Measuring Butter in a Cornish Kitchen

I made a pound cake a few years ago and a friend asked for the recipe. I copied it for her, and a day or two later, she called up.

“What’s a stick of butter?” she asked.

I was afraid she understood it as a verb: Stick that butter where? The thought threw me enough that it took a bit of back and forth in my head before I got stick of butter translated.

“A quarter of a pound? Four ounces? Eight tablespoons?”

Irrelevant Photo: Cows.

Irrelevant Photo: Cows. They never heard of a stick of butter.

Butter here isn’t sold by the pound, and no one over a certain age thinks in ounces. But when the U.S.—or what later became the U.S.—was young and impressionable, Britain convinced its population to use a completely batty system of measurements: 8 ounces to a cup, 2 cups to a pint, 2 pints to a quart, 4 quarts to a gallon, but look out because ounces are both a measure of weight and a measure of volume but they’re not interchangeable, you just sort of have to know which one the recipe means. Sixteen ounces in a pound. We’re not going to get into bushels and hogsheads and their even more obscure friends and relatives, and I have no idea how many feet to the mile but, for no apparent reason, there are three to the yard. Then the British gave the system up and adopted the completely logical metric system. (Mostly. Car-related distances and speeds are still measured in miles. Go figure.) There was a predictable backlash from people convinced civilization was coming to an end, but by that’s faded away now, leaving us with no quarter pound and no ounces, although they do still use teaspoons and tablespoons sometimes. (Three teaspoons to a tablespoon, in case anyone asks.)

Even I’ve adapted. I stopped asking for a pound of lunchmeat at the deli counter, because even though they’re theoretically bilingual they always thought I was talking about currency—a pound’s worth. Which these days isn’t much. And since no one says half a kilo, I ask for 500 grams.

And I’m a vegetarian.

What does this have to do with butter? When you buy butter here, it doesn’t come marked into tablespoons because you subdivide it by the gram, which unlike the ounce is a measure of weight and only of weight. The packages are close enough to half a pound that I still think of them that way, but they’re not cut into sticks, the way god also intended, they’re sort of flattish and clunky. Hence my friend’s confusion. No one talks about a stick of butter here because there are no sticks of butter.

Sad, isn’t it?

If you plan to bake over here, you need kitchen scales—not just for butter, but for most ingredients, because they’re measured by weight. Of course, a few gifted cooks just know how much of an ingredient they need without having to measure. I knew a woman like that back in Minnesota. I asked her for her pancake recipe once.

“You start with enough milk for pancakes,” she said.

“Edith,” I said. “Never mind.”

19 thoughts on “Measuring Butter in a Cornish Kitchen

  1. If you’re asking for 500 grams, you’re not asking for a British – or American, at that – “pound”, since that is only 453 grams. I don’t think I’ll ever master the imperial system, having used a logical system all my life till, at 60, I moved to the US.
    Btw, only yesterday, at a restaurant here in the US, my German friends who’re visiting just now, asked how much an ounce was in grams, when the menu gave them the choice between an 8 and a 12-ounce steak. We had to quickly go online to find out.
    I really keep wondering, how with their system of measurement, the US and Britain have been able to become world powers. ;)
    Have a great weekend,
    Pit

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    • The way I am with numbers, anything vaguely related to half a pound is close enough. But a friend who was visiting from the U.S. recently tried to order a 250-liter glass of wine. Which would have been enough to drown us all. Even for me, that’s not close enough.
      And yes, you do have to wonder, given all the time our citizens put into our number system and our spelling, how we had the time to become world powers. And why the rest of the world didn’t laugh us off the field.

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  2. I don’t know if you ever saw the TV series (from the BBC, but on American TV) called “Two Fat Ladies” They were two older women who traveled around the UK on a motorcycle with a sidecar. They cooked all sorts of yummy stuff, usually with tons of butter, lard, etc. They had cookbooks that told you how to use tons of fat in food. We loved the show. Unfortunately, one of them died and the show ended.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post! I don’t understand the metric system but in a very basic way and wouldn’t know how to use it for much. I much prefer the English system, very easy to use. Hopefully we won’t switch but it’s kinda funny to hear Brits using miles when talking about driving. There are 5,280 foot in a mile…

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    • For pure logic and ease of use, I’d have to defend the metric system over imperial measures. But that’s not the same as saying I find it easy to adapt. And I have to admit, half an hour from now I’ll have forgotten the number of feet in an inch. With a round number, I might have stood a chance….

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  4. Here in Germany ‘pound’ is used to mean 500g so you get 250g as a half-pound, too. I use metric but my scales are both and I can bake a sponge cake without a recipe book by adhering to my (Scottish) mother’s advice of 2 oz for every egg. Likewise, a white or cheese sauce will always be “an ounce, an ounce to half a pint” (an ounce-flour, an ounce-fat and half a pint-milk). I find volume measurements tricky – I believe from American friends here that our flour is less aerated than yours which could make following recipes even trickier. Our butter (250g but flat bricks not sticks) sometimes has lines on the paper for every 25g so you can figure out how much you need without weighing it.
    In southern Germany you can order a ‘little quarter’ of house/open wine (=250 ml) or even a ‘little eighth’. In the northern parts it’s less common and comes in regular glasses of 100 or 200ml.

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    • I’m in awe that you can bake without a recipe. I wouldn’t be any more impressed if you lifted the kitchen table without having to touch it. I’m not sure if flour in the U.S. is more aerated or not, but since you have to sift it twice when you measure it by volume (the theory being that you bump some of the air out in the process of moving it around), I can’t see that it makes a whole lot of difference. I did read a claim that whisking the flour will do lighten it just as well as sifting, but I can’t swear it’s true.

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      • ;-) I am sooooo sloppy I never sift flour – but that’s good to know a I actually have a couple of Australian recipe books and they use volume measures too! I reckon whisking is asking for a flour-everywhere kind of disaster – and then I wouldn’t even be able to see the table to life it with no hands!

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  5. >Then the British gave the system up and adopted the completely logical metric system. (Mostly. Car-related distances and speeds are still measured in miles. Go figure.)

    I think the main reason (there could be others) why road distances are still in miles is that the government concluded it would cost far too much to convert all the road signs. But of course, all our UK cars have speedos that show both miles per hour and kilometers per hour.

    The US adherence to feet, inches, pounds, gallons and so on just seems so quaint to me now, and I was brought up (in the UK) on those measures. When I was an engineering student in the early 1970s, my university department’s lecturers were just getting used to SI units (metric units for scientists), though one professor rebelled and doggedly stuck to Imperial units.

    We recently bought a craft table that originates from a US Company in New England and assembling it was a very nostalgic process, since all the nuts and bolts were sized in fractions of an inch – not a millimetre to be seen. It made a change from IKEA (always metric).

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    • I’m old enough to remember when foreign cars were first making significant inroads into the U.S. and most mechanics wouldn’t touch them because their tools were in fractions of an inch and the cars needed metric wrenches. My VW and I got chased out of many a garage.

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      • That’s brilliant!

        During the 1970’s and early 1980,s the UK was gradually going metric. In 1982, I bought a used Ford Escort car (assembled in Britain) and found to my “delight” that half the nuts and bolts on the engine were metric size, and half were imperial, It seems that Ford had sourced the engine’s numerous components from both UK suppliers and suppliers from the European mainland, so the fittings came in what ever size standard the particular manufacturer was used to. So to this day I have a set of metric wrenches and a set of imperial ones. Twice the fun!

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  6. I love the quirky system of measurement you all gave us almost as much as I do the quirky language. Can’t believe you gave it up.

    So what’s a McDonald’s Quarter-Pounder with Cheese called over there, then?!

    Great post.

    Like

    • I’m not sure about the quarter-pounder. Not only am I a vegetarian, I live at the back of beyond and the nearest McDonald’s is–at a wild guess–a 45 minute drive from here. I’ll add the question to my list of things I need to learn about the U.K. I’m from the U.S. originally (New York, and then Minnesota), so I come to this with an outsider’s eye.

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