Today’s guest post was written by Jim Casada.
THE MYSTIFYING MATTER OF MEASUREMENTS written by Jim Casada
Momma was generally inclined to measure ingredients precisely, and the recipe cards she handed down, many of them painstakingly typed on 3 x 5 index cards, reflect that. She didn’t bother with measurements when it came to things she cooked regularly though. As for Grandma Minnie, I don’t recall her ever measuring anything. While I spent far more time around Grandpa Joe than I did her, by no means was I a stranger to her kitchen. Wondrous things happened there; delectable aromas filled the room; there were always a few bites of something for a snack; and if you hung around enough and weren’t too much of a pest, treats tended to come your way in the form of tasty rewards for performing some chore or maybe even an advance sampling of something destined for dessert at the next meal.
Grandma cooked from memory. Her cooking was instinctive, and inventively so. She was always tinkering, trying something new, adjusting her approach if some ingredient was unavailable, and generally welcomed experimentation with open arms. She wouldn’t have put it that way, but Grandma was wonderfully adaptive and every bit as much inclined to venture into uncharted culinary territory as the finest of trained chefs. She had solid intuition and gave it ample rein.
Measurements in the sense we know them in today’s world were as alien to her as casseroles (I don’t think either Momma or Grandma produced casseroles until after I was grown). She knew, thanks to having prepared a given dish times without number, what was required to make it tasty. Whether it was something as simple as a pot of soup beans or as complex as a stack cake, she operated with a sure and certain hand based on a lifetime’s wealth of accumulated experience. For the most part the list of measurements which appears below comes straight from her vocabulary. A few of the words deal with quantities connected with an individual serving or servings rather than those associated with food preparation.
The majority of the recipes offered in the pages to follow list specific amounts of key ingredients. Where they are missing it is because, quite simply, I don’t know them. That’s where the line between rigid commitment to precise amounts and the solid instincts of an accomplished cook comes into play. Suffice it to say that I’m by no means certain that hidebound adherence to the former approach is always best.
Bait—A mess or ample quantity, often preceded by the word big. An example would be “We ate a big
bait of ramps and trout.”
Dash—Synonym for pinch or expression describing the merest of additions to a recipe.
Dram—A small glass or quantity of liquid; generally though not always associated with spirits. “He liked
a dram of tanglefoot before going to bed at night.”
Drib (also Dribs and Drabs)—A small portion; a little bit. “She added buttermilk to the batter in dribs and
Drop—Seldom used in the literal sense; instead, a drop in a recipe would mean a small amount of some
Dusting—A miniscule amount. “A dusting of hot pepper flakes goes mighty well atop a bowl of soup
Glob—A considerable quantity—often preceded by the adjective big and sometimes pronounced as gob.
“She always added a big glob of butter to her cobblers.”
Hint—An expression for a minute quantity. “What made that pot likker was just a hint of red pepper.”
Lump—A word normally used in connection with some specification of size. “At this point, add a lump of
lard the size of a hickory nut.”
Mess—A hearty serving or servings; an adequate quantity for a meal. “We had a mess of turnip greens
and pone of cornbread for supper.”
Mite—A quantitative expression usually connected with overdoing some ingredient or failing to include
enough of it. “There’s a mite too much salt in this pot likker for my liking.”
Nubbin—Literally, a small cob of corn; in a food context, a small amount.
Passel—A large quantity. “It took a passel of hoe cakes to feed that hungry bunch.”
Pinch—An amount of some ingredient which could be held between the cook’s thumb and index finger.
“Just a pinch of cinnamon makes that (apple) sauce special.” The term was also used in non-
culinary fashion, notably with “a pinch of snuff.”
Precious plenty—An ample quantity. “We had a precious plenty to eat.”
Right smart—A considerable amount. “She likes to put a right smart amount of molasses in her stack
Scattering—A sparse handful. “A scattering of sugar on top of that pie crust finishes it off just right.”
Scrimption (or skimption)—A small amount; synonym for pinch.
Skiver—A small portion of something; often used with snow but also with cooking ingredients.
Smattering—A small or inadequate amount. “There was hardly a smattering of cracklin’s in that
Smidgen—A small amount, but different from smattering in the sense that it was the desired quantity. “I
added a smidgen of red pepper flakes to that soup to give it some bite.”
Soodlin—An indeterminate portion; usually with a helping of food. “Would you care for a soodlin more
Taddle—A miller’s toll. It was usually a quart of ground meal for every bushel of corn.
Taste—Enough of an ingredient for its flavor to be discernible. “I like to add just a taste of allspice to my
Tetch (or just a tetch)—Literally, a touch; a minute quantity. “That stew needs just a tetch more salt.”
Toddick—Same as taddle.
I hope you enjoyed Jim’s post as much as I did! The piece is actually part of his forthcoming book, “Mountains Fixin’s: A Smokies Food Memoir.” I’ve read a few parts of the book and I’m telling you it will be a must have for anyone interested in the Smoky Mountains or Appalachia at large. If you’d like to know when the book will be available you can email Jim at [email protected] and he’ll add you to his list of folks who are interested in the book.
A few of the old recipes I’ve inherited from Granny and Miss Cindy have measurements such as the ones Jim mentioned and they’re among my favorite recipes. I just love thinking of one of my grandmothers or The Deer Hunter’s cooking in their kitchen.
If you’ve got any old measurements to add to the list please leave a comment and tell us about it.