Peter Piper picked a peck of peppers
How many peppers did Peter Piper pick?
So goes the old tongue twister. But have you ever asked what the heck is a peck?
It’s not the strike of a bird or a quick kiss, but a measure whose meaning has become extinct as language and measurement systems have evolved. Historically, a peck was a measure of dry goods, “particularly as a measure of oats for horses“. It stems from Anglo-Norman French and came into Middle English, from around 1350. We have scattered historic measurements that don’t match up with our modern understanding throughout English: gills, drams, and bushels are just some of them. And it turns out that history has a really entertaining system of measurements and weights.
I found a table of conversions for weight, length and measures in my copy of Modern Domestic Cookery (1880) inherited through my Nana from my great-Grandmother. The ever-precise Victorians had a complex system of measurements that I feel – for entertainment’s sake – should be fully reproduced and interpreted here:
Measure of Weight
27 1⁄3 1⁄2* Grains1 = 1 Dram (dr.)
16 Drams 2 = 1 ounce (oz.) = 437 1⁄3 grains
16 ounces = 1 pound (lb.) = 7000 grains3
28 pounds = 1 Quarter (qr.) [= 12.7 kilos]
4 Quarters = 1 Hundredweight (cwt.) = 112 lbs [= 50kg]
20 cwt. = 1 ton = 2240lb” [= 1016kg]
You can see my conversions into metric in the square brackets as I struggled to make sense of just what the pounds meant in my understanding. And while saying that 28 pounds is 12.7 kilos is all well and good, it doesn’t really explain much. But to solve the mystery of what a peck is, we need to get a little more murky: as a peck isn’t even a measurement of weight, but a measure of capacity. So:
“4 Gills = 1 Pint = 342⁄3 cubic inches nearly
2 Pints = 1 Quart = 691⁄3 “
4 Quarts = 1 Gallon = 2771⁄4 “
2 Gallons = 1 Peck = 5541⁄2 “
4 Pecks = 1 Bushel = 22181⁄5
8 Bushels = 1 Quarter = 101⁄4 cubic feet nearly
5 Quarters4 = 1 Load = 511⁄3 “
So at last, we have an understanding of what a peck is. But rather than being able to say that a peck is approximately x kilos, we’re still left with a rather vague notion of how big it is. Essentially, it’s 2 gallons’ worth of peppers. A gallon (for those who – like me – live outside of the US) – is 3.78 litres. And as luck should have it, I have a butt-load of jalapeño peppers from an unseasonably warm summer that I can measure.
I have a 4L capacity pot, and by filling it with 3.78L of water and marking it, I got my gallon’s measure. And the answer to the great question?
Around 204. As I was picking, packing and triple counting, it was obvious that peppers are variable in size and shape, and that your mode of packing will determine how many you can fit in: you’ll probably never get the same number in any one peck. Which is why the complete answer to the tongue twister of ‘how many peppers?’ will probably always be a partial mystery.
Funnily enough, this mystery is probably the answer to why we abandoned such measurement systems as well. Who needs pecks and bushels when you’ve got much more sensible systems, like metric?
* I have a friend who recalls the tongue twister as Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, which implies to me that he went into a shop a picked up a peck-sized jar of peppers, rather than picking them off a bush. I’d be interested to hear what other versions people know.
1. Yes, you read that right, 27, one-third and a half grains. I’ll let your mind boggle over that level of precision for a moment.
2. Clearly, this is not the same as a dram of whiskey.
3. Pity the poor soul who decided to count the number of grains in a pound.
4. Yes, five ‘quarters’ equals a whole load. What you learned in school is nothing.