Weights and Measures, part two

Originally posted 30 April 2012

When you try to accurately recreate historic foods and beverages, some of the difficulties are obvious; a recipe that says to cook something until it “looks right” is not very helpful if you have never seen the finished product before. Measurements calibrated in handfuls are an obvious problem, so the modern cook is grateful when they come across a recipe list that specifies “four eggs,” “a cup of milk,” or “the juice of five lemons.” If you have studied the history of agriculture, you know that your problems are just starting. If the recipe calls for four eggs, you should probably use three – thanks to a hundred years of breeding chickens that lay big eggs, they are about a third larger than they used to be. They taste different, too, thanks to the chickens’ diet of vitamin-enhanced commercial feed. The milk we buy now has been homogenized, pasteurized, and has less butterfat – you may want to experiment with a mix of 3/4 milk and 1/4 cream. As for the five lemons, you might get something closer to the original if you use three lemons and a lime – lemons a hundred years ago were smaller and more tart. The liquor is different too – in the case of the Colonial American drinks that were originally made with inferior local spirits, it is now hard to find rum as bad as the best they could get. A book could be written on the differences in the raw ingredients of prior centuries and the ones we use now… I may even write it, despite being warned that the subject is too arcane to interest major publishing houses. I tested all the recipes printed in Rum: A Global History and have verified that they work, and if each is made by someone who follows directions and obtains good ingredients, they are at least close to what was eaten and quaffed in days gone by.