Scratch tracks, or salad theory

NCI5_POTATOOne thing that tickles me about Scratch: their website is not “scratch.com” or “scratchbakery.com” or “scratchdurham.com” or anything obvious like that. The first two of those URLs happen to be already taken, but I like that Phoebe either created the site before the store had a name, hated the available URLs that involved the word “scratch” and would seem appropriate, or just decided there was no reason to bother in the first place with the limiting convention of naming your site after your business. In any case, it’s http://www.piefantasy.com, which is extra fun because part of the intrigue about Scratch, and about Phoebe’s illustrious background as a pastry chef, is that the place is really just as much a cafe as it is a bakery–more the former than the latter, in fact. They make and sell pie, but proper breakfast and lunch food is really their bread and butter, so to speak. They only sell actual loaves of bread one or two days per week.

This general unconventionality and straying from the acceptable is on my mind a lot, given the life we lead (and often wish we led more, when circumstances shoehorn us into more “normal” routines, and sometimes pie-fantasize about making our life even less conventional, e.g. let’s move to Portugal/SE Asia/New Zealand/the coast/my sister’s house).

And it’s been on my mind about Scratch, too, more specifically. I keep thinking about the sweet potato salad. I thought it was just a brunch special, but it turns out to be a menu mainstay. The ingredients:

  • romaine
  • roasted sweet potatoes
  • pickled celery
  • croutons (are they cornmeal, or cornmeal-crusted?)
  • marinated garlic slivers
  • blue cheese dressing

When you look at these ingredients in a list, they do not look like ingredients you would think to combine in a salad the first place, let alone then consider whether they would collaborate on tasting good. But the salad is very good, almost addictively so. Part of why I like it is that you don’t see any actual hunks of blue cheese, which I don’t even like all that much, and part of why I don’t like it much is that it tends to overwhelm anything you put it in.  But the cheese in Scratch’s salad is a subtle part of the dressing. It plays well with others for a change.

Look closer and you can see the way the salad works. You have the sweet of the sweet potatoes against the salt in the cheese and the tang in the pickled celery. The croutons, odd as they are (I know you don’t like them), provide not only a new texture; they also impart a sense of completeness to the dish: it’s enough for a meal. The lettuce is romaine because you need a sturdy lettuce to handle all the flavors–and also–just thought of this–because there is just the barest allusion to a Caesar here: the blue cheese has the strong flavor that the anchovy would bring; the garlic hints at the garlic in a classic Caesar dressing; the sweet potatoes are standing in, in texture and color, for egg yolks. The pickled celery gives it all an acidic kick that actually recalls the tang of parmesan, just a little.

Yet I don’t think the salad derives from quite so much salad theory. It feels more organically, perhaps accidentally, conceived. I really admire dishes whose ingredient combination is not only not obvious but in fact seems counterintuitive. At [redacted], we usually have dishes with flavors married in ways you would traditionally expect, and when they’re unexpected it’s probably because of carelessness. The other night, they stuck the newly arrived yellowfin tuna on a set where some other fish had been–black bass, maybe–and I immediately wondered why they hadn’t put the tuna on a different seafood set, running concurrently under a different fish, that included capers, favas, and other Mediterranean ingredients that would have called to mind a salade nicoise. They hadn’t done that only because that would have meant thinking conceptually for a few moments, which no one at [redacted] has much time do these days.

But then I thought, Why does it have to seem like a nicoise? Isn’t it just depressingly conventional to succumb to that thinking, where every dish has to slide into familiar territory? I’m not big on extravagantly weird combinations, which too often veer into plate-undiscipline: weirdness covering for a lack of purpose, or in fact a tendency toward distraction and/or abstraction that is fronting for what is deep down an impoverished creative imagination. But the sweet potato salad at Scratch piqued my appreciation for experimentation on the footing of sound models.

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