Answer Man

The line between cooking and racing

Q: Why do we say “start from scratch” or “made from scratch,” meaning we start from nothing or cook something without buying a pre-assembled mix?

T.L., of Cahokia

A: If you qualify for the Olympics as a sprinter now, you’ll race on a high-tech track with bright lines and electronic devices that can spit out your time down to a hundredth of a second.

But centuries ago if you challenged someone to a race, you simply marked a line in the dirt with your foot or finger, lined up behind it and waited for someone to yell, “Go!” In other words, you started from that scratch in the ground. Over the years, this terminology simply gained new uses as popular phrases often do.

It wasn’t just footraces, either. Cricket teams used the term to denote the lines drawn on the ground to mark out their pitches. As early as 1778, a cricket book instructed players, “Ye strikers ... stand firm to your scratch, let your bat be upright.” I suppose they picked the word scratch, which had been in use since the 1400s, because marking out a line in the dirt reminded them of suffering a scratch on the skin.

Instead of coming from their corners, boxers used to start their matches by facing each other on opposite sides of a scratched line, leading to the common expression “toe the scratch” or “toe the line.” If they failed to show up at this line for another round, they literally were no longer “up to scratch.”

The term took on even greater meaning once sports were handicapped. The strongest runner, horse or cyclist started from the scratch line while weaker entrants were given a head start. This led to what some say may be the first use of “start from scratch” ever recorded, according to Gary Martin at

“The match on the Hyde Park Ground, Sheffield ... has already created quite a furor,” The Era, a British newspaper, noted in December 1853. “The manner in which the men have been handicapped (is): James Pudney and James Sheron, start from scratch; John Syddall, six yards (ahead); Richard Conway, twelve; ... (etc.).”

The phrase obviously caught on. By 1878, the Bicycle Journal reported, “Tom Sabin has won, during last week, three races from scratch.” Today, if you’re a proud scratch golfer, you don’t need a handicap to compete with anyone else.

As I said, the phrase eventually took on new meanings in modern society. By the early 20th century it was used to mean anything started “from nothing” (like the most distant point in a race) — a work project, family fortune, etc. In 1922, for example, James Joyce wrote in “Ulysses” of “a poor foreign immigrant who started (from) scratch as a stowaway and is now trying to turn an honest penny.” And, when boxed cake mixes and other prepared foods began to lure harried homemakers, traditional cooks began boasting that their food tasted better because it was “made from scratch” as they assembled, mixed and cooked all the ingredients themselves.

Hopefully, you’ll find many of these kinds of dishes up to scratch this Thanksgiving.

Q: What is the story on National Public Radio’s “Car Talk”? Didn’t I hear where one of those guys died? They must have an Ouija board to take their calls!

Catherine Stoltz, of Belleville

A: They may have seemed clairvoyant sometimes by how well they diagnosed callers’ problems over the phone, but, no, brothers Ray and the late Tom Magliozzi have a much less spirited way of providing their helpful advice these days: All of the programs you hear are now merely a mix of the best segments from previous shows.

NPR certainly has ample material to send any network affiliate who wants it. Begun locally in 1977 on WBUR-FM in Boston, the show soon became the station’s third most popular offering. The two brothers were MIT graduates who in 1973 had opened a do-it-yourself car repair shop in Cambridge, Mass., called Hacker’s Haven. They found they not only could provide on-the-mark advice, but they also had a knack for entertaining.

So in January 1987 Susan Stamberg of NPR’s “Weekend Edition” asked the brothers to do a weekly segment on her show. Nine months later, their mix of mechanical know-how and good humor earned “Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers” their own show on NPR. Listeners took advantage of the free tips while enjoying the brothers’ rants on everything from people who choose to live in Alaska to why women named Donna always seem to drive Chevrolet Camaros. The show’s office in Harvard Square was easily picked out with its nameplate of that classic fictional law firm, Dewey, Cheetham and Howe.

The show, which won a Peabody Award in 1992, ran for 15 years until June 8, 2012, when it announced that new episodes would end three months later. Sadly, Tom Magliozzi was beginning to succumb to the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease, of which he died last Nov. 3, 2014, at the age of 79. His younger brother Ray, who briefly taught science early on, will turn 67 next March as their show lives on in repeats.

Today’s trivia:

Speaking of scratches, why the devil do we give Satan the nickname of Old Scratch or Mr. Scratch?

Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: You likely know about odd numbers and even numbers, maybe even irrational and imaginary numbers. But do you know what a “perfect number” is? Discovered by the Greek mathematician Euclid, a perfect number is any positive whole number that is equal to exactly half the sum of all its positive divisors. For example, 6 is the first perfect number because it is half the sum of 1, 2, 3 and 6. However, 8 is not a perfect number because it is not half the sum of 1,2,4 and 8 (which is 15). Nor is 12, because adding 1, 2, 3, 4, 6 and 12 gives you 28, not 24.

Euclid is credited for finding the first four perfect numbers — 6, 28, 496 and 8,128. Early on, Philo of Alexandria, an ancient Jewish philosopher, referred to them as perfect because God created the world in 6 days and made the moon orbit the earth in 28 days. So if God used those particular periods, they must be perfect.

Unlike prime numbers, however, nobody has yet proved whether the list of perfect numbers is finite or infinite. So far, only 48 perfect numbers have been discovered, three-fourths of which have been found since 1952 because they are so large. The most recent one came in 2013 and is 34,850,340 digits long.

Interestingly, already more than 2,000 years ago, Euclid proposed that all perfect numbers must end in a 6 or an 8. So far, he has been right, although nobody has proved conclusively that perfect numbers can’t be odd. (Or, at least, odder than they already are.)

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer