Woke Cooking On Twitter: Storm in a Teacup or Sorites paradox?

It could be I’m about to get cancelled, for having the wrong opinion, and Imperialist opinion … on measures used in cooking. I haven’t written a blog on cooking tips before, so here goes.

What the hell happened?

The very informative tweet below appeared in my timeline. It illustrates the various measures of the US system, based on the British Imperial system. It’s clear from the measures listed that most of these are used in domestic cooking. The quart and the gallon less so, but they are units of measure used for bulk delivery of liquids, which will still have been used in some larger households for some liquids. You might have seen other containers, such as milk churns, that deliver milk: multiple gallons, the actual capacity depending on the size.

For what it’s worth, I like this tweet, and agree with the premise that to use it today in some circumstances would be pointless when any metric system would be easier across a number of magnitudes: the sciences.

How did this informative tweet kick off into a tirade? Simple. While the original tweet was deriding the imperial system, quite rightly when applied to standardisations in science and industry, someone pointed out that they think the measures above were better for cooking – by which I presume they meant domestic cooking, on the small scale of families, or perhaps parties, or maybe even restaurants.

Had I taken note sooner of the various names and flags used by some of these Metric Nazis I’d have realised that this wasn’t the simple cooking 101 debate I thought it might be. Anyway, I jumped in, and it turns out I’m Trans-Metric phobic.

I’m in the UK, where we now use metric measurements for food. But I remember (as a Boomer) the imperial units from school, and they were a pain in the ass to use. When I started studying engineering it was even worse: horse power, pounds force, ergs! I was genuinely grateful for the change to metric. I still have engineering course books on my shelves that use a variety of units, imperial and metric, in the same book.

In engineering it can be dangerous to mix units if precision is crucial – not because either system is imprecise, but that conversions add the opportunity for error. But not so much in domestic cooking, unless you’re cooking up a batch of drugs and you’re cutting it with something lethal.

Seeing some back and forth on the cooking thread I noted what seemed like an obsession to measure everything precisely. The metric system and the use of scales seemed to be getting some traction. I wondered if any of these people actually cooked anything.

The point I tried to make was that the actual measures don’t matter, and that ratios and approximations were good enough. I’m not averse to using scales, and would generally use them on a novel (to me) recipe where it was easier to just measure than figure out the actual rations. Many recipes use convenient measures that are easy to scale. Some use stupidly precise measures: “Oh, crap, I dropped 376g into the bowl instead of 35g, better fish out a gram.”

There’s also the matter of many food-stuffs not coming in precise gram packages but in sizes that vary, like eggs, or carrots. So, what do you do when faced with a recipe? Here’s the significance of measures in recipes for apple crumble as a simple example:

So, the salient points from just these recipes:

  • Absolute amounts vary.
  • The amounts you make will depend on a number of factors: number of people you’re cooking for, amount of a key ingredient (apples in apple crumble), the baking container size you have, if you don’t have a range of them.
  • Ratios of bulk ingredients matter more than the units: tens or hundreds of grams, or ounces. If you have a recipe for 100g of X and 50g of Y, to feed two, you might make it 150/75 if you want two helpings. Or double it up if you want two full meals out of it over two days.
  • Approximate measures “to taste”, usually for seasoning and flavourings; but it can apply to bulk ingredients – my wife keeps short changing me on the sugar in apple crumble!
  • The convenience of using household volume measures rather than precise weighing: cups – from your cupboard; actual desert spoons and teaspoons – i.e. not necessarily the precise cup/tablespoon/teaspoon measuring tools.

I thought all of this was quite uncontroversial and sound advice for the budding cook that didn’t want to become anal retentive about measuring the sugar to the nearest gram +/-1%. It’s going to make your cooking so much easier and more fun, and dare I say it exciting:

With hindsight that wasn’t a piece of advice I should have been posting for people obsessed with safe spaces.

You think I’m mocking over safe spaces?

I must admit I was beginning to care a lot less about teaching the lost souls of Twitter how to cook without losing their minds at the supermarket about how many carrots to buy. It turned into a philosophy class. The Sorites paradox re-defined: What makes a cup of carrot?

For those wondering the Soritese ‘heap’ paradox is not a paradox but another ambiguity of the definition of a measurement.

The tensions over how precisely one should measure food continued.

“Measurement errors add up pretty fast on some recipes.” Well, if you add 250g or butter measured out at 1g at a time, I guess so. Cutting off half a pack of 250g for a 4oz recipe not so much that it matters, in your kitchen. Do you ever get the feeling that problems are being invented in order “own” you?

I suppose they all think I’m a far right Imperialist because I don’t denounce the use of Imperial measures in domestic cooking.

When you come to bulk manufacturing there are other factors where precision becomes more significant: consistency, and avoiding waste. But even in large kitchens chefs will vary their recipe according to taste and ingredients. Did you ever see Gordon Ramsey knocking out a dish and not tasting it to make sure it’s OK?

Oh, while I’ve been writing this, over a few minutes, and after my replies to some of the daft replies, the likes for the daft ones are ramping up:

Who knew cooking was such an ideological hell hole. I expect to see an outraged Owen Jones any minute.

If you’d like to see the original tweet and all that followed, here it is:

French Lessons

Some of the respondents wanted to impress upon me how precise and ‘scientific’ were the renown cooks like the French. But they have been deceived by the over priced restaurants that take a wad of cash for a morsel on a large plate, as long as it has a few swirls of coloured gravy around it.

That’s not home cooking for many in France. Here is one person’s awakening to the traditional nature of French cooking, that not only lacks unnecessary precision, but where the same meal could vary a great deal depending on the season and what is available.

I thought French cuisine was the height of precision. My mother-in-law taught me an easier way.

Washington Post article

All this should be obvious to anyone with a sense of history. Precision scales were not available or necessary in most homes. My own grand mother made wonderful cakes after measuring out the dry ingredients in her hands! Or sometimes estimating by sight, pouring straight from the flour and sugar bags into the bowl. I have to confess, at age eight and beginning to wonder at the marvels of science, I was shocked that this worked. But I was eight, not a grown adult with significant experience in a home kitchen, … which is what I really think is the problem with many on the Twitter tirade.

Non-Decimal Measures

Of course there are many cases where non-decimal measures work very well: factors make for easier fractions.

The Babylonian system is base 60: having factors of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, 30, and 60, while decimal uses 1, 2, 5, and 10 for base 10.

“Ha! The Babylonians are long gone. Not very modern, is it!”

OK, is computing modern enough for you? That’s binary, base 2.

Or how about web sites? Many use base 12 column system that gives you convenient factors for splitting up a web page into rations of 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 12, and sets of columns: 4 + 8, 3 + 6 + 3, etc.

Now, I’m not going to stretch this point, because for many uses decimal is very convenient. But deceptively so. The reason base 10 for measures seems better is because we use base 10 for counting. But what if we did not?

If we used base 8 for counting our digits would be only 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. And counting would be in that base:

  • four = 4
  • five = 5
  • six = 6
  • seven = 8
  • seventy one (our eight) = 10
  • seventy two (our nine) = 11

The ‘problem’ with the imperial system is that it uses multiple bases at the same time, and THAT is why we have to convert between them – as the diagram in the original tweet illustrated.

But that ‘problem’ is also a convenience. Ounces are conveniently small for cooking with small amounts, and even with bulk ingredients (8oz, 16oz), but pounds are also good (1/4lb, 1/2lb). Cups are mere handy implements (the standardised cup being a convenience for the apprehensive cook more than anything).

And, while the decimal system is more convenient across scales, it’s not entirely consistent. Decimal scales are usually used in rations of thousands: 1, 1000 (Kilo), 1,000,000 (Mega), 1,000,000 (Giga), etc., but in practice other measures are convenient. The 1cm is 1/100 of a metre, 1mm 1/1000.

Inglorious Basterds Fighting Fascism

OK, enough of the common sense. Here is some outrage, for the giggles.

Literally 1984:

We’re now in SJW crazy town … over approximations in home cookery – Dowsomane is upset …

While we have one idiot crying about ableism another is engaging in ageism.