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Coffee Beans and Tea Leaves

English and American Culture Explained

The American Issue with Weight

No, this is not a discussion about obesity. It is a discussion about cups. And grams. And ounces. And all the complicated, confusing differences in weight measurement in the UK and the US.

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My first few experiences baking in America were not very successful. Being from the UK, I am used to my baking measurements being in grams or ounces. Suddenly being thrown into the world of cups was pretty confusing. How much is a cup? Cups are all different sizes. How much does a cup of something weigh? Translating from one measurement to the other is confusing and often ends up being inaccurate, and a lot of my favourite English recipes ended up useless.

Luckily I have since mastered the cup system (and purchased a kitchen scale for those recipes which give measurements in grams and ounces) but for others who are confused about American weights and measurements, here are a few useful explanations.

Why Do Americans Use Cups?

Measuring by weight rather than by volume is widely considered to be more accurate – so why do Americans use cups? If you take a look at American history, the reason quickly becomes apparent – America was settled by people from all over Europe, and there was no universal system of measurement until 1799, when the metric system was adopted (although it would take time for it to be widely used). Whilst many measurements were based on the English system, there was no general consensus and things were, essentially, a bit of a mess. Add in the fact that it wasn’t exactly easy to get hold of an accurate scale, and it becomes clear that it was impractical for Americans to continue to hold on to measurement practices based on their countries of origin.

Cups as a standardized form of measurement took off after the publication of Fannie Farmer’s 1896 cookbook, The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook, which became a widely used manual for cooks across North America. Previously a cookbook might have required ‘a teacup of milk’ – but with no indication as to the size of the cup. Farmer’s book explained the science behind cooking, how to measure a cup accurately (purpose-made measuring cups were already available in cooking stores), and how to follow a recipe to produce the same results every time. However, it is clear that, since you could already buy measuring cups made to a standard size, that although Fannie Farmer popularized and refined the method of measuring using cups, she did not invent it.

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As to who originally invented cups…well, a standard-sized measuring cup holds half a pint. Once the metric system was adopted (1799), it should have been possible to translate these measurements roughly into the half-pint ‘cup’. A little digging suggests that people were using standard-sized cups here and there in the US, but that it was only adopted as the standard unit of measurement after Fannie Farmer’s cookbook and cooking school came into the picture.

Are Cups Really Stupid or Really Smart?

As a Brit accustomed to a kitchen scale, I was irritated by the thought of cups and tended to translate cup recipes into grams in order to use them. Cups can be irksome if you are in a country where standard-sized cups aren’t readily available for purchase. Cups also have the downside of being fairly inaccurate – sifted flour vs. non-sifted flour (not to mention different brands or types of flour) have different weights, so ‘a cup of flour’ has a lot of room for interpretation, whereas 100g flour is always 100g. There is also the issue for non-Americans of measuring something like ‘a cup of butter’ – how do you measure a solid in a cup? Of course, in America butter is divided into sticks, so it is essentially pre-measured. For everyone else, well, you just have to convert it into grams and use a scale. Frustrating.

However, cups have the upside of being a pretty simple way to do things. You don’t need a scale (these can be pricey, they can break, they aren’t all that easy to find in the US). Measuring cups are compact and easy to store, you can get them really cheap in the US, and they are easy for amateur bakers and kids to comprehend. The more I’ve got used to using them, the more I see the appeal.

How much IS a cup?

One cup is equal to half a pint in volume, and can be divided into half, third and quarter cups as called for in a recipe. HOWEVER, the confusing part is that the weight of different ingredients varies widely, so where a cup of flour weighs 128g (this varies by brand and type but let’s not get too complicated here), a cup of sugar weighs 201g and a cup of butter weighs 227g. If you are translating a recipe from cups to grams, it’s best to use a handy conversion chart for each ingredient to make sure you are getting things right. Honestly, you are best off just using the recipe in its original form, and I highly recommend buying  kitchen scale even if you primarily use cup measurements. I also recommend this very nifty measuring gadget which offers every measurement option under the sun all in one simple cone. I bought one as a student and it was extremely handy.

In terms of the cup equivalent in different units of measure, well, take a look at this handy guide below.

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For another conversion of measurement units into various different units, take a peek at this useful chart.

Which form of measurement do you use? Do you think cups are great or irritating? Comment below!

The Great US-UK Pudding Debate: English ‘Pudding’ Explained

The word ‘pudding’ is seemingly innocuous, but it has been one of the biggest causes of debate between me and my American friends. To an English person, pudding is self-explanatory. Pudding is pudding, dessert is pudding, and pudding is sometimes dessert (or pudding). To an American, pudding is pudding. Dessert is dessert. Pudding is dessert but dessert is not pudding. Confused? Allow me to explain.

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American pudding. Accept no substitutes. 

In America, pudding specifically refers to the custard-like dessert pictured above – although it can come in different flavours such as vanilla and butterscotch too. There. Done explaining. In England…things get a bit more complex. For Brits, pudding is a blanket term for the sweet course at the end of a meal (American dessert), but it is also a specific term used for a number of sweet and savoury dishes.

Alrighty, so let’s get started. In England, pudding can refer to a number of savoury food items, such as steak and kidney pudding, black pudding (yes, the pig’s blood thing) or Yorkshire pudding. Why do we call these ‘puddings’?  I really have no idea. The word ‘pudding‘ is supposed to have been derived from the French ‘boudin’, which came from the Latin ‘bodellus’, meaning sausage. This makes sense – kind of – because originally English puddings were basically things stuffed with meat.

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Those weird things with holes in them are Yorkshire puddings. They’re…hard to explain, but delicious with a roast and gravy.

Alright, so take ‘thing stuffed with meat’ and what do you think about? Pies, or meat-filled pastry. We Brits often shoved things in pastry or wrapped them in cloth (and called them pudding) and this evolved into both sweet and savoury results. Likewise, a pudding in the old-fashioned meaty sense often had suet (animal fat) in it for flavour and moisture, which explains why sweet puddings also contain suet more often than not. OK let’s face it, the medieval English were just wacky cooks and we’ve continued to follow their recipes unquestioningly and just calling them all pudding. Got it?

Then we have the fact that the English refer to ‘dessert’ as ‘pudding’ – so if the word ‘pudding’ is used on its own, you are invariably talking about a sweet dish. “What’s for pudding?” in England means “What’s for dessert?” in America. Why did we start using the word ‘pudding’ to refer to sweet things when puddings were originally savoury? Again, beats me. It might be because we used a lot of the same cooking methods used for savoury puddings to cook these sweet puddings – sticking them in pastry or wrapping them up tight and steaming them. So the word just sort of transferred from one thing to the other. Wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey, you know?

Well, setting the etymology to one side, here is a brief explanation of a few of the most well-known British puds.

The Christmas Pudding

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This little guy is a classic example of a British pudding. Traditionally made using suet and originally wrapped up tight in a pudding cloth and then boiled, though most folks steam it in a pudding basin nowadays (or buy one at Tesco). It bears all the classic hallmarks of a traditional pudding, and is stuffed full of dried fruits and booze, so it keeps pretty much forever. This pudding is traditionally eaten at Christmas (as the name might suggest) and for some reason it never caught on anywhere else.

Sticky Toffee Pudding

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Another pudding classic, the sticky toffee pudding is another steamed pudding (as is the Spotted Dick, source of much amusement amongst Americans, believe me). I think it is the steaming that makes it a pudding and not a cake. This little beauty is sweetened with chopped dates and topped with a toffee sauce. I really wish it had caught on in the United States, but puddings are generally a pretty English thing. Everyone else thinks they are weird.

Summer Pudding

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Another super English one most Americans have not heard of, which qualifies as a pudding because it is formed in a pudding basin (notice the classic pudding shape). Basically this is a bunch of fruit wrapped in bread, where the bread has soaked up all the fruit juices and gone all soggy and delicious.

So there you have a few sweet ‘puddings’, but remember, the word ‘pudding’ also refers to any form of dessert even if it does not have ‘pudding’ in the title. So if you are eating cake after a meal, you are eating pudding. What a versatile little word! I hope this has helped you to sort out the confusion and mystery surrounding the humble pudding.

Why do the English Love Tea So Much?

It is the quintessential English stereotype. Everyone drinks tea. It’s the first little piece of trivia any foreigner gravitates towards in a conversation about the English. But is it true? And if it is, then why?

First off, is it really true that English people love tea? Well, of course, it varies from person to person. Not every English person loves tea – but a significant number of us do. According to the UK Tea and Infusions Association (as if the existence of this association does not speak for itself) the British (so we’re including Scotland and Wales here too) consume 165 million cups of tea a day. That is a lot of tea. To put it in perspective, the number of cups of coffee we consume per day is only 70 million. The same website also puts Britain as the number two tea drinking nation per capita in the world, behind only the Republic of Ireland – and let’s face it, we’re all basically from that same teeny tiny group of tea-loving islands. However, if you look elsewhere, the United Kingdom (Britain plus Northern Ireland) is ranked third, behind both Ireland and Turkey. Here is a fun map showing other tea-lovers worldwide. Either way, we are way up there. So it’s not just a stereotype – we love our tea, us Brits.

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We also love our tea in a very specific way – made with a tea  bag and finished with milk. Go elsewhere and they just won’t do it right. In America, you have to be extra careful – if you ask for tea in a restaurant they are more likely to bring you this than this.

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American tea vs. English tea.

But anyway, back to the main topic of discussion here. We’ve established that the English really do love tea – or 84% of us do, anyway – so the question is, why do we love it?

Well, tea certainly wasn’t an English invention – we stole in from China, and it first came to our shores in the mid-1600s. For a long time, it was a fancy upper-class drink rather than the ubiquitous builder’s brew most Brits go for today – since it was a foreign import, it was only really available to society’s chosen few.

Once we get into the 1700s, though, we were already importing tea hand over fist, along with sugar, which was often added, along with milk, to black tea. Twinings – still a well-known tea brand – opened the doors of the first known tea shop in 1706, and the idea spread from there, overtaking coffee shops and gin houses in popularity.

So tea quickly became popular in England, and it has stuck ever since, inspiring the tradition of afternoon tea and becoming the drink of choice across every social class. There are plenty of reasons why tea became such a popular choice – for one thing, it became a cheap and easy option as soon as we stopped importing it from China and started growing it ourselves (in British-colonized India). Once the price was affordable to all, and tea shops began to spread across the country, it became a popular choice for workers. This was due to its stimulating properties, helping workers to boost their strength for a hard day’s labour. It also helped prevent disease, as boiling water before drinking it made it safe to consume, protecting people from diseases such as cholera, dysentery and typhoid. Plus, it just tasted good and went great with a delicious morning or afternoon snack.

Of course, another reason for tea’s popularity is just good advertising – England became a major international hub for tea trading (we all know about the famous tea taxes and the Boston Tea Party) and a lot of businesses sprung up around the business of tea. In more modern times, companies like McVitie’s have established their snacks as the perfect accompaniment for tea – tea and biscuits is a ritual for any self-respecting Englishman, and our deliciously dunkable biscuits are a product of our love of tea – and vice versa. One sells the other. Then there are advertising campaigns like tea cards in the 1940s-80s, collectibles aimed at children – and now worth a fair bit of cash.

There is also the beloved concept of afternoon tea – it is a tradition stemming from bored society ladies in the 1800s consuming cups of tea together with delicate sandwiches and cakes with groups of their lady friends to give them something to do with themselves in the afternoon. Of course, everyone loves an excuse for a drink and a snack in the afternoon, so it was a tradition that caught on – and it’s now a hallmark of English culture, though most of us settle for tea and biscuits and only go for an elaborate spread on rare, indulgent occasions.

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The perfect accompaniment to tea.

So really, the English love tea because it is deeply ingrained in our history and it grew into a big industry across the country, which is still present and as strong as ever today. Besides, it is a soothing habit to get into – take a break and make a cuppa, with a biscuit to go along with it. What’s not to like? You know, what, give it a try and you’ll understand.

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