The Dumbest Plagiarism Scandal Ever

Recipe plagiarism and a bonus tale.

Look, I am hardcore on plagiarism (my path is strewn with students who failed class for said activity).  It is a very serious offense, and indeed is one of the most serious, if not the most serious, of academic crimes.

Having said that, I not only have a a hard time getting upset about the “scandal” over Massachusetts’ Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren’s “plagiarism” over recipes submitted to Pow Wow Chow, I have to confess the big deal being made over it is ridiculous.

The main source of the story, as best as I can tell, is this piece from the Boston Herald‘Pow Wow’ factor: Elizabeth Warren touted native roots in ’84 cookbook

Elizabeth Warren was touting her claim of Cherokee heritage as early as 1984, according to a cookbook titled “Pow Wow Chow” edited by her cousin that includes Warren’s recipes for a savory crab omelet and spicy barbecued beans.

The cookbook, edited by Warren’s cousin Candy Rowsey, is a compilation of “special recipes passed down through the Five Tribes families,” according to the introduction in a copy obtained by the Herald.

That original story does not claim plagiarism, but focused on the cookbook as an example of Warren making claims about her heritage:

Warren, who has been under fire for claiming Indian lineage despite a lack of documentation, is identified as “Elizabeth Warren, Cherokee” under each of five recipes she contributes in the cookbook, published in 1984 by the Five Civilized Tribes Museum located in Muskogee. Warren is not listed as an official member of the Cherokee tribe and she has been unable thus far to document her claim of any Native American heritage.

Cue Breitbart’s Big Government:   DID ELIZABETH WARREN PLAGIARIZE HER ‘POW WOW CHOW’ RECIPES? (the dreaded all caps are from the source):

The credibility of Massachusetts Democratic  Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren took another hit today as Boston radio talk show host Howie Carr released evidence that appears to confirm Ms. Warren may have plagiarized at least three of the five recipes she submitted to the 1984 Pow Wow Chow cookbook edited by her cousin Candy Rowsey.

Two of the possibly plagiarized recipes, said in the Pow Wow Chow cookbook to have been passed down through generations of Oklahoma Native American members of the Cherokee tribe, are described in a New York Times News Service story as originating at Le Pavilion, a fabulously expensive French restaurant in Manhattan. The dishes were said to be particular favorites of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Cole Porter.

Actually, my guess would be that all five were “plagiarized” in the sense that I expect that a) none of them were authored by Warren herself (but of course, there is no claim that they were), b) were copied from some other sources, and c) were not provided attributions.

I would note, however, that even if we note that these were copied from other sources without attribution, this isn’t pure plagiarism insofar as the nature of the work in question (i.e., the book) was not about original recipes, but rather a book of favorite dishes from a given family and therefore include a key understanding the contributor was not the author.  As such, the expectation was clear that the contributor did not write the recipes in the first place.

Look, I suspect we are all aware of these kinds of cookbooks and have probably been asked to contribute to them (and many of us may have done so).  They are usually some thematic project or some type of fundraiser.  I know that schools and churches with which I have been affiliated have done these types of books and I think my neighborhood association is currently selling one.  The drill is pretty straightforward:  contribute your favorite recipes and they will get published for others to enjoy.   One goes to the recipe box, or somesuch, to get the one one like and copies them down.  Many of these recipes are from books or publications—others are likely hand copied from friends and family (many of those copied from books and other publications).  No one worries about sourcing recipes (except, maybe, by appending “Grandma’s” to the title of a particular item, whether it was a Grandma original or not).  Really:  how many of us use recipes that we, ourselves, use were created from scratch?  Indeed, I am certain that every such recipe book of this nature is filled with copyright infringement.

Now, if the book in question was a serious publication intended to compete with mass produced cookbooks, then these recipes would need to have been vetted for sources (we aren’t talking here about the latest from Emeril or Rachel Ray).  But, of course, had this been that type of book there would have been a more complex editorial process than appears to have been the case.  Pow Wow Chow appears to have been a bit more than a localized recipe-sharing book of the type described above (although not by much), as it was sold in a museum gift shop (Five Civilized Tribes Museum of Muskogee, Oklahoma) but that hardly puts it at the level of mass level publication that would have been competing with, well, real cookbooks.  This is a small step above amateur self-publication.

And yet, I see that a lot of pixels have been spilled over this one, and with much glee.

Quite honestly, I can only discern a handful of political usefulness from this line of attack, which include:

1.  It keeps the Native American storyline in the press (a tale that strikes me as ultimately being much ado about not very much, but I can see that it could affect that way Warren is viewed in some quarters).  Although I would note that the contribution to this book would indicate that Warren did think of herself as having Native American heritage back in the 1980s and that her family (the book was compiled by a cousin) had similar views.  This, now that I think about it, actually reinforces the notion that Warren’s self-identification as having Native American heritage was sincere.  Family mythology can be quite powerful.  Being told that one is descended from a particular group or that one is related to some particular historical figure can take hold and be accepted without a lot of question, depending on when one was told such information.

2.  It feeds the ridicule machine (which is a huge percentage of punditry).  Of course, this just tickles the ears those who were anti-Warren to being with.

And btw, yes: the recipes in question strike me as sort of odd for a book about Native American cuisine, although I likewise have to admit I have no idea what would qualify as Native American cuisine.

Interestingly, there was another Warren plagiarism story late last week:  National Review Online accused Warren of plagiarizing one of her books.  Turns out, however, that they discovered that someone had plagiarized Warren.  NRO had compared the paperback version of Warren’s book to the hardcover version of  a book by a Rob Black.

Salon has the details:  Review’s fake plagiarism scoop

The National Review says Elizabeth Warren is guilty of the gravest crime a writer can commit: Plagiarism. Katrina Trinko compares passages from “All Your Worth: The Ultimate Money Lifetime Plan,” Warren’s book with her daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi, with passages from “Getting on the Money Track,” a book by Rob Black. The passages line up perfectly. The wording and even the punctuation are identical. It’s plagiarism all right. Except it looks very much like Warren is actually the victim.

The National Review headline says “Plagiarism in Elizabeth Warren’s 2006 book.” The body refers to Warren publishing the book “in 2006″ and Black’s book coming out in 2005. That’s true! Except that in 2006 the paperback of Warren’s book was published. The hardcover came out in March of 2005. Black’s book seems to have come out, if Amazon is correct, October 14 2005. (Or, according to Barnes and Noble, July 2005?)

NRO’s Katrina Trinko later issued a correction.

*I must confess, getting straight facts on this story is difficult, as most of the piece on this are in partisan sources (Breitbart, WaTi, NRO, the Boston Herald, etc.)  and mostly in editorials.  This makes getting basic facts difficult.

FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Katie says:

    The thing is, you can’t copyright a recipe, for some of the same reasons mentioned here: there are only so many ways to list ingredients for spaghetti sauce, and who’s to say that MY grandma’s special ingredient isn’t the same as YOUR grandma’s special ingredient?

    The copyright part lies within the recipe’s presentation. If I publish my grandma’s spaghetti sauce recipe with certain detailed instructions and anecdotes about Gran’s favorite wooden spoon and someone else grabs it, then yes, that’s infringement. But if it’s just the list of ingredients and basic directions, then that’s not something you can copyright.

  2. Hey Norm says:

    Wow…the wing-nuts are really after Warren…she must be a great public servant for them to want her to lose this badly.
    More quality work from

  3. My scorn for Warren’s recipe is not that she may have copied it from another source (who cares?) but of what the recipe is: Crab with Tomato Mayonnaise Dressing!

    So this was the traditional Cherokee dish handed down by her Indian forebear- crab! Yes, the Cherokees in eastern Tennessee and Oklahoma were renowned for their expeditions to Alaskan waters to drop crab pots in the fertile sea floors of the Bering Sea.

    I am a Mayflower descendant. Someday I will post one of the recipes handed down from my forebear William Bradford – the traditional Plymouth Colony recipe for Chicken Fried Rice with Water Chestnuts and Bamboo Shoots.

  4. Herb says:

    Is she really that scary? A recipe book from 1984?? Who’s doing the oppo research on that? Lisbeth Salander?

    I’m never running for office, man.

  5. I know that the accusation of plagiarism involves more than just a legal question involving copyright law, but it’s worth noting that, ordinarily, recipes in and of themselves (as opposed to any accompanying descriptive text or illustrations) are not copyright-able.

    And I see Katie already made that point.

    In the words of Emily Lutella, never mind.

  6. MM says:

    This is dumb in that there is absolutely no substance to it, but it’s smart in that it still does its job, which is to tell the unengaged and/or low information voters that there is something “wrong” with Elizabeth Warren. Come November, a lot of people might not remember these details (or how accurate they are), just that there are a lot of concerns and where there’s smoke there’s fire.

    It’s the same strategy that the Breitbart team is using with the #vetting nonsense.

  7. @Doug Mataconis:

    Useful to know (and would have changed a few of my statement above). Of course, this makes this even less of a story (and explains how so many of these cookbooks get published without legal claims getting deployed).

  8. MM says:

    @Donald Sensing: Given that the title of the book is Pow Wow Chow: A Collection of Recipes from Families of the Five Civilized Tribes : Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole, it’s unclear as to whether this is supposed to be traditional recipes.

    There’s a difference between ” Native American recipes” and “Recipes from Native Americans”.

  9. J-Dub says:

    Sounds like they are grasping at straws here. Warren must be quite a girl scout if that is the best they can come up with.

  10. PD Shaw says:

    The lack of IP protection for recipes has been a chicken bone of contention for cooks for some time I believe, and I think they see the problem getting worse with the internet. I don’t think they ever felt threatened by the amateur cookbooks that the junior leagues etc. put out.

  11. @PD Shaw:

    Well the solution, of course, is that if a recipe isn’t published publicly, then it becomes a trade secret which can be protected, via law and by contract, nearly in perpetuity. Just ask Coca-Cola.

  12. Console says:

    The whole native american kerfuffle is sort of that coastal elite thing showing it’s roots. She’s from Oklahoma. The idea that she would have native american blood isn’t far-fetched, nor is the idea that she’d take it seriously.

  13. Wayne says:

    The left\MSM thought it was big scandal of plagiarism when Scott Brown repeated some ideas that he saw on a Dole web site. I mean one politician getting ideas from another. How often does that happen? What is good for goose is good for the gander.

  14. Wayne says:

    The idea that almost anyone witha long ancestry in U.S. having Native American blood is not far fetch. However using that fact to receive benefits is crossing the line. I guess we should all get free fishing license and apply for other benefits if we think there is even a slightest chance we have Native American blood in us, right?

  15. mattb says:


    However using that fact to receive benefits is crossing the line. I guess we should all get free fishing license and apply for other benefits if we think there is even a slightest chance we have Native American blood in us, right?

    The fact is that the US government set the blood quantum numbers. As long as she has proof that she meets the blood quantum then she is, by federal/legal definition a member of that minority group and able to claim the related benefits.

    Put a different way, there’s absolutely no difference between doing that and taking advantage of all the legal tax “loopholes” to ensure one gets the maximum amount off of one’s taxes.

  16. says:

    Donald Sensing:

    Not to knock a good diatribe, but the Cherokee were originally an eastern tribe (though possibly not coastal) and Blue Crab are native to the Eastern Seaboard, so it is not too much of a stretch that they might have a dish based on Crab and Tomatoes. (Worcesteshire Sauce and Mayonnaise probably indicates the recipe has been updated in the last couple centuries.)

  17. mattb says:

    For a better response to Wayne’s points, I’d suggest the excellent and indepth article on Warren and Native American Tribal membership at the Atlantic. (link:

    The top lines:
    (1) Elizabeth Warren cannot claim official membership within a tribal group or recognition as a Native American from the federal government. Even if she did have documentation, she wouldn’t qualify for the blood quantum.

    (2) There is no evidence that she ever received any affirmative actions education or job benefits from claiming that ancestry. From the article:

    Warren, who graduated from the University of Houston in 1970 and got her law degree from Rutgers University in 1976, did not seek to take advantage of affirmative action policies during her education, according documents obtained by the Associated Press and The Boston Globe. On the application to Rutgers Law School she was asked, “Are you interested in applying for admission under the Program for Minority Group Students?” “No,” she replied.

    While a teacher at the University of Texas, she listed herself as “white.” But between 1986 and 1995, she listed herself as a minority in the Association of American Law Schools Directory of Faculty; the University of Pennsylvania in a 2005 “minority equity report” also listed her as one of the minority professors who had taught at its law school.

    The head of the committee that brought Warren to Harvard Law School said talk of Native American ties was not a factor in recruiting her to the prestigious institution. Reported the Boston Herald in April in its first story on Warren’s ancestry claim: “Harvard Law professor Charles Fried, a former U.S. Solicitor General who served under Ronald Reagan, sat on the appointing committee that recommended Warren for hire in 1995. He said he didn’t recall her Native American heritage ever coming up during the hiring process.

    “‘It simply played no role in the appointments process. It was not mentioned and I didn’t mention it to the faculty,’ he said.”

    He repeated himself this week, telling the Herald: “In spite of conclusive evidence to the contrary, the story continues to circulate that Elizabeth Warren enjoyed some kind of affirmative action leg-up in her hiring as a full professor by the Harvard Law School. The innuendo is false.”

    “I can state categorically that the subject of her Native American ancestry never once was mentioned,” he added.

  18. When I was speaking some years ago with the third in charge of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, herself a full-blooded Navajo, she explained to me that under law, each tribe sets its own standards for membership. So if a tribe wants to set a minimum of, say, 50 percent ancestry to be a member, it can, and if another sets one-eighth, it can do that.

    But she also cautioned not to equate tribal membership with actual American Indian ancestry. Tribes generally make no distinction between adopted membership and birthright membership A tribal member is a tribal member. She said Sven Johanssen of Norway, blonde of hair and blue of eyes, could fly to America one day and be a Navajo the next.

  19. Jeremy R says:


    The left\MSM thought it was big scandal of plagiarism when Scott Brown repeated some ideas that he saw on a Dole web site. I mean one politician getting ideas from another. How often does that happen? What is good for goose is good for the gander.

    That isn’t quite what happened. Sen. Brown’s “autobiography”, on his website, copied a passage from an Elizabeth Dole campaign biography, verbatim:

    “I was raised to believe that there are no limits to individual achievement and no excuses to justify indifference,” said the message from Brown, which was removed later yesterday. “From an early age, I was taught that success is measured not in material accumulations, but in service to others. I was encouraged to join causes larger than myself, to pursue positive change through a sense of mission, and to stand up for what I believe.”

    They only altered the bits that gave away it was actually originally writtin for Elizabeth Dole:

    Aside from the omission of an opening line — “I am Mary and John Hanford’s daughter” — in Dole’s speech, the Bay State Republican’s language is the same throughout.

    When caught, his camp claimed it was staff oversight that came from using Dole’s website as a model, to craft Brown’s, when he took office. Using as a model… verbatim.. I think there’s a word for that.

  20. Doubter4444 says:

    Shame on you Dr. Taylor for letting me click on a Breitbart site!
    It needs a disclaimer that it links to them.

  21. J-Dub says:

    I get all the benefits of being a white male and never had to prove a thing!

  22. J-Dub says: You have now joined the Dia Tribe and may enjoy all the benefits of membership.

  23. @Doubter4444: My sincere apologies!

  24. @Wayne:

    The left\MSM thought it was big scandal of plagiarism when Scott Brown repeated some ideas that he saw on a Dole web site. I mean one politician getting ideas from another. How often does that happen? What is good for goose is good for the gander.

    What drives me crazy about this type of approach is that you are saying that X acted badly, so it is now okay for Y to act badly because X acted badly. All this ignored the “acted badly” part.

    If it is bad, then it is bad. If it is goose/gander then that makes the thing you are objecting too originally okay as well.

  25. Jenos Idanian says:

    Sigh… I realize this is totally ridiculous, and we ought to put more attention on more relevant matters — like what Mitt Romney did once in high school, or what Mitt Romney did once on a family trip. But let me explain why I, personally, among others, are finding this so delightful.

    As others more worthy than me have noted, this is of a piece with the discovery that for well over a decade, Barack Obama’s literary agent declared that Obama was “Kenyan-born.” In both cases, it’s a case of fraudulent identity politics. Warren claimed Native American heritage for the advantages it granted her — witness how many places welcomed her and celebrated her identity. Likewise, Obama’s “Kenyan-born” element gave him an exotic, distinct identity and unique story.

    And in both cases, as they unraveled, we are being told how what was so important is now totally irrelevant. And the decades of lying for personal gain should be dismissed.

    Sorry, the price of that is derisive laughter and mockery. Those who benefited for years and years by falsely claiming some kind of racial/ethnic identity are being exposed as not quite so “disadvantaged” as they purported to be.

    And it ties in to the Zimmerman/Martin story, too. The “white guy murders black kid” was the instant theme, and that’s still the driving force behind so many of those still impassioned over it, even though Zimmerman turns out to be largely Hispanic, with 1/8 black (4 times as much “identity” as Elizabeth Warren falsely claimed) lineage and who grew up in a racially mixed family.

    So yeah, I’m enjoying it. And I’m going to continue to enjoy it.

  26. Console says:


    There isn’t a “chance” she was part cherokee, she IS part cherokee. It’s Oklahoma, there’s reservations, the bottom of the license plate says “native america,” the state flag has a buffalo skin shield on it. The native roots aren’t some ancient history book thing, it’s an active part of Oklahoma. It was Indian territory until like 1911. So like I said, it’s not wild that she took that part of things seriously.

  27. mantis says:

    @Jenos Idanian:

    So yeah, I’m enjoying it. And I’m going to continue to enjoy it.

    And we’ll continue to think you’re an idiot.

  28. John D'Geek says:

    I remember the 2000 census very well. It was the first time in history that the Census didn’t require the citizen to be able to prove that they were Native American.

    I was absolutely sure that it was a trick of some kind.

    You see, I’ve also got (according to family stories) Cherokee blood in me — and a lot of it. Of course, the relevant courthouse burned down in the early 20th century with all it’s records, so there’s literally no way to prove it. So, up until 2000 I was legally prohibited from making that claim. And, depending on the form/situation, I often prohibited from making that claim. Funny how that’s the only ethnic group with that requirement, isn’t it?

    Well, I still say “White” whenever a demographer comes around. Can’t prove it, after all. And it probably is a trick … just not sure what kind of trick yet.

    I’m not a fan of Ms. Warren, but I have to shake my head about the Cherokee thing. Just get over it already.

  29. WR says:

    @Jenos Idanian: Oh, look, Jenos is lying again. Nice to see nothing’s changed while I’ve been away.

  30. Doubter4444 says:

    @Jenos Idanian:

    . And the decades of lying for personal gain should be dismissed.

    Did you even read the post?
    Are you that dense?
    As it turns out the “plagiarism” was done, if at all to her… the other about recipes, I mean recipes!
    get a emboldened headline and play throughout the right side of the things. Are you really that inured to reality, to common sense and to, well, decency?

  31. PogueMahone says:

    @Console: The native roots aren’t some ancient history book thing, it’s an active part of Oklahoma.

    Yep. My family is from Oklahoma. I am 1/16 Choctaw.
    So even this Guinness drinking, jig dancing, bodhrán banging, pale-faced Irish boy has at least a little native American blood in his ancestry. Most of my lily-white friends in Oklahoma also can claim some native American ancestry as well.


  32. mantis says:


    I am 1/16 Choctaw.

    You’re just saying that because of all the amazing advantages it gets you. You probably have a gold house and a rocket car.

  33. Jenos Idanian says:

    @Doubter4444: Oh, I read the article. I guess I didn’t make it clear — I was referring to Warren self-identifying as Native American, not lifting recipes. That’s the “lying for decades” thing I meant. If she hadn’t done so, then she would not have been invited to contribute the recipes.

  34. @Jenos Idanian:

    If she hadn’t done so, then she would not have been invited to contribute the recipes.

    Yes, the grave results of her self-identification! Let this be a lesson to you all!

  35. mattb says:

    @Jenos Idanian:

    If she hadn’t done so, then she would not have been invited to contribute the recipes.

    Right! And further, because the person who most likely invited her to contribute was her cousin — you know the EDITOR of the book — if the Warren family as a while would only not have “lied” about their family belief that they had Cherokee ancestors, then the entire book might not have been assembled.

    Reading comprehension includes actually tying together additional facts from the article to help you make your point versus undercutting it:

    Elizabeth Warren was touting her claim of Cherokee heritage as early as 1984, according to a cookbook titled “Pow Wow Chow” edited by her cousin that includes Warren’s recipes for a savory crab omelet and spicy barbecued beans.

    As Steven points out, the family involvement in the book points out how much members of Warrens family believed in the story.

    … Unless of course the book was actually a cunning plot to help back up Warren’s claim so she could later use that status to apply for jobs (jobs which, by the admission of a conservative, former Reagan official, where her claims to Native American heritage had nothing to do with getting the job).

  36. Someone in the family was an agent for a professional tennis player. The agent was asked for the player’s favorite cookie recipe for a national woman’s magazine. The player did not cook, so my mom’s recipe went in. Since my mom’s cookies are very good, I considered this a win all around.

    Since that day though, I’ve viewed “famous person’s” recipes with some skepticism.

    (And yes, as Katie mentions at top, recipes have special placement in copyright rules, going way back. Warren, or her agent, I’m sure knew this.)

  37. grumpy realist says:

    Does NRO do any fact-checking at all? Do they even care?

    Am afraid that the answer is [NO] and [NO].