I decided it was time to embark on some proper American cooking. I bought us a copy of the Better Homes and Gardens cookery book,
and assembled the ingredients for chilli, cornbread and brownies, some of which looked endearingly retro.
When I posted on Facebook that I was finding cooking with cups kind of messy, my friend L (who I know, along with the other friends I’m going to mention, reads this blog, so hello!) said she initially assumed this meant I didn’t yet have any proper kitchen equipment and was putting stuff in little cups and stirring it with forks to make do.
Well, exactly. Obviously anyone knows that you can grate cheese with a potato peeler, boil rice in your kettle – you can probably drain your pasta in the plastic plate rack on your draining board if you really want to. But why would you? This, it strikes me, is the essence of the problem with the American cup system.
When pioneers travelled the prairies in wagons, in the days before digital scales, buying sacks of grain and your sacks of sugar at General Stores, and then settling down and buying a cow to give them milk for butter, I’m sure cups were a fine way to measure. (I’m basing my ideas about this way of life entirely on 30-year-old memories of The Little House on the Prairie, just in case you’re wondering.) Scales probably weren’t very reliable or accurate; your butter must have been a right mess in the days before refrigerators, and maybe, God knows, you kept it in cups anyway; and with the big sacks you might as well just scoop out what you needed with a cup.
However, life has moved on a little. Butter is now cold and refrigerated and doesn’t easily fit itself into a cup; scales are digital; and when you buy flour you buy it in a little paper packet scarcely larger in circumference than your cup.
I love a mess in the sense that it’s an excuse to put on my stripy apron, and cups in the sense that my friend C gave me a fantastic Russian doll shaped set just before we moved over here.
But the spectacle of me standing over the sink pouring flour, milk, sugar and cornmeal from their packets into three different fraction-of-cup measures with the excess spilling all around is just inefficient (no, dear reader, I don’t have pictures of this stage). Then there’s the question of whether you’ve packed your cup tightly or not, and whether your flour takes up more space because you’ve sifted it (you know, like those cereal boxes that are half empty because the contents have ‘settled’). It’s all a bit like knitting those tension squares that I can never be bothered to knit. Delia Smith clearly regards the whole thing with deep suspicion, seeing measurements in grammes as more accurate, and as we know in Britain, Delia is always right. (If you follow that link, you have to scroll halfway down the page for the right bit.)
For the purposes of balance I should make some strategic concessions. Butter comes in sticks here, 4 to a small box, and is marked out on the paper in tablespoons and cups. Likewise, the packet of pecans I bought turned out to be labelled as 1/2 a cup.
But when you get to a recipe involving cups of chopped onions, pepper and mushrooms, it all gets so ludicrous that the cookery books (or cookbooks) are forced to give you equivalents in numbers of vegetables so you have some idea of how many to buy.
And though I’m exceptionally grateful to my Canadian friend E for explaining how to measure awkward things by means of water displacement in an extra large cup measure, does this faffy method not seem a strange thing for the Land of Convenience to have embraced?
Nevertheless, though I say so myself, the chilli, cornbread and brownies turned out very well indeed.