American Software vs. Metric or Mormons Making Coffee

By The Metric Maven

It is my understanding that during the Bejing Olympics the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) sent measuring cups and spoons to China. This was done because the Chinese could cook recipes from anywhere else in the world but not those from the US.  The non-metric units of the US were a complete bafflement to the hosts, and when the Olympics were over, they just threw the cups and teaspoons away seeing them as useless.

I began cooking with metric about three years ago. It took me a while to understand that I needed a scale with a digital readout in grams. I realized that metric recipes generally use mass instead of volume for dry ingredients. The best chefs do this also. The surprising part was that because of the fact that 50 milliliters of water weights 50 grams, I could actually estimate using the mass of many liquids also. After I became used to using the digital scale and it’s tare function, I found cooking in metric vastly easier, quicker, and more enjoyable than it had been in imperial.

My father has been interested in cooking his entire life. He uses a software package to index his recipes. During a recent visit to his home, my father marinaded steaks and served them for supper. I had not tasted steaks made this way since I was a boy, and later asked for the marinade recipe by email. He sent me the recipe in imperial units as I would expect and then said he had included a metric version from the program so I would not have to convert it. Below is a reproduction of the metric recipe:

After I saw this I wrote my father an email, and asked if he had created this metric recipe  as a joke. No, he assured me, it’s how it came out of the recipe program. I was just gobsmacked by the use of fractional values of centiliters, deciliters and milliliters. According to the metric recipe this would make one cup of marinade.

This strange metric usage made me think of a story told to me by a deceased family friend, known as Skeez, about his experiences in World War II. He talked about riding in troop trains across the US when he was in the military. He gushed and gushed about the great food the women would have prepared for them at each rail stop. Word had “gotten around” that the food at all the Utah stops was good—but don’t drink the coffee. Mormons are forbidden from drinking coffee, but when they were catering for the government, and were required to brew it, the coffee was not remotely as good as the food..

In fact, the coffee served by Mormons was so awful, that considerable speculation went into the method used to make it so completely unpalatable. Some argued that they reheated the same giant container of coffee over and over during the week, and just added more as it decreased in volume. Others thought they just re-used the coffee grounds and added new when it didn’t look black enough. For me “Mormons Making Coffee” was a metaphor for people trying to implement something about which they had only a very slight acquaintance or understanding, and no working knowledge. Like an American presiding over a cricket match.

Whoever programmed the recipe software my father owned, had proved to me that he was like a “Mormon Making Coffee,” but more specifically he was an American Using Metric. There could be no certainty how an American might imagine metric should be used in cooking, and as we see, anything could happen. The two hallmarks of the metric system which make it elegant for cooking, is that it can be implemented to whole value (integer) numbers and only a simple set of prefixes need to be used. It was clear that the confused, and nearly incomprehensible, American measurement vernacular had been imposed on the metric recipe. The use of 1 1/8, 2 1/2 and 1 1/4 with metric values was ultimate proof. As the saying goes, there is no crying in baseball, and no fractions in metric. Metric recipes generally use whole numbers and milliliters–only. And certainly not fractions. Generally spices are measured in volume as indicated, but not with fractional numbers. The brown sugar would be measured in grams. Let’s take this simple recipe and write it as I would have expected to see it.

Don’s Soy Sauce Marinade

125 mL LaChoy Soy Sauce
125 mL Orange Juice
30 mL Lemon Juice
12 grams (15 mL) Brown Sugar
30 mL Salad Oil
3 mL Pepper Sauce
1 Clove garlic, crushed
1.25 mL Black Pepper

Combine ingredients. Use to marinate beef, pork, or chicken before grilling or broiling. I usually put it in a Ziploc bag with the marinade for 2 to 4 hours before grilling…..for a little different flavor add 30 mL of Worcestershire sauce.

Yield 300 mL

This is the best I could do with this conversion. You will note that other than the black pepper, I was able to use whole numbers for the rest of the ingredients.

This episode in my life illustrates something I did not appreciate until a few years ago. Although the metric system is much simpler than the, bloated, and uncorrelated set of units used in the US today, metric should still be even simpler. There are metric prefixes that should be eliminated, which I call the prefix cluster around unity. More formally it’s Naughtin’s 4th law. Some prefixes with units, like the centimeter the centiliter, deciliter should be vanquished. The use of prefixes that are spaced by a factor of 1000 seems to work very well, and is about as simple as it gets for metric system implementation. In cooking, the milliliter is probably all you need for volume, the gram for mass, and the millimeter for distances, and that’s it—done!—nothing else to learn!

American Interpretation of using The Metric System in Cooking (click to enlarge)

With a metric recipe and proper instructions—perhaps even Mormons could successfully make palatable coffee. But not if that metric recipe was created by imperial to metric conversion software, which had been written by American programmers. Without instruction in the metric system from childhood, and its mandatory and efficient adoption in the US, our software designers will probably continue to use metric in an obtuse manner, and continue to create the illusion that the metric system is complicated, when it’s a paragon of simplicity.

Updated 2012-11-10  Fixed quantities in recipe.