The joys of pre-metric measurements

Anyone who thinks I’m kidding around when I talk about the insanity of pre-metric weights and measures needs to read April Munday’s post on the medieval versions of the slippery little beasts.

I offer eternal gratitude to anyone who can explain why there aren’t a hundred of something–I don’t much care what–in a hundredweight. (I should warn you that eternity doesn’t last as long as it used to. It’s one of those inconsistent measurement things.)

The fluid ounce and the British passport

A friend in the U.S., L., recently sent me an American measuring cup. I’d asked for it because early in my blogging career I read on an expat blog that the British pint contains one more fluid ounce than the American pint. I tucked that information away in the back of my screaming brain to ponder at some time in the future when I suddenly become competent with numbers.

That’s another way of saying, I ignored the information. Even when I’m working with imperial measures, I don’t measure things by the pint, I measure them by the cup or the fluid ounce. But it nagged at me. What, I couldn’t help wondering at 3 a.m. when my brain was fizzing and the kitten had noticed I was awake and decided to see if he couldn’t sleep inside my nostril, if the ounce itself is different?

Nah, I told myself once morning came, my brain settled down, and the kitten had wandered off to play with the dog. They couldn’t do that to me. I’m a citizen.

Irrelevant photo: Corfe Castle, in Dorset.

Irrelevant photo: Corfe Castle, in Dorset.

I had good evidence for this. Not only a British passport, which they don’t hand out to non-citizens, but the fact that my American recipes work, even though I made every last one of them using British measuring cups.

Except cornbread. That doesn’t work. I’ve tried two or three recipes since I moved here, using cornmeal I brought from the U.S., and none of the results were worth eating. But okay, cornbread’s an American dish and doesn’t cross borders. I accepted that. Everything else was fine.

Except, irrelevantly, tomato sauce, but I don’t measure that, I just kind of combine it. Besides, it’s edible, just not the same as I made in the U.S. The canned tomatoes are British. Even the ones that claim to be Italian. That’s the only way I can account for it.

But back to ounces. I’ve been blogging since—oh, since whenever I started. A year ago? More a year ago? Have I explained that I don’t do numbers? Counting to one is beyond me. So it’s been something vaguely related to a year. Although the British year may be longer than the American one, so what does any of this mean, really, in the great scheme of things? The minute itself may be longer. I’m not about to split hairs.

However long it’s been, that’s how long it’s taken me to think, Y’know, maybe I should check on this fluid ounce thing. And so I asked if L. would send me an American measuring cup, and when she did I poured some water back and forth from hers to a British one and it didn’t come to the same marks.

I poured the water out, put both measuring cups in the drying rack, and refused to believe what, between them, they were telling me. I repeat: I’m a citizen. They can’t do this to me.

I tried again a couple of days later and got the same result, and I responded the same way, except that this time I thought, Maybe if I tried it with milk it would be different. Because milk’s white. It’s easier to read. It would give me the answer I wanted.

Finally I emailed L., explaining some of this (I hadn’t thanked her yet, so it was high time), although I made an effort to sound marginally saner than I do here, and she sent me a link. It turns out the British fluid ounce is 0.9607599ths of a U.S. fluid ounce. That just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? It’s exactly the kind of number the average home cook can work with.

This information, I decided, must explain the difference between the number of ounces in the British and U.S. pints—someone added the extra ounce so the pints come out even—and off I trotted to Google to confirm my insight.

Nope. The British pint equals 570 ml and the U.S. one equals 470.

Can you hear me screaming? One of the things I’m screaming is that you have to translate this mess into metric in order to compare it. Without the metric system, we couldn’t even discuss it, because in imperial measures it falls off the edge of the English language. We’d be reduced to pouring water on the floor and comparing the size of the spills.

So thank you for the measuring cup, L. I appreciate it and as soon as the medications and the meditation restore my equilibrium I’m going to make another batch of cornbread. My cornmeal’s only eight years old. It should be fine. And if not, what the hell, I got a blog post out of it.

And since we’re not discussing this, I should ask if you’ve noticed that expat is nothing but a fancy word for immigrant.