But the daily we have always with us, a nagging reminder that the dishes must be done, the floor mopped or vacuumed, the dirty laundry washed . . . Precisely because it is so important, so close to us, so basic, so bound up with home and nurture, it is considered to be of less importance than that which is done in public . . . This may be an example of a familiarity that has bred contempt, a kind of hubris that allows men and women alike to imagine that by devaluing the bonds that connect us to the womanly, to the household, to the daily, we can rise above them. — Kathleen Norris, The Quotidian Mysteries
But it is in this work — the daily, the tedious, the repetitive — that our deepest alchemy can and does reveal itself.
For most of us, the day has a predictable routine. For me during the summer mornings, it’s making coffee, ensuring the cats have breakfast, opening the windows and screen doors to bring in the fresh morning air and the birdsongs, and then a little later making breakfast for Unbelievably Useful Husband. (The Kid is usually sleeping in.). There’s usually some kitchen cleanup that needs doing during all this, and probably a laundry bump, and the dogs always desperately need to go out just when I’m involved in something requiring my total attention. (This set of behaviors is called “clearing the decks.”) But breakfast is always a pleasure to cook. If you recall from “Belay those Olallieberries,” we make our own bacon:
. This is what the bacon looks like, when it’s sliced and ready for cooking. Unless you have a meat slicer, you can’t get the see-through, weirdly clingy, paper-thin slices of commercial bacon, but a sharp knife and a steady hand creates a pleasantly thick piece that will fry up beautifully in the pan.
Homemade bacon requires a bit more time and care to cook. All that lovely maple syrup, honey, brown sugar and molasses will burn in a flash if the heat is too high, so slow and steady wins this race. You’ll not see any of the strange gray bubbly water boiling out of it as in commercial varieties; just bacon fat, rendering cleanly and purely and stupendously fragrantly as you cook. Frequent turning makes sure each side is browned and crisped evenly. A quick blot on a towel, and there’s breakfast.
Cooks (usually women) since the dawn of more-or-less civilized time have understood the principle of judicious heat; it took medieval alchemists a lot longer to stop blowing up their labs. More fire is not necessarily better.
Once the breakfast cook and cleanup and various animal and house-tendings are done, it’s usually time for the garden walkabout. Today, I noticed that the beautiful Gulf Fritillary butterflies were bombing around the garden again; I talked about them a bit in “The Passion of the Passiflora.” It was the time of day, though, when the sun had just dried the dew off the herbs. Herbalists say that this is the time to harvest what you need — it’s supposedly when the essential oils contained in the herbs are at their height — so I armed myself with a basket and scissors and got the job done.
Once you’ve harvested an herb, the clock starts ticking — you have to decide what to do with it. Some people swear by freezing tender herbs like basils in ice cubes, saying that the technique reliably preserves the flavor and texture of the leaves. I have no doubt that this is true, but I also have no room in my freezer because it is almost entirely occupied by a million pounds of olalliberries.
So off to the McGuffin the herbs will go — the Excalibur dehydrator that lurks in the Lab. I have a nine-tray model, so there’s usually no issue about running out of space. Once they’re done (a few hours at 95F for most), I’ll take them out and garble them, and then put them into my herb bottles. There — unirradiated, unpesticided, and uncrushed, they’ll retain their flavor for a long time.
The Gulf Fritillaries were still in the back of my mind even as I was fussing with the McGuffin. I saw a few of them dancing while I was out harvesting, weeding, and watering the garden, so I thought I’d take a look at what was happening to the Passiflora incarnata. Sure enough, we had our annual visitors.
Caterpillars don’t move fast, but the butterflies do. These butterflies move like fighter planes, fast and unpredictable, and I have about ten thumbs with this camera, so my brilliant idea to try to catch a picture was probably hopeless as a start. Hope springs eternal, though, so I planted myself next to the Passiflora and waited. One butterfly circled my head about fifteen times before she settled down. When I took the picture, I realized that she was overseeing two large caterpillars directly below her.
As I appeared to be entirely harmless, she stayed only a few moments before she decided that she was required elsewhere.
There were other household management things to do, some of which can take hours. But after all that was done, I had a few other things to do: I’d been infusing a jojoba and fractionated coconut oil with yarrow and mullein flowers, and it was ready for pressing and straining. Yarrow is well known for surface skin-repairing and smoothing effects, and has been used since the classical age for stanching the bleeding from battlefield wounds. Mullein is spoken about frequently as an assisting herb for lung conditions (Native Americans are reputed to have smoked it). Another of its reputed effects, though, is as a healer for deeper tissues and structures even in a carrier oil.
Some minutes wrestling with cheesecloth and multiple strainers later, I had the oil I was after. I’m probably going to use it in a soap, though I’m not sure which formula yet. Jojoba and fractionated coconut oil have absolutely marvelous moisturizing and smoothing qualities on the skin, and the herb infusions, I hope, will only amplify them.
Finally, I saw from my calendar that a curing soap was about ready to make its way in the world. Making cold-processed soap (e.g., soap that is made from scratch, with specifically chosen oils, waxes, butters, and other ingredients, saponified with lye and left to cure for several weeks to harden) is a practice that requires patience. It is also one of the best examples of ordinary alchemies that exist. From a bowl of liquid oils and fragments of lye arises something entirely different. It’s been changed in its essential nature by a chemical reaction that must have seemed like magic for most of human history. (Soapmaking isn’t the only process where this occurred — in the Middle Ages, alewives would mix their wort and then cross themselves and say a prayer, as the wild yeasts would begin the fermentation process.)
This soap is part of the “Sky” series I’ve been working on. It was inspired by a photograph of the clouds, sea and horizon taken from Buck Island on St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
It was made with pure coconut, olive, palm and castor oils, and colored with ultramarines. The fragrance is “clean and marine” with just a touch of musk and citrus to deepen it. I cleaned up the edges a bit, made sure it was pH safe, and told it to say “Cheese” while I took its picture. While it’s not gold — the goal that every medieval alchemist was after, if not the elixir of eternal life — it’s still a pretty good thing to have made at the end of the day.
The same goes with breakfast, and dinner, and bacon, and herbing, and growing things, and even doing laundry and dishes and cleaning up after the spills and flaws and damages of daily life. Each action requires some kind of applied change, a thoughtful — even if passing — alchemy to the circumstances around us. And even if they are the things that Kathleen Norris mentions as so basic, so bound up in home and nurture, the “little things” that we disregard now in preference for the public, it’s worth remembering what Sister Teresa of Calcutta said: “Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.”