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Scratch

by David Westheimer

 

The word "scratch" is fraught with meaning.

In fact, it is one of the fraughtest words I know.

You scratch a match to light it. You scratch an itch to soothe it. If you're not up to scratch, don't start a project. If you scratch a horse, you've taken him out of a race. If you've got a lot of scratch, you're loaded. If you're a chicken, you scratch for food. And you better watch out for Old Scratch. In Stephen Vincent Benet's "The Devil and Daniel Webster" he's the Devil. If you scratch out a word you've deleted it. If you scratch your head it means you're puzzled. Hardscrabble farmers scratch out a living from rocky soil. Scratch the right number and you win a prize. Scratch a Russian and you will find a Tartar.

But the most important meaning of scratch is that's what you use in cooking and baking. You can make almost any dish in the world from it. Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Indian, ordinary American. When I was a kid my mother made almost everything we ate from it.

I remember the pineapple upside-down cake she made from scratch. And the crab gumbo we ate with newspaper under our bowls because the crab shells made such a mess. And the spaghetti dish she made from scratch. She boiled it, then put it in a long, oval dish with tomato sauce (canned, not made from scratch) and grated trap (cheddar) cheese and baked it in the oven. I was grown before I learned that's not the way most people made spaghetti. "Made" is not the word we used. We said "Fix." As in, "Mama, will you fix me a sandwich for lunch?"

Dody fixed a lot of dishes from scratch before she got cooked out after the boys moved out on their own and left just me to feed. She baked pumpkin bread from scratch and blackberry cobbler (the boys and I used to go out and pick the blackberries in vacant lots) and cherry cheesecake (the cherries were store-bought in cans) and pecan pie (well, she still bakes those from scratch) and fig cream pie (the crust wasn't made from scratch, exactly—it was from crushed-up store-bought graham crackers) and the insides weren't baked but made from peeled, sliced figs from the tree in our backyard. And the chili, with chopped raw onions and grated cheese on top and the crab and lobster curry with sambals (most of the *sambals weren't made from scratch but were store-bought with scratch) and the pork chops with candied yams.

Ah, yes, I remember it well. But in the words of the country song, she "don't do like that no more."

I guess she just ran out of scratch.

 

*Defined as more than condiments but not exactly side dishes, a combination of fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices.

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