I’ve always said that my genealogy charts looked more like a laurel thicket than a family tree. And when I saw Robert Morgan’s poem, “Kudzu Cousins”, in the Fall 2007 issue of Southern Quarterly this week, I had to laugh. I like his images in Kudzu Cousins better. It’s interesting that the original relations that make us all kudzu cousins back in that neck of the woods were established way before there was ever any kudzu in the place (ca.1880).
I’ve read Morgan’s latest book, Boone: A Biography, twice and recommended it to everybody. Let me tell you, I read lots of biographies, mostly of scientists, but Boone is by far the best I’ve ever read.
The vignette about soap making was especially interesting to me since I’ve been a savonerie for over twenty years. It started one day when I wanted to make soap in the chemistry class. I thought it would be fun to make some for Mother’s Day presents, like the plaster of paris hand prints you do at Bible School. But when I looked through all the chemistry lab books I had for saponification labs, they all said to throw the soap away when finished since it would be too harsh. Most gave the amounts in volume measurements, not mass. That didn’t make sense to me because chemistry is all about stoichiometric relationships. I wanted my students to be able to carry home a chunk of lye soap to use. Back then, I could only find one book on making lye soap at home with lard or tallow and Red Devil Lye. Now there are dozens of books from the experts (will list my favorites in another post).
I started with my Chemistry II class. That first batch was plain lye and lard, measured to the nearest tenth of a gram, a perfectly balanced chemical reaction. We added about a half cup of olive oil for extra moisture. When it was stirred enough, the hot, lye-fat mixture resembled custard. One kid said it made him hungry for banana pudding. We poured it up in a Rubbermaid shoe box, wrapped it up in an old quilt to insulate the exothermic reaction, and left it on the lab bench till class met again on Monday. It was hard for me not to peek, but I promised them I wouldn’t. When the first of the students came into the classroom, I had to swat a few hands (you could do that back then) to keep them from peeling back the quilt before everyone got in the class.
I pulled the still-warm box from its covers and lifted the lid. The hardened block of soap had pulled from the sides of the mold like a cake pulls from the side of a pan. It looked and felt like greasy provolone cheese. We flipped it out of the box and cut it into bars with a butcher knife (something else I can’t have in school nowadays). The book said to let it cure for a couple of weeks before using, to dry and harden. We laid the bars out on borrowed, green plastic lunchroom trays and placed them on top of the storage cabinets to dry, out of sight out of mind. I did manage to sneak a bar and kept it under the big lab sink. I quickly learned that if you wash your hands with a good, balanced lye soap you don’t need hand lotion.
Well, that was the beginning of my obsession with lye soap making. Once I tried to make soap the old timey way, by leaching the potassium hydroxide from wood ashes. I saved our fireplace ashes all winter in metal buckets in the garage. A lady who did lye soap demonstrations at Walnut Grove Plantation and Musgrove Mill told me how to do it ,but didn’t tell me the amounts. My experiment was a mess. I was able to make an egg float in the ashes-water, but without the precise lye measurements, I wasn’t sure about how much fat to use. The soft soap was excessively greasy. And within a few months it smelled rancid.
Once I mastered formulating, I entered some of my recipes in a contest at the South Carolina Soap Makers Conference. In 2000, I came home with Best All Round Soap in SC for my multi-layered Oatmeal Apricot Scrub Bar and The Ugliest Soap for my unscented Goat’s Milk Castile, which was baby-poop yellow. The White Tyger Bath Soap got second or third in something, but I can’t remember what. However, I figured out that those contests are better left to the folks who do it for a living. It’s just a hobby for me. I do it more for the students. Soap making is a good culminating lab in chemistry.
It looks like I got off on a tangent here, but lye soap and kudzu cousins really are related in my mind. These days people who don’t know any better will crinkle their noses at the idea of either one. They just don’t understand what makes a high quality product.