A tin of Value

Elizabeth David, the great English culinary writer, first issued Italian Food in 1954. Many editions appeared subsequently.

She had lived and travelled in the country, and knew some Italian. This, with her natural curiosity and ability in the kitchen, produced an absorbing book. As in most of her writing, pointed anecdotes and asides lend an extra dimension.

She makes the statement that in (Anglophone) Middle East kitchens of the 1940s, a “tin” was a measure commonly understood. It meant a round tin of 50 cigarettes. She refers to the Middle East because she worked in Alexandria for the British government during WW II.

You can read her remarks, here.

When I first read this, before the Internet, I had to conjure in my mind the shape and volume of this tin. There was no Google to show an image from eBay, or WorthPoint. In Canada then, cigarettes were not sold in tins. There was loose tobacco, but those cans were quite large and would have held more than 50 cigarettes.

For some 35 years I had forgotten about this, until doing my research recently for the Mandate Palestine beer series. The Palestine Post of the 1930s and 40s had many adverts for cigarettes, in cardboard boxes, in tins. Generally, it was 10 and 20 in flat paper boxes, and 50 in round tins.

There were variations on this theme, as some makers sold a tin of 30 cigarettes, or 45.

There were Virginia cigarettes, Turkish ones, and Macedonian – or the tobacco was, and some (apparently) was also grown in Palestine. American-made cigarettes were sold, too.

According to stories in the Palestine Post, used tins could not be melted down. There was no blast furnace in the country. Some were weighted and adapted for ashtrays by the Red Cross. Others were used evidently for various household purposes.



David wrote that a tin was so well-established for kitchen use that numerous published recipes used the term. This may have applied in the U.K. as well, but she was speaking specifically of the Middle East.

This ad in the period (1945) shows a round fifty for State Express ‘555’. Another ad, from 1934, markets a tin of “The Greys”, a Virginia blend from the U.K.

David implies that many cooks could not have understood the exact volume intended. This would arise from reading a recipe in a later period, or outside the context intended.

Hence, they must often have used the wrong amount of stock, wine, water, etc.

She states that when writing a cookery book, standard procedure is to render measures in exact terms, something she did not always do for the subject volume. Yet, she notes that the “authenticity and spontaneity” of many Italian recipes would be lost under this approach.

Hence her point: measures for recipes should be taken with, well, a grain of salt.*

This shows her romantic and instinctive understanding of cookery, which is not and never can be a fine science. She sought to get at its secret soul, one might say.

Note re image: image is from the (highly informative) entry on Elizabeth David in Wikipedia, here. Used for educational and research purposes. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.


*Baking is a well-known exception, and I believe she acknowledged this in other writing.


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