Scratch That

There is no compact Italian expression to translate the English “from scratch.” Even if I could find one, it would lack the self-congratulatory value it currently has, especially in American culture, where most things come pre-made and prepackaged. When it comes to food, the expression “made from scratch” seems to imply an intermediate state of being between store-bought and homemade: you buy the genoise, the custard, the can of whipped-cream substitute, and you have an Ikea cake, where the final product is assembled, not created. The from-scratch rhetoric values the process of making things rather than the substance of which they’re made.

In Italian, on the other hand, the priority is reversed, and the category by which food is judged is that of genuinità. For a few decades, food advertising has turned the adjective genuino almost into a false friend of the English “genuine.” A product that’s marked (and marketed) as genuino is not an unchanged version of an original model, no matter its source, but one that’s as close to nature as possible. One that’s actively good for you.

In Italy, homemade food is by definition genuino, no matter the amount of sugar it contains or whether it was fried in pork fat. For decades, advertising of industrial food, particularly baked goods, has used genuinità as one of its main selling points, and made it more perceivable through various strategies, among which:

  • A substantial strategy, which highlights the relative presence of ingredients that are assumed as being good for you, as opposed to those that are obviously (and often anachronistically) naughty: more milk, less cocoa! (Never mind the sugar and the trans fats.)

  • An aesthetic strategy, which minimizes packaging and possibly makes it transparent, to show that the shape of its content is as close as possible to something you could make at home. Compare that to the space-age appearance of something like the alien, American-born Pop-Tarts.

  • A mythical strategy, which links the origin of the product to an imagery of uncontaminated nature, and to parts of the country where everything is made, from scratch, at home.

Both the from-scratch rhetoric and that of genuinità are ways to deal with the overwhelming presence of industrial products in our daily lives. When it comes to food, being homemade, the opposite of industrial, has a connotation of natural and healthy in the United States (adjectives that carry their own special set of ambiguities and contradictions), but of genuino in Italian. The idea of genuino, however, ultimately trumps healthy and natural: as long as it’s something your grandma could have made, it’s better than anything anyone else could ever make for you. And when you start earnestly applying it to industrial products, the word loses all meaning.

Making things from scratch is an illusion too. A few years ago I stopped following a hipster on Twitter, exhausted from his self-righteous tweets about how if you don’t make your own pasta you can’t say you’re cooking homemade food. I guess he owned a wheat field by his house in Brooklyn. According to this worldview, authenticity isn’t enough, and the effort of production must go to extreme lengths.

That attitude isn’t limited to food, and extends to anything that has an aspect of craftsmanship. Once, on a web-design forum, I caught an Italian (because Italians are proto-hipsters, I think) ranting about CMSs, and saying that “a real website” must be completely hand-coded, and that people who use WordPress and Drupal are just cheaters.

I no longer take offense at such opinions, annoying and uninformed as they may be. If someone makes solemn judgments about what a real anything should be like, it’s most likely because they’re collapsing under the weight of their own inadequacy. That includes any statements about real men, real women, real Italians, real Americans, real Italian food, and so on. (I’m not listing real American food because, as all real Italians know, there is no such thing.)

Learning how to make things from scratch, be that making bagels or coding an HTML page, is certainly a good way to learn how a certain technology works: how to raise dough, what boiling bagels does to them, what happens to your diacritics before you learn about HTML entities and UTF–8—those are all things you can read about, but the experience of doing them yourself will make them stick to your brain a lot better. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a store-bought bagel, or a web page that was written entirely by a machine.

Any technology that takes some of the effort out of your daily process and allows you to get to your results faster shows the fallacy of an absolutist from-scratch rhetoric. PHP and MySQL are a way to make our websites dynamic. Does spending less time on HTML make me less of a web designer? No, because being a web designer doesn’t just mean writing HTML. Same goes for using SASS to write style sheets. By the way, you’re not a real web designer if you’re not using SASS. It’s 2015—come on!

It’s easy to fall for the from-scratch fallacy. It’s the myopic pride of thinking that whatever you’re doing today will always be good enough, and the way you’re doing it is the best possible way. It’s the delusion that using any prepackaged material, regardless of its source, is an inherently undesirable shortcut that will make what you’re doing less genuine, and less genuino.

Every new technology has some inevitable overhead. It forces you to spend time learning it, and, consequently, it redefines where the baseline is, thus making any attempt at defining what “from scratch” means almost completely irrelevant. My way of building a Drupal site from scratch will look nothing like that of someone who’s just starting out.

Different depths of understanding of the technology allow for different starting points: because my background is not in computer science, there are things about the inner workings of the Drupal core that I don’t (and probably never will) master. I might have a general understanding of them, but I’d rather let someone else get their hands dirty with that code and lose their sleep over it. I’m okay with that. I’ll buy the flour, but as tempted as I am by the idea of making my own yeast, the thought of purposely growing mold still kind of scares me.

Go ahead then, learn your basics, choose your frameworks, build your library of tricks, and remember that what makes your design process unique is not the number of lines of code you personally wrote, but your mastery of the medium, your understanding of your clients, and a commitment to never taking anything for granted.

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