Lsd – another memory of the seventies

The BBC have just published an article on their “On this day” series (15th February) about the year 1971 – the time of “D-Day” and the change to decimal currency from the old shillings and pence. A link to this article appears below. (Comment for Metric Views contributed by Phil Hall)

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Delia goes metric

Delia Smith’s new book, “How to cheat at cooking”, was published on 15 February, and it is ALL METRIC! Not an ounce, pint, cup or Fahrenheit is to be found between the covers of this latest volume, targeted as it is at busy people who like cooking but don’t have time for elaborate preparation.

It is 5 years since the doyenne of tv cooks last published, and in the intervening period, Delia (or more probably her publisher) appears to have accepted that imperial conversions of every metric ingredient are no longer necessary or desirable. The only arguably non-metric measures given are teaspoons and tablespoons, but as these are now standardised at 5 ml and 15 ml respectively, this is perhaps forgivable. So, well done, Delia! (Examples of her recipes can be seen at this link).

Whether to give recipes in dual metric/imperial units (and if so, which should be primary) has been a difficult issue for publishers for many years. The argument used to be that older cooks would not understand grams and millilitres (obviously, anybody over 50 is unable to learn anything new) and in any case their kitchen scales would be imperial. Then it was argued that even younger people, despite doing “home economics” exclusively in metric at school, really prefer to use the same traditional units as their parents and grandparents. Neither argument proved to be valid – but there was a potentially more weighty argument: the American market.

As the British and the Americans (not to mention Australians, Irish and others) share a common language, it is convenient for publishers if they can produce a single edition of a book for sale in all English-speaking markets. Thus even though publishers find it economic to produce cookery books in minority languages like Danish or Slovak (population ca. 5 million in each case), they have used this argument to resist producing metric-only editions for the British/Australian market and US customary editions for the American market. (This is rather like the threadbare arguments used in the recent controversy about separate metric and US customary packaging for the EU and USA markets).

In reality the argument was always somewhat shaky. Leaving aside the separate culinary tastes and traditions of the national populations, European recipes tend to measure liquid ingredients by volume (in ml) but dry ingredients by weight (in grams) whereas American recipes tend to measure both liquid and dry ingredients by volume (hence “cups” of flour). The American pint (473 ml) is of course smaller than the imperial pint (568 ml).
Problems also arise over how to convert. If the starting point is a traditional imperial recipe, do you convert 1 lb to 450 g or round it up to 500 g? Similarly, should a pint be converted to 570 ml, or rounded up to 600 ml – or down to 500 ml? Note that too much rounding can throw out the relative proportions of ingredients – e.g. if you round dry ingredients up and liquid ingredients down, your cake may dry out and burn.

Undoubtedly, the best answer is to forget about imperial/US customary units, re-measure your recipe in the correct proportions and publish it exclusively in metric units. This appears to be what Delia has done. Congratulations!

Many celebrity cooks, women’s magazines and cookery sections of newspapers have actually preceded Delia in going metric-only. Let us hope that, with Delia’s splendid example in mind, the remaining imperial holdouts will also soon fall into line.

The stone – now comes with a health warning

The Local Authority Coordinators of Regulatory Services (LACORS) have recently announced that they are launching a nationwide project to deal with inaccurate hospital weighing scales. The project follows studies which found hospital staff using inaccurate and unsuitable scales to calculate dosages of medication for patients.

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A view from across the pond

Metric Views has received a contribution from a reader in the USA. “Just off-the-cuff ramblings” he says, “but no less interesting for that”, we reply. With upwards of 30,000 people crossing the Atlantic each day, other readers may be able to add their own observations. (Article contributed by Jeff Gross)

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Spain to wreck European clothing sizes initiative?

According to a BBC report the Spanish government is proposing a new clothing sizes initiative which conflicts with the European Committee for Standardisation (CEN) proposal described in Metric Views last year. If this report is true it threatens to undermine the progress that had been made toward a Europe-wide sizing system for clothes.

The BBC report can accessed from this link. And the CEN proposal was described in Metric Views here.

According to the report, the reasoning behind the Spanish proposal appears to be that mannequins and models are too thin and as a result women risk their health by striving to lose weight in order to be able to wear the clothes seen on the catwalk and in the shop window. This may well be a serious problem, but it is difficult to see how changing the sizing system will solve it.

The European Committee for Standardisation (CEN) is a private sector body independent of the European Union. The great advantage of its proposal (known as EN 13402) is that it is based on the dimensions of the customer â?? not on an ideal model that the clothes are designed to fit. So provided that the customer knows her bust, waist and hip sizes, she should be able to find the â??best fitâ?? garments. This contrasts with the current systems in which a size 12 in one shop will be a size 14 in another shop and will not necessarily have the same relationship between bust and hip.

Much of the problem stems from the obvious fact that people vary in shape as well as in size. Consequently, a single number cannot adequately describe the person a garment is intended to fit. EN 13402 allows for this by giving two or more dimensions in the form of a pictogram, whereas (if the BBC report is correct) the proposed new Spanish system will simply repeat the same mistake. Ironically, the Spanish proposal appears to be duplicating a survey carried out by the British Standards Institution and other European standards organisations that was the basis for EN 13402.

The relevance of all this for UK metrication is that EN 13402 is based on dimensions in centimetres. It would be a great advance if British consumers could be persuaded to remember their dimensions in cm, but it was feared that the British retail industry and clothing importers might resist it precisely because it would require women to remember, say, 96-82-100 rather than 38-32-40.

If Spain really does go it alone, it will be even more difficult to achieve a common system throughout Europe.

Language and measurement – an enduring relationship

One objection to metrication that I often hear is that the imperial system is embedded in the English language. If we were to lose the old measurement system, we would lose a lot of our language with it, they say. Just how true is that? (Article contributed by David Brown)

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