TRADE-tips & quips: an essay
by John L. Campbell
In Raymond Carver’s poem, Stupid, he refers to a table as measuring one by two cubits.
I read another few lines before I stopped and said to myself, “What the hell is a cubit? How long is a cubit?”
It sounds like volumetric measure rather than length or width. So, I grabbed the dictionary and looked it up: a cubit is a
rough measurement from your elbow to the tip of your middle finger, approximately 18 inches or 64 centimeters, not a precise
Only in the United States, Liberia and Myanmar do we continue to measure in inches, not centimeters.
The British largely use the Metric System; but they have some other measurements many of us are not familiar with —
like “a stone.” If I told you that I weighed 12 stones and stood 175 centimeters tall, would you know how big
I am? In Britain a stone weight equals 6.3 kilograms or about 14 pounds. Weighing 12 stones or 75.6 kilograms makes me sound
skinnier than I really am. As writers, we should know this stuff, right? I had to look it up. One inch is approximately 2.5
centimeters. So, I’m just an average bloke, 5 feet 10 inches tall, tipping the scale at 168 pounds.
The British toss us another conundrum when their writers describe the small Irish farmer who cultivates
40 hectares of potatoes. A hectare? Sounds like a dog I once knew . . . but a hectare is the equivalent of 2.47 acres, roughly
two and half times the size of an acre. (There will be no test following these hot potatoes I’m tossing to you, but
try to remember some of this.)
Speaking of hot potatoes, I like to cook. Fortunately, my recipe books don’t require conversions
from Fahrenheit to Celsius. I can never remember those formulas. To cook, you have to know all those volumetric measurements
like how many cups are in a pint and how many pints in a quart, necessary measurements to follow a recipe. And I like special
recipes, the ones the professional chefs use.
At a local seafood restaurant, after gorging myself on a dish of tilapia over rice with a green
hedge of spinach, I asked the waiter if he would in turn ask the chef for his rice sauce recipe, knowing in all likelihood
the answer would be “no, we don’t give out that information.” To my surprise, the waiter handed me a slip
of paper as I was leaving. On it was the recipe for the rice sauce, all five of the ingredients in gallons, plus the herbs
and spices. It’s a mathematical challenge to convert gallons to ounces, mix and retain the original favor of a spicy
rice sauce. I still have a quart (that’s 32 ounces) in my refrigerator.