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.”