Baker’s Dozen and Other Odd Measurements

In the summers of my childhood, we bought a dozen ears of corn at least twice a week from Mr. Eason, a well-known farmer on Oxford Road. When he first opened his stand, it sat up along the side of the road and often cars would line both sides just picking up sweet corn that was, and still is, an Eastern Shore summertime staple.

Thirteen ears would roll around in the back of the station wagon until we arrived home and my brother and I would carry the husk covered cobs by armfuls into the kitchen. I asked my mother one day why we always got 13 ears instead of 12. She replied that Mr. Eason was kind enough to throw in an extra ear in case one had worms. This made sense to me, and I never gave it another thought until now.

Where did baker’s dozen come from anyway? Turns out, the practice goes back to medieval times when bakers were required by law to provide a certain weight of product for a certain price. According to Tasting Table, “In 1266, King Henry III appointed a legal body known as the Assize of Bread and Ale to regulate the sale of bread by quality, weight, and price relative to the cost of wheat. Any baker caught violating the laws associated with this body would be subject to fines, beatings, or even imprisonment. To avoid a flogging, whenever bakers sold 12 loaves, they included an extra (typically smaller) loaf or end piece of bread as insurance that they hit the weight requirement.” It’s amazing to me that over 750 years later we still see this practice from time to time.

This wooden scale, an antique but timeless necessity in the kitchen, was used by Cathy’s great-grandmother when baking. Cathy says, “I still use it today for my great grandmother’s recipes. It’s one way of connecting to an ancestor I never met, but wish I had.”

Measurements until recent history have often been variable guesswork and even creative, such as “butter the size of a walnut.” In Fredrick Phillip Steiff’s cookbook, Eat, Drink and Be Happy in Maryland, published in 1932, he notes that (he) “has made practically no changes in the language used.” This is prefaced by the statement: “The disciples of the modern school of dietetics will probably object to the terms of measurement ‘the size of an egg,’ ‘the size of a walnut,’ ‘a pinch,’ ‘a handful,’ or a ‘dot of butter,’ and to salt and pepper according to taste…” he continues to say that much of Maryland culinary supremacy is due to the kitchen skills of the early slaves, who most of them, not knowing how to read or write, became skillful at approximations nonetheless. Lastly, he expresses that converting the historical recipes in the book would take away their charm.

The recipes in this book, like many other antique cookbooks, leave you guessing. The Steiff cookbook also conjures up a visual of the cook making a soft gingerbread by adding “one pound of butter to a quart of molasses, three pounds of flour, ginger and orange peel to your taste, potash the size of a nutmeg. Let them stand near the fire while the oven is heating. Bake them in a quick oven.” With no time or temperature given on most recipes, should we not marvel at the keenness and ingenuity of those who pulled out perfectly plump piping hot rolls made from lard, dinner after dinner with precision and grace?

In the Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy, by Hannah Glasse, published in 1805, it is not easy for a modern cook to disseminate instructions such as “take a half a gill of sack” or “you must take a quarter of a peck of fine flour.” According to Kevin Carter, “Making bread was apparently not a casual affair in the 18th century. Some of the original recipes called for a peck or so of flour. Now, I don’t have my calculator handy at the moment, but running the numbers in my head, that’s over 30 cups. That would make close to a dozen loaves of bread. This makes sense, given the amount of work and firewood required to heat an earthen oven. Home bakers of the 18th century apparently baked enough bread for the entire week.”

Maryland’s Way and A Cook’s Tour of the Eastern Shore, two quintessential historical cookbooks for those who want to take a deep dive into Maryland’s rich culinary past, also include such measurements as a teacup full of vinegar, or directions to cook in a hot oven til done. If you would like to try cooking squirrel – these books are for you… “dredge in flour well-seasoned with salt and pepper – add a little water, cover and steam for an hour or more til tender.” (Maryland’s Way) What if you served it with a side of corn fritters? Then mix 1 cup grated corn, 3 egg yolks, 1 teaspoon of flour. Beat three egg whites and fold into the mixture and drop by teaspoon full into hot frying pan. Fry with a medium amount of lard. (Cooks Tour of the Eastern Shore).

Truth is, most recipes were in people’s heads and not written down until relatively modern times. Measurements were often approximations and cooking temperatures and times almost nonexistent. If you were cooking over a fire, you may not know how hot it truly was. The seasoned cook paid attention to the nuances that make food great, like watching bread rise and slowly pull away from the side of a pan or putting a toothpick into the center of a cake to examine the crumb and knowing how long to beat and when not to beat to get the desired consistency in a finished product. I, myself, am guilty of making crumb topping with a handful of this and that and a dash of spice and enough butter to make it crumbly.

You may have heard of the Fanny Farmer cookbook, but you may not know that Fannie Farmer was a real person, unlike Betty Crocker, who is fictional. She is credited with establishing the necessity for accurate measuring and has been referred to as the “The Mother of Level Measurements.” From page 27 of The Original Fannie Farmer 1896 Cookbook: “Correct measurements are absolutely necessary to insure the best results. Good judgement, with experience, has taught some to measure by sight; but the majority need definite guides.”

Fannie goes on to discuss the measuring cup and how it should be used for measuring level by taking a knife and scraping off the top evenly. She reminds the reader not to confuse the teaspoon and the tablespoon and to apply the same practice for leveling off. Fannie Farmer was a student who excelled in the classroom and upon graduation from the Boston Cooking School she became an instructor and eventually the principal. She would go on to lecture at Harvard University.

Modern recipes are much more accurate now, which provides a comforting consistency for the cook and those looking forward to a meal they know is going to taste a certain way because accurate recipes produce equivalent tastes. However, if you are like me and have the English measurements down pat, I’m talking about ounces, cups, quarts, gallons and such, you might want to start teaching yourself about the metric system.

Ahh the metric system. I remember learning it in elementary school because we were told that “everything would be converted soon.” So, I’m still waiting, America? What happened? Turns out the conversion was voluntary so… it never happened. According to a Time magazine article, “Why Won’t America Go Metric?” we have finally actually begun the transition albeit as slow as an inchworm moves, but think about it… a 5K run, wine measured in milliliters, scientists and federal agencies use it, and if you look at a soda can you will notice it has both milliliters and ounces listed. Dual measurements are on many items, which provides perhaps a perfect learning opportunity for Americans, if we can bring ourselves to do it. I feel immediate exhaustion when I find a recipe online that measures ingredients in grams and milliliters. “Are you kidding me?” I say in frustration. It’s time consuming to pull up a conversion app that will turn grams and milliliters into comforting teaspoons and cups.

One thing is for certain, if you are following your grandmother’s recipe, it will certainly be written in the charming imperial system, and it may include measurements such as a pinch, dollop, or smidgen. In this case you may have to revert to eyeballing it, which can be really fun if you don’t take this all too seriously.

Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. A food explorer, Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.

Resources

Farmer, Fannie. The Original Fannie Farmer 1896 Cookbook. Italy. Ottenheimer Publishers, 1998. (Commemorative Edition)

Stieff, Fredrick Philip. Eat, Drink, and Be Merry in Maryland. New York. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1932.

Glasse, Hannah. The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. Alexandria, Virginia. Cottom & Stewart. 1805.

Andrews, Mrs. Lewis R. and Kelly, Mrs. J. Reaney. Maryland’s Way, The Hammond- Harwood House Cookbook. The Hammond-Harwood House Association. Annapolis, Maryland. 1963.

The Junior Auxiliary, Memorial Hospital at Easton. A Cook’s Tour of the Eastern Shore. Centreville, Maryland, Tidewater Publishers, 1948.

www.nytimes.com/2018/06/13/obituaries/fannie-farmer-overlooked.html

www.farmanddairy.com/aroundthetable/european-baking-metric-to-standard-conversion-charts/329675.html

https://time.com/3633514/why-wont-america-go-metric/

www.theverge.com/2019/6/25/18693533/metric-system-measurement-us-conversion-act-verge-science

https://savoringthepast.net/2012/07/02/interpreting-measures/ (Kevin Carter)

www.southernliving.com/food/kitchen-assistant/why-is-bakers-dozen-13

www.tastingtable.com/1332008/medieval-history-bakers-dozen/

www.cuemath.com/measurement/imperial-system/#

 

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