I make soap. I realize it’s a ridiculous thing to do in the beginning of the 21st century, since you can walk into any supermarket and buy bars of soap at reasonable prices -- soap designed to “wash all of your 2000 parts,” soap that claims to be 1/4 cleansing cream or 99% pure. Perhaps I make soap because I’m worried about what chemical lurks in that other 1%.
Though, I’ll admit a great deal of my soap motivation is a decadent yen for luxury, for elegantly scented soaps blended from lavish and exotic oils. Now it is true that you can amble into any trendy tourist shop and buy amazing soaps; soaps sold by the slice, translucent, jewel-toned, and aromatic, smelling of apricots and rosemary, mint and chocolate, cassia and sandalwood; soaps filled with floating herbs and spices, flower petals and grains; soaps wrapped in swatches of expensive fabric or sheets of handmade paper; soaps in embossed boxes tied with gold cords. You can even walk into the health food section at Fred Meyer and find reasonable facsimiles. So why go to the trouble of making soap?
And it is trouble. Granted, you no longer need to leach lye from wood ash saved from the cook stove. Instead, I pick up a can of sodium hydroxide in the cleaning supply section at Freddy’s. While the pioneers had to butcher a cow and render the fat, I can merely buy olive oil -- already pressed -- and coconut oil for the lather, apricot kernel, hemp seed, and sweet almond oils for their skin-softening properties. I also buy essential oils and spices to scent my soaps. These can be costly, so I can’t plead frugality as my motivation; I don’t save money making it myself.
My soap habit also has a lot to do with a Little House on the Prairie mentality. Though I have it much easier than the Wilder family, and I can’t imagine going to the extremes of butchering a cow or leaching lye, I do think that part of my soap-making propensities come from a romantic notion of self-sufficiency, of pioneer toughness and independence. Never mind that without Fred Meyer and several California mail-order houses,
I wouldn’t know where to start. But the ritual makes me feel the way I felt when I sewed my first dress, the way I feel when I’m kneading bread from grain I ground myself, or knitting a sweater that would be cheaper and easier to buy. My self-esteem ratchets up a notch knowing I can make something useful, something beautiful.
And somewhere in my psyche is buried a high regard for things handmade, things made with a singular intensity and love of process, which carry with them into the world an aura of passion and romance all their own. Someone gave part of her life to create this thing, so part of her is mystically melded into her hand-spun yarn, her hand-thrown pot, her silky-smooth aromatic soap. Maybe that’s it.
Maybe. But there is little romance in the actual procedure. I use plastic containers (Sodium hydroxide will eat holes in any metal other than stainless steel.). I heat the oils in my microwave, which is not the way they did it On the Banks of Plum Creek. I use my aging Kitchenaid mixer to do the stirring -- I use it for little else since the sodium hydroxide has peeled the enamel finish off. In fact, the soap making corner of my kitchen is closer to a chemistry lab than to a log cabin.
For one thing, the quantities need to be measured with a chemist’s precision: so many grams of lye, so many of distilled water, so many grams of each of the oils. This is not a creative matter. The last time I got creative I ended up with a mass of nameless army green goop that failed to harden into bars, but congealed a few stages past liquid soap. It didn’t seem wise to pour it down the drain; I could see the trout gasping and rolling over sideways as soon as the slime hit the river. I scooped it into Ziploc bags and hoped for a chemical revelation, or miracle, whichever came first. By the next day the goop had escaped and was oozing across the kitchen floor. The mopping was messy, but the floor ended up hospital clean, so I surmised that the slop was still soap. Which it might not have been. It looked nearly nuclear. With chemistry you never really know. Once I asked my four-year-old grandson, who had recently requested sulfuric acid so he could “make pollution,” if he wanted to do an experiment and help me make soap. He put his geeky little hands on his hips and said, “Nana, if you know what you are going to get, it isn’t an experiment.” But then, he’s never made soap.
And I wouldn’t have let him help with the whole process; the lye is very dangerous. When sodium hydroxide meets water, the water heats almost to the boiling point and noxious fumes fill the steam. You don’t want to breathe deeply or spill any of this mixture onto your skin. It burns.
While the lye-water cools, I heat the oils so they match the temperature of the lye. Then carefully I pour the sodium hydroxide mixture into the oils while the mixer sloshes. The mixing causes saponification (the chemical reaction that produces soap). Every molecule of lye must come into contact with every molecule of oil in order for the chemical transformation to take place. If the soap maker doesn’t completely stir the soap, some of the lye will remain suspended in the oil, and when an unsuspecting hand-washer hits one of those pockets, he loses more off his hands than dirt. Lye will burn holes in skin even faster than it burns through metal. To avoid this I leave my trusty Kitchenaide running at a fairly high speed for at least 45 minutes. I drape an old dishtowel over the mixer so the caustic would-be soap won’t fly all over the kitchen. I check it from time to time to see if the soupy stuff is starting to “trace.” When it thickens enough to prove the chemistry is doing its thing, it starts to look like melting ice cream, and if I drizzle some over the surface, traces of the solution will float there for a while. Then I can get creative.
Do I want the soap to smell like English lavender or winter spice? Lemon grass or bergamot? Do I add chamomile for skin care? Paprika for color? Oatmeal for exfoliation? I have made gardeners’ soap with cornmeal to scrub the dirt, vanilla bean soap with actual bits of the bean floating in it, and masculine dark brown soap scented and colored with cinnamon and clove. I’ve made soap marbled, layered, transparent, and liquid. I’ve made soap with green tea, with rosewater from my own roses, with rosemary from my herb garden. I have made round soap, square soap, milled soap, sliced soap, molded soap. The molding part is fun, but risky -- you have to remember two things when choosing a mold; the saponification won’t be complete for another month, so no metal molds, and the soap will eventually have to come out of anything you pour it into, and it won’t do that easily.
Once I have the soap solidifying in its molds, my family goes on alert. Early on in my soap making career, my husband was attracted to a glass baking dish on the counter. It was filled with a creamy-looking, mint-smelling, pale green “dessert.” But it was soap. Tom doesn’t do much random sampling in my kitchen any more. Neither does my son-in-law who once mistook grated castile for parmesan. Even handmade soap tastes like soap.
Once poured, the soap will need to sit, its fragrances filling the house, for at least two weeks, so I have to plan ahead for gift-giving. Once I knock it out of the molds it will need to have the rough edges and oxidized surfaces cleaned off and it should air dry for a spell to make it last longer. Then I can have the fun of wrapping and packaging the gift bars. Or better yet, the luxury of a long hot bath with skin-smoothing, delicately scented handmade soap.
Of course I could have gone to Terra Firma and bought some; I didn’t have to make it. But then I wouldn’t have the fun of knowing I can, the attention I get because I do, and I wouldn’t have the wonderful romantic feeling of being tied to my prairie ancestors, of having satisfied the lust for the illusion that I too could survive --or at least stay clean -- more or less on my own.