the vanilla (and nuts, if using). Spread in a greased 9-inch pie plate.

Bake the meringue crust for 50 minutes or until golden brown.

FILLING:

4 oz. Baker’s German Sweet Chocolate bar

3 tablespoons water

1 cup whipping cream

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Melt the chocolate over very low heat with the water, stirring constantly. Remove the chocolate from heat to cool.

In a chilled bowl, beat whipping cream until whipped. (Note: The key is just whipping the cream past where your judgment would say to stop … almost butter.)

Add the vanilla to cooled chocolate and fold the chocolate mixture into the whipped cream.

Pour into the cooled pie shell. Chill at least 2 hours before serving.

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