Thursday, February 23, 2006

American Cooking Measurements

I was posed a cooking question from a fellow blogger today. Mark (who I refer to fondly as "Mr. England" in my head and from here on so--unless he objects), of Gullible's Travels asked:

"One question I have of Rosa, or anyone else who cares to answer, is why do Americans use Cups in their recipes? What is wrong with weights for solids and measures for liquids? A cup of a solid ingredient seems so imprecise (although I know cooking is an art not a science)."
In all honesty, I had never given it any thought as to why we in America use the cup/spoon measurement when cooking. (Does that make me a dumb American? Don't answer that.) I have converted recipes from friends in the U.K. using a cookbook chart or an online conversion service; but, again, I never gave it another thought. Since my roots are well established in the states for many generations (yes, I am quite the mutt, so to speak), I may pose the question to my inlaws, "Do you remember your parents using the metric system in cooking?" They are both first- and second- (I think) generation Americans from Italy and the Ukraine. It did make sense what Mr. England said regarding the use of available tools while pioneering. But I had to know. So I, too, did a Google search and this is what I found:

Interpreting & adapting historic recipes:

"Cooking the *real stuff* from original recipes sounds easy, but it's not...even if you're lucky enough to have access to ancient roasting pits, colonial beehive ovens, Conestoga kitchens and fireless cookers. What did the colonial housewife mean by when she wrote in her recipe "butter the size of an egg?" Exactly how hot was a "hot oven?" How did the Virginia housewife know when her hams were finished smoking? Was the Cincinnati housewife who cooked in the 1920s more likely to use single or double acting baking powder? This is complicated stuff. Historic hen's eggs were generally smaller than the ones we have today; hot ovens & smoked hams were a matter of experience and the preference/propensity for using *new-fangled* food items were (as they are today) a matter of money, tradition, and personal taste.

Truth is, most old recipes were not much more than shopping lists with cursory prep notes. Detailed instructions were not considered necessary because it was understood that whoever cooked the food already knew the basics. Measurements are time/country/food specific. Did you know some culinary historians say we Americans measure with objects (as opposed to weight) because of our pioneer heritage? Conestoga wagons had plenty of cups & spoons but very few reliable scales. Scientific oven temperatures and exact measurements had no place in pre-industrial kitchens...which explains why food was commonly *served forth* when it was *done.* Standard measurements and detailed cooking instructions were a by-product of the Industrial Revolution and are commonly attributed to Fannie M. Farmer, principal of the Boston Cooking School."

Yes, that old name most American cooks have heard but can't quite place: Fannie Farmer. Yep, she's the one who standardized the measurements that we use today in America. Here is an excerpt from the infamous 1918 edition of "The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book:"

How to Measure
"Correct measurements are absolutely necessary to insure the best results. Good judgment, with experience, has taught some to measure by sight; but the majority need definite guides.

Tin, granite-ware, and glass measuring-cups, divided in quarters or thirds, holding one half-pint, and tea and table spoons of regulation sizes,—which may be bought at any store where kitchen furnishings are sold,—and a ease knife, are essentials for correct measurement. Mixing-spoons, which are little larger than tablespoons, should not be con-founded with the latter.

Measuring Ingredients. Flour, meal, powdered and confectioners’ sugar, and soda should be sifted before measuring. Mustard and baking powder, from standing in boxes, settle, therefore should be stirred to lighten; salt frequently lumps, and these lumps should be broken. A cupful is measured level. To measure a cupful, put in the ingredient by spoonfuls or from a scoop, round slightly, and level with a case knife, care being taken not to shake the cup. A tablespoonful is measured level. A teaspoonful is measured level.

To measure tea or table spoonfuls, dip the spoon in the ingredient, fill, lift, and level with a knife, the sharp edge of knife being toward tip of spoon. Divide with knife lengthwise of spoon, for a half-spoonful; divide halves crosswise for quarters, and quarters crosswise for eighths. Less than one-eighth of a teaspoonful is considered a few grains.

Measuring Liquids. A cupful of liquid is all the cup will hold.

A tea or table spoonful is all the spoon will hold.

Measuring Butter, Lard, etc. To measure butter, lard, and other solid fats, pack solidly into cup or spoon, and level with a knife.

When dry ingredients, liquids, and fats are called for in the same recipe, measure in the order given, thereby using but one cup."

Fondly, I remember learning this exact form of measurement in the kitchen of my Jr. High School Home Economics class. (Yep, that's the woman herself.) All "young ladies" were encouraged by their mothers and 6th-grade guidance counselors to take this class in 7th grade. Maybe this is where I learned the name Fannie Farmer. I probably thought it was a made up from the sound of it and knowing how I was at that age. I also remember, not so fondly, the same year being told by my math teacher that the United States would be changing over to the metric system entirely within a couple of years. Was this a ploy to scare us into learning this "new" system? Evil teachers--we haven't switched over yet.

While researching all this info, I found another fascinating site that may be of interest to any cooks reading this lengthy, yet informative, blog entry. What is a Kitchen by Alice Ross. This touches on the history of kitchens both here and abroad.

Thanks Mark! I learned a lot from your question. Hope you did too.


Bud said...

I believe one reason we're using the cups and spoons measurements is because when the forfathers came over from England, they didn't want anything they did to relate to that country. Driving on the right side is another example of change from the old country.

Rosa said...

Bud, I think you're right too!

Anonymous said...

Up until the 1950's both the US and Britian used the same basic measurements. The US ones were called US Standard and the Britian ones were called Imperial, some of the measurements differed slightly in actual size, weight, or volume but utilized the same names. Britian did not go metric until officially until the early 90's as a result of the EU sanctions. AS for driving on the right side, that was more of a convience issue than a snub England issue. The reasons for this is well documented and Britian and a few of it's colonies are the only ones to drive on the left side of the road. Besides most cars built in the US until 1908 were right hand drive. But back to the measurements, we use the ones we do because we refuse to follow as a country anymore, we refuse to have anyone else dicate what is best so we have refused to follow the world wide trend of the metric system. Also the measurements of Tea Spoon, Cup etc etc ... are of course from immigrant days when they only took what was neccesary or priceless to them and dishes and silver passed down were more important than measuring devices so they used them to measure with. We have lost a lot of those old measures though, like coffeespoon and gill. So we have progressed to fewer items to measure with.

Rosa said...

Thanks so much A.

Anonymous said...

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