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"Made From Scratch"

I have often stated that I wish I knew what “scratch” was because I keep hearing people say that they made something from “scratch”. If I knew what it was I could bundle it, can it, or bottle it for sale and make a lot of money. I hear the term “made from scratch” mostly in the world of cooking, as women say with pride that they made that wonderful cake from scratch.

Research on the phrase reveals that it was begun in the 18th century as a sporting term. Who would have though it? The use of “scratch” derives from a line or mark scratched into the ground to indicate a boundary or starting point in sports, especially cricket.

“Scratch” later came to be used as the name for any starting point for a race. The term came to be used in ‘handicap’ races where weaker entrants were given a head start. For example, in cycling those who were given no advantage had the handicap of ‘starting from scratch’, while others started ahead of the line. Other sports, notably golf, have taken up the figurative use of scratch as the term for ‘with no advantage”, starting from nothing.

The world of boxing has given us an additional concept of ‘starting from scratch’. The scratched line there specified the positions of boxers who faced each other at the beginning of a bout. This is also the source of the term ‘up to scratch’, i.e. to meet the required standard, as pugilists would have had to do when offering themselves for a match.

The British have long used “scratch” in various contexts to mean, essentially, nothing, as in starting a contest without a handicap. It could also mean building something without tools. Its use in cooking comes from England which means “from ordinary cooking ingredients that have not been pre-mixed or otherwise specially processed.” Obviously, sugar, flour, baking soda and the like are the result of a long process which is the culmination of the history of agriculture and of chemistry, and God-knows-what. But sugar, etc, are ‘ordinary cooking ingredients’.

The opposite definition of “scratch” is – a point at the beginning of a project at which nothing has been done ahead of time. If you make pancakes, or a cake, without using a mix, you are making it from scratch. If you and your child make a “volcano” for a school project without using a kit, you are making it from scratch.

The word was later applied figuratively with the meaning “from nothing”, and it was used thus by James Joyce in Ulysses, “A poor foreign immigrant who started scratch as a stowaway and is now trying to turn an honest penny”. It modern times it was taken up in cooking once boxed mixes and prepared foods became widely available. Today it is a badge of honor to be able to say one made a culinary delight from scratch.

So, in short, the word “scratch” referred only to sporting events and was first used in terms of boxing and cricket, after which the term was applied to all types of races. Now in recent years it has also been applied to cooking with basic pantry items, or made with the most elementary starting materials.

So, now you are ‘up to snuff’ on the meaning of ‘scratch’.



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