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Friday, September 6, 2013

Of Time Travel and Cooking

by Donna Hatch

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to time travel back to your favorite era in history? I do, all the time. I'd pick Regency, of course, since that’s the era in which all of my historical romance novels take place. I’ve decided that I’d better travel as a very wealthy lady or I'd be totally helpless. For example, trying to cook would be a disaster all by itself.

Not only are most of the foods I love modern and unavailable in the Regency, but trying to follow a recipe to cook for myself would be impossible. Have you ever seen an old recipe? They are so vague that no one who doesn’t already know how to prepare the dish would ever be able to follow them. They use words such as ‘a handful,’ ‘a dash,’ ‘until the mixture has the right consistency,’ and so forth. The new cook must have learned at the elbow of an experienced cook or suffered many disasters.

In Shannon Donnally's post What's Blanc Mange  she made this quote: Amounts in older cookbooks can also confuse a modern reader, often listing ingredients to be added as handfuls, as in the rue, sage, mint, rosemary, wormwood and lavender for a "recipt against the plague" given by Hanna Glasse.

This got me to thinking, when were measuring spoons and cups standardized? This question sent me on a quest.

According to Answer BagFannie Farmer introduced the concept of using standardized measuring spoons and cups in her book, "The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book." Farmer's work was published in 1896 while she was the director of the Boston Cooking School. I discovered this same answer on a cooking post on Etsy.

However, according to IfoodMeasuring cups are invented by David Holcombe in the year 1982. Measuring cups are made with glass, plastic or metal. It has the capacity to hold approximately 0.2 to 1 litre.
I think he means 1892, since I know for a fact measuring cups were around long before 1982 :-)

Amy Balenger’s answer on Cha Cha says: First invented in 1879, measuring cups were created for standardization of measurements in cooking and baking.

Another answer on Ask said Betty Crocker, maybeI'm not convinced. 

None of these sources cited a reference, so I can't follow them back to their source to find out the truth. However, based on the answers I found (and those were the only answers I found on line—all the other hits were either nonsensical or were listings for the sale of measuring cups and spoons) the general consensus is the standardization of measuring cups and spoons happened somewhere in the late 1800’s, which was the Victorian Era, when the rising middle class created a need for women who were ladies of their own homes and who did the cooking for their own families but didn’t necessarily have training from a skilled cook to teach them.

I suspect cooks used their own cups and spoons and just knew to use a certain cup or spoon for the recipe that they either kept in their heads or wrote for their own use. I doubt anything became standardized until cook books became common. Supposedly the first printed cookbooks were sometime around the 1st or 2nd century, but would not have been a common household item to help domestic servants and housewives with cooking instruction. Books were just too rare and too expensive, and most servants were illiterate. Since the printing press was invented in the early 1800's and not widely used until the middle of the century, the idea of using it to mass produce cookbooks would have taken time. 

So the next time you open a recipe book, stop and allow a moment of gratitude for the standardization of measuring cups and spoons so you can duplicate a prize-winning dish...unless you’re like I am and manage to mess it up even if you use the right measurements, but that’s another problem altogether. Oh, and make sure when you time-travel, you arrive dressed as a noblewoman so you won't be expected to do any menial chores like cooking or cleaning. 

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