Stealth Imperial in The Kitchen

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

Some years back a technician, with whom I worked, gave me a birthday present which I still have. He is a numismatic enthusiast and the present was a cased set of US coins. It has 1 cent, 5 cent, 10 cent, 25 cent, 50 cent and 100 cent coins. Whenever I look at the set, I always think of Sesame Street’s game where they sing a song and ask which of these things is not like the other, which of these things doesn’t belong? Well do you have any idea which of these coins doesn’t belong? Here is the set I was given some years ago:

Now to help you, here are coins used by the EU:

See the one that doesn’t match? Yes, the Euro has a 20 cent coin and not a 25 cent coin. There is no EU equivalent. Why is this? Well most people think that decimalized US currency was adopted with open arms—not so. There were reactionaries that didn’t like this “metric money” stuff and would only allow decimalized currency if it included a 25 cent coin. This compromise allowed the US to become the first country with a decimalized currency. The quarter was insisted upon so the US dollar could be divided in fourths, which corresponds to divisions of the original Spanish dollar which could be divided by up to eight. Hence the jingle: “two bits, four bits, six bits a dollar all for [insert school name here] stand up and holler!” which is repeated at High School Basketball games all over the US each year. Think about what we call the coin. We call it a quarter (1/4) or a twenty five cent piece.. My Grandfather on my mothers side always called a quarter two-bits.

Chances are fairly good that you never noticed this imposition of a non-decimal currency value onto our decimalized money. It’s there, but we just work with it each day, without a clue to its origin, or even taking notice.

When I began metric cooking, I immediately adopted the idea that a teaspoon was 5 mL and a tablespoon was 15 mL. I also used a 1/2 teaspoon or 2.5 mL or a 1/4 teaspoon which is 1.25 mL without giving the measurement spoons much thought. When I began putting together a metric cookbook it slowly sank in, that there were no good “metric equivalents” for the Tsp and Tbl written in recipes. That is, there are no modular values or integer values.  I would see 2 1/2 teaspoons and it would become 12.5 mL. This is true, but doesn’t seem to give you an immediate idea of how many of each measuring spoon one should use. It gradually struck me that what had occurred with my metric cooking was an attempt to “metricate” traditional imperial cooking measures, rather than starting from scratch. And we all know cooking from scratch is also the best way. The volumes of measuring spoons were not chosen in a rational manner using “Preferred Numbers,” (I will have a blog on this in the future) but had been chosen by convention and transmitted by tradition. Because of this, their origins are a mystery, and no one can explain why it was done—they just were. Perhaps three teaspoons in a tablespoon like three barleycorn to an inch?—no, probably too logical.

I quickly realized that to my knowledge, there has never been a set of “metric” measuring spoons created. It was clear to me that this would probably consist of a set of 1 mL 2 mL, 5 mL, 10 mL, 20 mL and 50 mL measuring spoons. This would eliminate the need for a decimal point when using metric measurements. In the case of my 12.5 mL value, I could round up to 13 and use a 1, 2 and 10 mL spoon, or down to 12 and only need 2 and 10 mL spoons. These would be very close to the current measurement values of 1/4 tsp (1.25 mL), 1/2 tsp (2.5 mL), 1 tsp (5.0 mL), and 1 tbl (15 mL) that cooks could convert without too much difficulty. One could also have an optional 100 μL, 200 μL, 500μL set of spoons. Using Naughtin’s Laws one can be certain that the mL and μL would not be easily confused in a recipe. Not even the Australians have metricated their spoon cooking measures. When Australia decided to convert to metric, cooking was exempted. As Kevin Wilkes relates in Metrication in Australia:

Domestic cookery scales were exempted from the prohibition of imperially marked measuring instruments, but the decision by the cookery sector committee to recommend the use of cup and spoon measures meant that most writers of recipes adopted this system, Thus obviating much of the need for metric cooking scales.


Spoon measures were unchanged, the existing standard having defined a tablespoon as 20 mL [15 mL in the US] and the teaspoon as 5 mL, but a metric cup of 250 mL was adopted to replace the existing eight fluid ounce measure which was equal to 227 mL

In the conversion of existing recipes, 30 g was adopted as the equivalent of one oz and 30 mL as the equivalent of one fl oz.(tip of the hat to Klystron for providing this information)

Metric cups!  Metric spoons!  Metric ounces! I’ve written about the idea of the use of metric as a modifier for imperial measures. They are ridiculous oxymoron units. I have also written about how the Tsp and Tbl are killers. An Australian teaspoon is 20 mL and in the US it’s 15 mL. The introduction of metric measurement spoons of 1, 2, 5, 10, 20 and 50 mL, would eliminate this disparity and directly use only mL, instead of employing an antiquated proxy unit like teaspoons and tablespoons. It would allow for an international cooking standard to be created.

What truly shows the wasted metrication opportunities and material we will tolerate, and which many people apparently also find entertaining, is a set of “measurement spoons” like these:

click on image to enlarge

One set came “free” with a set of measuring spoons I ordered. The other was a Christmas present I received this year. They are obviously a joke novelty, but the effort was made to manufacture them rather than offering a metric-only 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50 mL set of cooking spoons as an alternative. The measuring spoons above are functional, but are never meant for any actual use I suspect, as I do not believe most people commonly use a pinch, tad, smidgeon, nip or dash these days. Nor, I suspect, is there common agreement on each value. I’m sure there are “scads” of definitions. These “units” are good example of unit proliferation. It would be far better to offer a “free” metric set of spoons in place of the novelty ones. I have written about the opportunity for the medical mis-dosage of people because of the teaspoon-tablespoon abbreviation confusion before. If most homes had a “metric set” of measuring spoons, which came with the common imperial ones, people would have the option to directly use mL, even if a dosage cup was not provided on a medicine—or was lost.

During a US metric switch-over, the implementation of a logical set of measuring spoons for cooking, would be a good way to break with the past, and make cooking more accurate and consistent. With metric cooking spoons we could lead the world in metrication instead of bringing up the rear.

If you liked this essay and wish to support the work of The Metric Maven, please visit his Patreon Page and contribute. Also purchase his books about the metric system:

The first book is titled: Our Crumbling Invisible Infrastructure. It is a succinct set of essays  that explain why the absence of the metric system in the US is detrimental to our personal heath and our economy. These essays are separately available for free on my website,  but the book has them all in one place in print. The book may be purchased from Amazon here.

The second book is titled The Dimensions of the Cosmos. It takes the metric prefixes from yotta to Yocto and uses each metric prefix to describe a metric world. The book has a considerable number of color images to compliment the prose. It has been receiving good reviews. I think would be a great reference for US science teachers. It has a considerable number of scientific factoids and anecdotes that I believe would be of considerable educational use. It is available from Amazon here.

The third book is not of direct importance to metric education. It is called Death By A Thousand Cuts, A Secret History of the Metric System in The United States. This monograph explains how we have been unable to legally deal with weights and measures in the United States from George Washington, to our current day. This book is also available on Amazon here.

7 thoughts on “Stealth Imperial in The Kitchen

  1. We just signed the main petiton for America to make the metric system standard on so me and my bro did some research and we came across the Fair Labeling and Packaging act which requires packages to display both Customary units and Metric units. Anyways I was thinking about this when i was watching the weather channel and I thought why doesn’t the weather channel have both Celcius and Farenheit? Then I told my bro and we decided to created a petion the requires all weather channels licensed by the FCC to require both Celcius and Farenheit. We just created it today and we need 150 signatures for it to display public. WE JUST NEED 150 SIGNATURES FOR IT TO DISPLAY ON THE WHITE HOUSE WESBITE. Then people will see it and sign it. Thank You so much. Heres the link to our petiton.

  2. If you are referring to an imperial kitchen, then you can not be referring to the US. It has to be the UK or some kitchen in a country that formerly used imperial measures, as opposed to USC in the US.

    An imperial ounces, pint, quart & gallon are much different from their USC counter part. An imperial cup is 284 mL, whereas a USC cup is 240 mL.

    But, maybe I’m wrong and the US actually adopted imperial units. Can you tell me when and what law describes imperial units as legal for use in the US?

  3. Norway has measuring cups similar to what you’re suggesting.

    This set from from a local shop in Norway has 1 mL, 5 mL, 15 mL, 20 mL (labelled “KAFFEMÅTT”, Norwegian for coffee measure), and 100 mL (labelled “1 dl”).

    Although the labels on the 20 and 100 mL measures are annoying, they are close to what you’re talking about.

    I have another set that also includes 50 mL. The labels on this set are all in mL. It should also be possible to find a 10 mL spoon in an Australian set that includes the dessertspoon measurement.

    I have not yet found a single set that includes all of 1, 2, 5, 10, 15, 20, 50, 100 and 200 mL. (I know 15 is also the odd one out here, but it’s a very useful measurement in practice).

  4. Hello, It is still easier to cook with weight instead of volume. Lachlan suggestion about the inexpensive kitchen scale in last blog was good! The 25 cent piece is convenient 4 coin to a dollar compared to five 20 cent coin to a euro, rand or 20 senti to Tanzanian shilling.

  5. Something the Metric Maven should look at are dictionaries, in particular the Fifth Edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

    For example, here’s the entry for tablespoon, which is the way it should be:

    Furthermore, the Fifth Edition is not only SI (as were previous editions) but is now Primarily such with units given intelligently. For example, here’s the entry for Mississippi River:

    Can’t get much better than that, and it is the American HERITAGE Dictionary…

    [Note: Unfortunately, the style of this posting leaves something to be desired, namely hyphens: 1-cent, 5-cent, 10-cent, 25-cent, 50-cent, and 100-cent coins.]

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