I love America, my adopted home. I love everything about it. Well, alright, there’s one exception. Just one. Measuring cups.
Cooking is a passion for me. So imagine my confusion when I moved to the United States only to find that no one used kitchen scales. How can you measure anything for cooking? One of my friends advised me to buy a new tool: a set of measuring cups. This way, I was told, I could accurately measure ingredients for any recipe.
A measuring cup? Not scales? Suddenly that early internet hoax, The $250 Cookie made sense. Back in the early 90s, I received an email. It told of how a woman in America had asked for the cookie recipe at a restaurant, they’d charged her $250 for it and she couldn’t get a refund. Her “revenge” was to email the recipe to everyone she knew. One of the first instances of spam email, it cluttered up everyone’s inboxes for a week. The story, was of course, baloney but I wanted to try the recipe. The problem was that all the measurements were in cups, not ounces or grams. So I had no idea how to make it.
Now I had the answer. Americans use cups to measure food! Sadly, I’d lost the recipe years earlier but I decided to make another dessert (I forget what I made exactly). I pulled out my shiny new measuring cups. The recipe called for “1 cup walnuts, chopped”. Huh? This didn’t make sense! How many walnuts is that? If I chop the walnuts coarsely, I’d get far fewer walnuts in the cup measurement than I would if I chopped them finely. Paralysed by inaccuracy, I did my best and chopped them medium-fine.
The next instruction was worse: “2 cups flour”. Was that flour fresh out of the bag or flour that I had sifted? Because it’s been aerated, far less sifted flour fits in a cup than flour out of the bag. As a measure for solid foods, I quickly realised, this cup system was dreadful. I felt like giving up altogether when in another recipe it advised “1 cup strawberries”. Seriously? You can’t even fit them sensibly in the measure!
It took some searching online, but I found some digital scales. Weight is accurate: an ounce of walnuts weighs the same no matter how they’ve been chopped. The problem was that I couldn’t use them with American recipes: there’s no way to convert a measure by volume (cups) to a measure by weight (scales).
Ok, I thought, this cup system is disastrous for solids, but it must work for liquids, right? It’s definitely better. But better is a relative term. I was used to using a glass measuring jug with fluid ounces marked on one side and millilitres on the other. Very accurate. The problem with measuring cups is that although measuring liquid by volume makes sense, there’s no granularity when you use cups.
With a jug I can easily pop 200ml of one liquid and 275ml of another into the same recipe. With the cup I’m stuck with using whatever sizes the set of measuring cups I bought came with. One and 7/8 of a cup of water would require me to use several measuring cups (which requires more washing up) or to guess (which defeats the purpose). So I bought a jug with fluid ounces marked on one side and cups on the other. I wished it had mililitres on it too, but at this stage of desperation it seemed like a small issue.
Because the use of measuring cups in the kitchen is so distinctive to the USA, there had to be a point when Americans broke away from using scales. Why would they do that? Why go from a more to a less accurate system? It made no sense. So I did what I always do when I’m confused: I researched and tried to find out what happened.
Fannie Farmer was born in 1857 and is best known for her 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cook Book. She championed the use of measuring cups in cooking, saying that “Correct measurements are absolutely essential to insure the best results.” Before her time, it seems that American cookery was filled with imprecise measurements, based more on guesswork than science (“a dash of…”, “a piece of…”). That’s Fannie Farmer at the top of this post, admiring one of her cups.
The book made her famous and she travelled the country, lecturing and evangelising her measuring cup system. Although poor for measuring, they were convenient, cheap and you could make do with just one set of cups to measure everything in the kitchen. No need for fiddly, expensive scales.
Fannie Farmer’s legacy lives on. I have given up trying to fight it. I’ve accepted cups as a necessary evil. I love anything to do with the kitchen. I adore kitchen utensils, but it’s so hard to love my measuring cups. They sit in the drawer, frustrating me. I doubt I’ll ever love them, but maybe (just maybe), if I buy myself these Matryoshka Cups from the MoMA Store, I might start to grow fond of them. And maybe even like them. Maybe.