Lost in translation: notes from The Messy Baker

Charmian Christie

Charmian Christie is the force behind the blog The Messy Baker, and her writing has been featured in magazines like Natural Health, Relish, More, Edible Toronto, and The Globe & Mail. Charmian has just released her first cookbook, The Messy Baker. (You can enter our contest for your chance to win one of three copies and check out our  events calendar for details of signings and other events.) Apparently that isn’t enough to keep her busy as she has also created an app to help cooks recover from (and prevent) kitchen disasters. Charmian blogs from her home in Canada, but her cookbook was going to be published in the United States. Writing a cookbook for an international audience, even as close as the United States, turned out to be more of a challenge than Charmian thought. She is sharing with us the trials that this translation entailed.


Writing a cookbook for an international audience is a bit like motoring in a foreign country where they drive on the opposite side of the road. You’re steering from what should be the passenger seat, signalling your turns with the windshield wipers.

Had my editor been British or Australian I would have expected the “You say courgette, I say zucchini” scenario. But as a Canadian living close to the US border, I figured the differences would be little more than the “s” disappearing from “towards” and saying good-bye to the “u” in “colour” and “flavour”. When an “e” slipped into “whisky”* like an unwanted ice cube, I suspected there  would be more surprises in store. I was right. Despite our geographic proximity, our food has different names, different packaging and even different forms. Here are some of the ingredients that required translation:

Icing sugar: Canadians call this mix of powdered sugar and corn starch icing sugar. It’s the main ingredient in icing, a generic term for anything we slather on cakes or sandwich between cookies. Americans call it confectioners’ sugar and use it in frosting. While sticklers will point to the difference between icing, frosting and glaze, ask a Canadian what icing is and you might end up learning more about hockey than you care to know.

Milk: Oh, dear. How can a simple ingredient cause so much confusion? We don’t buy whole milk. Here, it’s “homo milk”, short for homogenized. Another quirk, apparently specific to my province, is that our milk comes in bags – nice, sturdy, food-grade plastic bags ideal for piping icing, melted chocolate or choux pastry. This is a useful cooking tip, unless your readers have never heard of bagged milk, in which case you get very confused comments from your recipe testers, and the editor questions your sanity. You are tempted to send her links to online images of homo milk in bags to prove you’re not making this up.

Chili powder:  In Canada this is a rather tame blend of spices consisting of ground chili peppers, cut with the mellow flavours of cumin, coriander, and oregano. You can put a heaping tablespoon into a pot of chili and still call the results mild. This isn’t the case in Australia and Britain where your instruction to blithely use 1 heaping teaspoon of chili powder is akin to a dare. Canadian chili powder is nothing, nothinglike fiery cayenne pepper, or “ground red pepper” as I found it’s called in the US. Not to be confused with pink pepper.

Citrus zest:The gardener in me calls the brightly coloured citrus skin “rind”, but the cook is totally confused. Is it zest? Rind? Peel? Canadian cookbooks use the term “zest”, but we make candied citrus peel just to be confusing. It’s “peel” in the US, which is far more consistent, until you instruct the reader to zest the peel on a zester, which isn’t the same peeling the peel with a peeler. Confused yet? Heck. Buy a microplane and grate that outer layer clean off. Just be careful to avoid the pith – a word we can all agree on.

Butter.Despite owning 500+ cookbooks, I still have to look up the equivalent for a stick of butter. Until recently, stick butter was almost impossible to find in most Canadian grocery stores. If you were lucky, you’d find salted butter by the stick, but pay a premium for the convenience. After balking at using the stick measurement, which happens to be the less expensive and most common butter package in the US, my editor finally asked, “So, just how does your butter come?” In one-pound bricks. Inconvenient, easy-to-mismeasure, get-your-fingers greasy bricks. Ubiquitous, affordable stick butter alone has me considering dual citizenship.

Liquid Honey. Forget maple syrup. Canadians love their honey and it comes in a variety of forms – so many that liquid honey needs to be labelled as such. How else does it come? We’ve got creamed honey, comb honey, chunk honey, and I’ve seen buckwheat so thick you can cut it in cubes with a knife. Hmm. If we put our heads together maybe we could sell honey butter in stick form?

*It’s “whiskey” in countries with and “e” such as Ireland and the United States, but “whisky” in countries without an “e” such as Scotland and Canada.


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  • sir_ken_g  on  August 24, 2014

    Which I why I usually try to buy international cookbooks by an author who lives in the US but is knowledgeable about the cooking because of origins or extensive travel.

    A favorite book of mine is Brit-Think Ameri-Think. Written by an American woman living in the UK with her British husband.
    It speaks in a very humorous but informative way about all the things that divide us.


  • Purrceyz  on  August 25, 2014

    I;m really surprised that she did not mention something that really impacts on baking…the differences in flour. Canadian all purpose flour is much `harder`(higher in gluten) than American all purpose flour (it`s more like American bread flour – US all purpose flour is like Canadian cake and pastry flour.) As well, self rising flour used to be very difficult to find in central Canada, it`s only been in recent years, it`s become easier to find. I`m also from Ontario (Toronto as well), the home of the milk bag. I tend to prefer Canadian baking books for this reason. The most difficult to use for me are Australian baking books because their tsp, Tbsp and cups are very different than what North Americans use (although at point, I had a set of Australian measures I had traded for with Australian foodie.)

  • ellabee  on  August 25, 2014

    Nobody tell the already envious author that Land O'Lakes butter is now also available in _half_-sticks (eight to a package)…

  • Irelandc  on  August 26, 2014

    Where can I get the Canadian version of the book!

  • Jane  on  August 27, 2014

    Irelandc – Amazon Canada has the book listed at $15.67 for the paperback – http://www.amazon.ca/Messy-Baker-Charmian-Christie/dp/1443418668/ Seems a bargain!

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