Jim Bradshaw: Is the proper measure teensie-weensie or itsy-bitsy?
Christmas is a time when we try to replicate the old family dishes that filled the table at Mama’s or Grandma’s house, but they never seem to come out just the way we remember them.
That’s partly because we probably enhance them a little bit in our imagination, and they never did taste like we think they did. But the other big bugaboo is the imprecision of the recipes handed down through the family. We have instruments that will measure out exactly one cup or one teaspoon, but just how much salt is in a smidgen? What’s the difference between a dash and a dab?
In an attempt to help set matters straight, my wife and I have done extensive research to more clearly define and rank these terms so that finally, after years of frustration, your pie crust will turn out just like the melt-in-your-mouth crusts Great Aunt Tee used to bake.
How much do we dole out when the old recipe calls for a soupçon of mustard? Our dictionary is not very helpful in telling us that a soupçon is “a little bit.” (More about that later.) But a harder look gives the idea that it is an even littler bit than you might think. The English got the word from the Old French sospeçon, which we are told meant a drop, a touch, or a suspicion. So, if you try a dish with just a soupçon, you shouldn’t actually taste the mustard, you should just suspect that it is there.
But still the French sospeçon, a “touch or drop,” doesn’t help much. Merriam-Webster’s says a touch of something is “a small quantity or indication,” which sounds an awful lot like a soupçon. What’s the difference, culinarily speaking, between a suspicion and an indication?
A pinch is probably bigger. The dictionary tells us that it is “a very small amount” equal to “as much as may be taken between the finger and thumb.” It may still vary according to the size of your fingers, but a pinch is more visible, probably more likely to be tasted than suspected.
A sprinkle is, to our minds, bigger than a pinch, because you must gather it into several fingers. Our dictionary says that to sprinkle is “to scatter in drops or particles.” Note that it calls for “drops,” plural, indicating that it takes at least two drops and who knows how many soupçons.
With tad, we get back to the suspicious mode. It’s defined as “a small or insignificant amount or degree.” If it’s insignificant, why bother? Use a smidgen instead. That’s still “a small amount,” but not insignificant.
With a dash, particularly of hot sauce, we begin to get to something we can taste. It’s “a small usually distinctive addition.” Distinctive. The dish doesn’t taste the same without it. But, alas, it also doesn’t taste the same with too much of it, and the best quantitative definition we can find is that it is a “splash.” That’s presumably way less than the one you make when you jump into a pool.
A dab is akin to a dash, but we think of a dash as dealing with liquid stuff, and a dab of butter or something more solid. It takes several dabs to make a dollop.
Then there is the whole question of bit. We are generally agreed that a bit falls somewhere between a tad and a smidgen. But what about a “little” bit? How many “little” ones does it take to make a full bit? Then, surely a “teensie” bit is smaller than a “little” one, and a “teensie-weensie” one is smaller still. Where do they fall on the scale? And which is smaller, “teensie-weensie” or “itsy-bitsy”?
Our dictionaries are silent on these important issues. We think itsy-bitsy is the smallest thing of all, right down there with atoms, but will concede that “teensie-weensie” isn’t very big either. These are terms that you will just have to work out for yourselves.
Merry Christmas to all. Eat well, just like when Grandma was cooking, maybe with just a tee-ninecy difference. (You’ll remember that “tee” is short for petite so that would be just a “little ninecy.”)
Don’t worry about how much that is, or how big (or what) a ninecy might be; if you know, don’t tell. One day yours will be the dishes that kids and grandkids are trying to recreate. Make them mutter to themselves: “How did she do that?”
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, Cajuns and Other Characters, is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at email@example.com or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.