Stranger in a Strange Kitchen, 01: Measured Words

Some call it emigration or immigration, depending on their point of view (and PoV, as we know, is all-important). Some call it exile, or translocation, or fleeing-the-country. Whatever you choose to call it, the facts remain: we have shifted two cats and one novelist some debatable thousands of miles (should we count as the crow flies or as the airplane flies, on the arc of a Great Circle? or as my shipped goods have – just – come at last, over oceans and through the Panama Canal, with a diversion via Mexico?) and a great emotional distance too, from Tyneside to California. From solitude to marriage. From one kitchen to another.

That last is actually a huge thing for me. I couldn’t ever have been a professional cook, but my being a novelist first and foremost makes it easy for me to be an enthusiastic amateur. I can shop for hours – we call this “thinking” – or drift all day between the keyboard and the kitchen. I can visit bookshops and libraries on an almost daily basis, keep abreast of the latest cookbooks in parallel with the latest novels, and call it all “research”. I’ve spent thirty-odd years living this way in Newcastle, food and writing always intermingled in my mind; now I get to do the same thing in the Bay Area, and it’s all intriguingly different.

Culture shock, it turns out, is fractal. However closely you examine it, however specific you try to be, the same patterns break through. It was easier, I think, in Taiwan, when I couldn’t even pretend to read the language. Here I can be fooled again and again, I can fool myself into forgetting that language divides and confuses us even as it beguiles, even as it seems to correlate. We know that we need to state our units – the Mars Climate Orbiter was lost because one team was using metric units while another used Imperial, and many a cake has crashed for the selfsame reason – but we do also need to define them. American pints are not the same as British pints; fluid ounces are different too. Tablespoons are smaller, teaspoons larger. They break down their carcases differently here; I don’t recognise half the cuts of meat on display, and when I think I’ve worked something out, as often as not I’m wrong. (Pork butt? Is from the shoulder. Okaaay…) A grill in the UK makes toast and browns dishes with heat from above; they’d probably call it a broiler in the US, where a grill is a barbecue and supplies heat from below. As you’d expect, the grocery stores are shelved with products I’d never expect to find back home, and of course are sadly lacking things I think essential – but there too, things are sometimes strangely deceptive. Habaneros that aren’t hot? What’s that about…?

Anyway, you take the point. I keep thinking I understand something; I keep being wrong and wrong and wrong again. This occasional series will be a record of confusion, as much as anything: one baffled Brit, asking how and what and most particularly why, caught between a longing for home comforts and a sense of wilful experiment. California is a foreign country; of course they do things differently here. Lemons grow on trees, and haggis is illegal. So is foie gras. Chips are crisps, everyone knows that – except for fish and chips, when they aren’t. Oh, and a crisp is a crumble. I may never get used to this. But this is how I make an apple crumble. Crisp. Whatever. It’s a pudding. Except that it isn’t, of course, over here. It’s a dessert.

Peel, core and segment six or eight eating-apples; go for variety if you can. Toss them in the dish you’ll bake them in, with the zest of a lemon and all its juice. Grate a thumb’s-worth of fresh ginger over all, and toss again; add 50g of granulated sugar (say three US tablespoons), 15g (1 tbs) of plain all-purpose flour, and a pinch of salt. Tossity-toss.

Toast a handful of slivered almonds until they’re lightly golden and smelling lovely. I do this as the oven heats; it takes five minutes or so, and you need to keep an eye on them, as they’ll burn quickly once they start to brown, and a burned almond is no fun at all.

Heat the oven to gas mark 4/350F/180C, or just plain medium. (I am still fond of something I read once in a Hungarian cookbook: “All ovens have three temperatures: warm, medium and hot.”)

Mix the toasted almonds with 120g of plain all-purpose flour (3/4ths of a cup), 25g of rolled oats (1/4 cup), 30g of granulated sugar (2 tbs) and 75g of demarara/turbinado (1/3 cup). Add 120g (one stick) of softened butter [if you’ve neglected to take it out of the fridge or freezer soon enough to soften, just grate it into the bowl; this works fine] and mix it all with your fingers until everything is squidgy. Scatter this across the top of the apples in their dish, and bake in the middle of the oven for three-quarters of an hour or so, until the fruit is soft and the topping brown and crispy. Serve with pouring cream (something Americans don’t seem to do so much, or am I just hanging out with unusual Americans?).



Stranger in a Strange Kitchen, 01: Measured Words — 12 Comments

    • I imported a professional baker’s scale before I even moved here, just so’s I could, y’know, cook. I really couldn’t get my head around the fact that most Americans don’t have one; indeed, I’m still struggling with it. Measuring by volume seems both constraining and haphazard, both at once. Hunh – there may be a column in that…?

  1. This happened to me at a very young age (moved from South Carolina to Delaware, just a skosh over the Mason-Dixon line). The definition of polite actually shifted (I had a teacher get furious at me for calling her ma’am because she thought I was being sarcastic :-). After growing up calculating the extra penny or two for sales tax on my gum/candy purchase, I could not believe that there was no sales tax in Delaware. I always kept that extra penny or two, just in case they changed the rules while I wasn’t looking.

    As a result, every time I feel certain about something, an inner bell rings and say, “Oh really? How certain are you?”

    I do think it is great for writing from someone else’s point of view — I adopt it totally while I’m in the character’s mind, and then shed it like an overly tight skin for my own, less certain, mind.

  2. Chaz, you’re doing just fine. California is a foreign country for most of the US, anyway.

    When I lived in France, I desperately missed “real” peanut butter – just peanuts and maybe a bit of salt. No sugar, no palm oil or whatever they put into it to make the oil to not separate. And maple syrup. I adjusted to these things, focusing on the lovelies I couldn’t get back home. And there were a gazillion kinds of fish I didn’t recognize and might not even if the names weren’t different.

    I had a bunch of simple meals that didn’t require any extraordinary transliteration. Tea, okay. Scrambled eggs, okay. Steamed veggies-that-I-recognize, okay. Then I tried a recipe from my own cookbook (I brought ONE), and alternated with a recipe in a French cookbook. Some were more successful than others, as the French assume that you already know how to make the dish and the instructions are just there to jog your memory, not actually tell you how to do anything. For that, I suppose you have to either grow up there or go to chef school.

  3. I had a copy of the 1903 White House Cookbook, which was full of marvelous things. Not least were the measurements, which “a good pinch” as opposed to “a scant pinch,” and “a teacup full” versus “a cup full.” I would have thought these were merely variants, except that they appear in the same recipe.

    My compromise was to decide that these were sizes in relation to each other. If I determined what I thought was a “good pinch” then I would use that amount less an eighth of a teaspoon. Or “dessert spoon.” Or something.

    The book also included home remedies and many many suggestions for tenderizing things like beaver and bear. “Take the bear and clean it…” Wow.

    • Hee. I’d love to clean and butcher a bear. Once. Not sure I’d want to make a practice of it. (The rather more domestic English version of this kind of recipe famously begins “First catch your hare…” – tho’ my mother has a recipe for junket that instructs the cook to “take the bowl to the cow and milk one pint directly in.”)

  4. My Latvian grandmother’s idea of oven temperature was “slow, just right, fast.” She determined these settings by sprinkling a little bit of flour on a baking sheet and seeing how quickly it browned. She did this because she’d always had a wood-burning stove that scorned such modern frills as thermostats. Once we got her a gas stove with a thermostat, she went right on browning flour sprinkles.

  5. Mad, for your amusement — my Dad loved these. Measuring spoons for Tad, Smidgen, Pinch and Dash —

    Chaz, I have the same wrestling act when I use a British cookbook, so do not feel alone in this! I can tell you that some stores have a huge poster for each animal, with the cuts clearly shown, to help you when buying meat. I have an older Joy of Cooking that has the same diagrams in it. It also has helpful things like “barding fowl” and older lore I can use in historical fantasy.

    But I double-check all names, because a lot of things just aren’t the same anymore!