Made From Scratch

March 2016

“So what kind of hops did you use when you made your own beer?”

It had been seven years since those two batches of IPA, but I had mentioned beer-making as a credential when I talked to my hosts over the phone, in an attempt to seem like I would be remotely useful to them. Now we were standing over a steaming vat of wort and stirring it with a huge stick. Fair was foul and foul was fair.

“The hops… were IPA hops?”

A technically correct answer, but my interrogator could now sense my lack of confidence. “Oh. Did you make it from a kit?”

A kit? I suppose I had. The ingredients had all come in neat packages and in quantities that were exactly those specified by the recipe. And now I’d been exposed as a charlatan. I was no more a maker of beer than someone microwaving a TV dinner was a gourmet chef.

I looked down at the vast quantity of thick, brown, soupy malt swirling around the vat, and at the bag of hops that I’d plucked off the vine. At least we were improving.

So was the beer I made seven years ago from “scratch”? At the time I would have said yes. Certainly more so than the alternative of just buying a case of beer. But it seemed like cheating compared to this 70-liter vat. What shortcuts can you take and still declare something as made from scratch? Can you buy the malt, or do you have to start with barley? And why stop there - isn’t it cheating to buy the barley at all? Shouldn’t you start by growing the barley yourself? To make an apple pie from scratch you must first invent the universe.

There’s not really an answer to the question of what qualifies as creating something from scratch. With anything you’re making, there will always be multiple entry points into the creation process, each requiring different levels of “raw” in their ingredients. A better question is why it’s appealing to make something from scratch in the first place.

For starters, the less you start from scratch when making something, the less you understand about it. If you only ever “cook” with Blue Apron, you aren’t learning what to do when things come out of the ground and not out of that package. In software terms, it’s equivalent to saying that you can write javascript when in fact you just know the jQuery API really well. There’s a layer of complexity that’s being hidden from you in both cases, and the majority of people will stop learning before peeking under the hood of that complexity, because that’s all they need.

There’s also a practical advantage to understanding how to make something from scratch - you’re more likely to be able to make it again in a different situation because you understand the real constraints. You know what you can substitute if you don’t have all the official prerequisites. And you can describe what it is, even if you don’t know the Japanese word for “hollandaise”. If all you know about hollandaise sauce is that it’s the thing that comes with eggs benedict, you won’t be able to convey that using traveler’s English (or traveler’s Japanese).

This last one may be a personal reason, but I am biased extremely towards learning by doing. I’m pretty abysmal at learning things any other way than by saying to myself “okay, how do I replicate this process if I’m the last person on earth” and then practicing that. So I suppose the real reason for me to prefer making things from scratch is that it’s the *only* way I can actually understand them. It’s also, perhaps not coincidentally, just way more fun.