Dateline: May 13, 1984. It was our anniversary, and we were suffering house arrest, actually voluntary exile from our favorite Scotts Valley restaurants. We figured we’d give the local dining spots a break until our toddler daughter Meredyn made it through her over-talkative stage, and her exuberant “finger painting with ice water on the table” stage, which had recently ratcheted up to an unfortunate flying ice cube event involving an unamused fellow diner. So, no romantic dinner out for us tonight. Misery loves company, so we had invited our friend Ann and her first ex-husband to have dinner at home. Ann was a labor and delivery nurse, and as usual I got caught up in some story she was telling about the storm of babies born during her latest full moon shift, and lost track of what I had already added to the salad dressing. Ann took the bowl from me and dipped in a spoon and took a taste, and her tongue came out in disgust, and she said, “Uh! Way too sour,” and she grabbed a bottle of Sue-Bee honey and squeezed some into the bowl and began swirling the mess around with a fork.
“How much was that?” I asked. In case it turned out well, I wanted to jot down the recipe. Although that was unlikely in this case: in hopes of saving the dressing, we had now turned to apple cider vinegar and walnut oil, white wine vinegar and sesame oil, all lovely ingredients on their own, but the clash of each addition had plunged us into a successively lower ring of culinary hell.
“Dunno, maybe a smidgen.”
“Much more than a smidgen, more like three quarters of a tablespoon,” corrected her husband, who was a law student and into detail and had a tendency to lurk around noticing what she was doing at all times. As if he were capable of keeping tabs on Ann while simultaneously converting smidgens to tablespoons, the ass.
This memory got me wondering: what in the world is a smidgen, anyway? Can it be quantified in any useful way? Recently I found out the smidgen has been standardized, at least according to the company which now produces a set of 3 mini-spoons: smidgen, pinch and dash. Whether this standardization is only a conceit to the maker of said measures, whether the spoons are an example of kitchen humor, or whether we can truly now consider these formerly eccentric measures to be uniform is anyone’s guess. In any case, if you like to browse recipes, you have seen the smidgen, the dash, the pinch, plus the speck and other odd amounts which come into play.
Maybe you’re thinking that these strange measures are all pretty much equivalent and interchangeable, or maybe you’ve never actually lost any sleep over this pressing issue. But alas, according to How Many? A Dictionary of Units of Measure, the brainchild of Russ Rowlett from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, there are definite differences, noted here.
Rowlett, whose website is a wonderful source of data on units of measure in general, cites the mini-spoon company in his definitions of smidgen, pinch and dash, by the way. Viva capitalism that has such power to reform rough measures into something exact, which must be purchased! How we might agonize otherwise. The Stepford wives are ecstatic at their linoleum altars. But back to units of measure:
A smidgen equals 1/2 a pinch, or 1/32 teaspoon.
One pinch (roughly what you can pinch between your thumb and forefinger), equals half a dash, or 1/16 teaspoon.
One dash equals 2 pinches, or 1/8 teaspoon. I never would have guessed that the dash is the biggest of these three, would you? To me, a dash sounds about as big as a sprinkle, which is mighty small. I would guess that a sprinkle is worth several specks. Neither of these appears on our list at present so I will try to keep focused.
I shan’t go into half jiggers here either, as I fear it might blow us off course. Ditto, scintillas and traces.
Pinches, dashes and smidgens have historically been considered dry measures, by the way.
Maybe you’ve begun to worry about how we will measure our splashes of champagne and dollops of whipped cream. FYI, according to Rowlett, the dash and the splash are equal. (Sighs of relief all around.) But where do the drizzle and the soupcon fall on the spectrum? Should we just simplify, and consider dollops to be liquid mega-smidgens, or at least semi-liquid mega-smidgens? And, do we really need all these equations to cook up something yummy?
Of course a lot of cooking is creative, and many cooks, including me, will rebel against this “one pinch” thing: give me a break, you’re telling me I can’t put in two pinches if I want to? But my attitude seems to be a tad schizophrenic: why don’t I challenge the finite teaspoon, tablespoon and 1/4 cup? Perhaps because the odd measures have traditionally been imprecise, I both cherish and disrespect them: I like your quirkiness, smidgen, but you don’t own me. But then again, these measures do not suggest a manifesto. Instead, we should use them to liberate ourselves. Taste every dish you make, and trust yourself as a cook. Let’s practice the art of cooking.
In the end, one wonders if pinches and dashes and smidgens are all that essential. Probably not physically, but cooking also has a traditional element, so why not nurture these odd terms and ideas and keep watch over them. Cooking also has a psychological and even a spiritual element. Especially if you are using an old family recipe, adding that dash of paprika makes you feel as if you are part of a longstanding ritual, as if you are being virtuous and following the rules for once. But if that doesn’t do it for you, go on and be a devil—throw in two dashes, or even three.
Here’s a great “just spring” recipe to get you started.
“Three Dashes and a Pinch” Cream of Asparagus Soup, modified from the Silver Palate Cookbook by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins
3 cups chopped yellow onions
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
8 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade, thoroughly defatted, OR 8 cups vegetable stock
2 1/2 pounds fresh asparagus
1/2 cup heavy cream, if serving hot; 1/2 cup cream OR buttermilk, if serving cold
3 dashes of freshly cracked pepper
1 pinch of sea salt
Melt butter in a stockpot and simmer onions until they are golden. This might take 20 minutes, stirring often. Add chicken (or veg) stock and bring to a boil.
Get the asparagus ready: trim off the tips and reserve for later. Trim about an inch of woody stems from the end of each spear and discard. Chop remaining spears into one-inch pieces. Add to boiling stock, cover, and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook for 35-40 minutes or until asparagus is very soft.
Puree soup in batches in a blender or food processor. Return puree to pot. Add reserved asparagus tips and simmer until the tips are al dente, maybe another 5-7 minutes. Turn off heat. For hot soup, add cream, 3 dashes of cracked pepper and pinch of salt. Stir and serve immediately.
If serving cold, remove from heat, let cool, stir in cream or buttermilk, and refrigerate covered. Before serving, add the pepper and salt. Serve very cold.
About 8 servings