A Thousand Words: (Some Of) The Garden (Almost) Entirely In Pictures

I am Gulf Fritillary. I grant you this moment to admire my beauty before I gnaw your precious Passiflora Incarnata down to a stick.
Big Fred, The Reluctant Passiflora Edulis, is finally getting busy.
This is the volunteer Cabernet Sauvignon vine. We’re going to have a lot of grapes this year.


Like, a lot. This is the prep-school Thompson’s vine.
As in, maybe kind of too many.
The Fig Tree That Was Apparently Alarmed By That Certain Event In The Bible is overdoing it again.
The squirrels have taken note. I’d better notify the dogs, because the squirrels throw the figs at them from the Squirrel Highway electrical wire above the dog run.
The pomegranate has decided to do something besides screw around with the cable wire.


The oranges are so cute when they’re little.
The Ghost Pepper, one of the hottest peppers in the world. It was the size of my little finger when I planted it late last month. I am afraid of it.
Borage from out of nowhere, squatting in the English thyme’s pot. I fear there will be war.
The yarrow, after strangling the golden lemon thyme and surviving a rather pissed-off thinning, abides. Who knew that the stalks I was discarding (the leaves and flowers are well-known for medicinal properties) are used in I-Ching divination. Well, I sure didn’t. D’oh.
The motherwort loves everyone.

When Soap Turns Rogue, Sometimes That’s Okay

On some days, when I’m out puttering around in the garden, I get some attitude from the neighbors.

Remember those celery seeds you planted? Hahaha.

(It’s true. Something ate them, or they just didn’t like the dirt, or me, or something.)  On other days, I get attitude from soap.

Colorants can be the absolute bane of a soapmaker, whenever fragrance or essential oils have taken the day off from being a pain in the butt.  I’ve mentioned “morphing” before — it’s when a fragrance or a colorant, through the mystery of the saponification process, turns into something entirely different than what you expected.  I’ve made a soap that, to me, smells way too much like an armpit (this opinion might not be shared by others) and the fragrance certainly didn’t smell like that in the bottle.  (If it had, I would’ve chucked it at the guy in the picture above.)

Fragrances aren’t the only miscreants; colorants are also notorious for misbehavior.  Finding a stable and vivid red is one of the Holy Grails of the cold-process method.  And as I noted in my earlier post, I wanted to make a soap in honor of a friend of mine, a moviemaker and heavy metal singer, and it needed a lot of red.

It took three tries.

“Tommy’s Heavy Metal THUNDERR!”



Eventually, I landed it — a soap just as over-the-top as he is.




But before that there was Attempt One, which qualified as an Unmitigated Disaster.  The fragrance I was using had a reputation for giving “false trace,” which means that the lye and the soap really haven’t become best buds yet, but pretend to you most earnestly that they are.  Later, they separate just as bitterly as the couple in the top story on the Daily Mail on any given day.  That’s what happened to me, and when I tried to unmold the ungrateful little &^%$#, it was a blob of hissing goo underneath a carapace so hard I could have used it as a bludgeon.  I didn’t even bother to try to save it through rebatching, I was so pissed.

Now the next attempt I got smarter, or so I thought.  I changed the fragrance base and used the little liar only as a top note.  And I had this Absolute Stroke of Genius.  I thought I’d use some micas to produce a burning copper-gold effect in the swirl with the activated charcoal.  These two, in fact.

Ooh! Shiny! What could possibly go wrong?

I’d used micas before for some pretty nice effects.

“St. Croix Night Sky.”


There’s the brushwork on Night Sky, for example — my attempt to show the stunning effect of the Milky Way in the absolute black of a night on St. Croix.




So I mixed everything up — the micas looked great in the mix — poured it in the mold, pulled off the technique known as a “hanger swirl” (yes, you use a slightly modified clothes hanger for this), and waited. And waited.  Man, this soap was soft.  I think it was the recalcitrant fragrance giving me one final “Screw you.”  But when that soap finally came out of the mold, I didn’t have the burning copper-gold I was eagerly anticipating.

I had pink.  Pink. Oh for the love of. Pink. Pink might be many things but it is not Heavy Metal, at least by the usual consensus.

So now I had a beautifully scented, coconut, olive and castor oil soap (I’ve been working on a butters-free formula for a bit) that should be a dream in the shower.  That is, well, pink and black.  Not exactly what I was after, but alchemy sometimes works that way.

"A Midsummer Night's Dream"

A very cool friend of mine gave me the name.  It’s happily and pinkily curing now in the Lab with the rest of the crew.



Introducing The Tough Guy Hunting, Fishing, Rock ‘N Roll and Soap Club (Free Recipe Included)

Hunting in freezing woods! Fishing in ferocious deep-sea waves! Smoking your hard-won dinner over chunks of wood you cut yourself using power tools most normal people avoid at all costs because they read too many Steven King books! Air guitar and headbanging to bands shrieking and noodling at earsplitting volume with no detectable melody!  How tough guy is all that?  That’s tough guy, I tell you! And us tough guys (this includes girls) need our own club!

I have no idea who these people are. But they look tough.

Wait a minute, I hear you say.  What was that at the end?

Well, soap.  Soap is part of the club. Hunting, Fishing, Rock ‘N Roll and, you know, soap.

Prolonged pause, backed by Sesame Street’s “One Of These Things Is Not Like The Others.”

Oh, so you don’t think making soap is an appropriate tough-guy activity?  Let me fill you in, bub. (Tough guys say “bub” and “pal” a lot.)  First of all, there’s the screaming hot, scary caustic (as in burn your skin off and blind you if you’re stupid) lye solution you get to mix up and then dump into slippery and sometimes viciously expensive oils.  Then you use a wicked sharp stick blender to beat said mix into submission without splattering it all over yourself, add various other (usually expensive) stuff in various exact amounts at exactly the right times, beat it or abuse it some more, and then pour it into a mold without spilling it on everything around you because that countertop will cost a fortune to replace.  Now if that isn’t tough-guy material, I don’t know what is.  What’s more, it’s synergistic with other tough-guy activities!

All right, let me prove it to you.  Deep-sea fishing counts, right?  (It’s right up there in the title.)  Bracing the surging waves, far from shore, fighting a spirited fish with nothing more than a stick and a piece of string!  How, I hear you cry, can soap help us with this mighty battle?  Well, the answer lies in, of all things, a “girly” little plant called anise.

The mighty fisherman’s friend, anise.

Anise has a history as medicine since ancient times.  It’s been used for coughs, epilepsy, digestive difficulties (including flatulence — the Romans seem weirdly focused on this application), and as a tonic for nursing mothers.  But one of the neatest things about anise is that, according to fisherman’s lore, fish love the stuff.  I mean, love it.  Fishermen dip lures and lines into anise oil and wash their gear and themselves with anise soap to both hide their own scent and attract the fish.  (Here’s an example report.)  And think about it — even if you’re not a fisherman, but just like to snorkel or dive, a dose of anise might help you start the party with the finny guys you’re there for.

But where to find this magical elixir?  You can buy anise extract at a grocery store and add some into a carrier oil, like cod liver.  There’s your dip for lures, hooks and lines or snorkel/scuba gear. But what about the soap?  Well, that’s right here:

Fisherman’s Magic Soap. (The shells are soap too.)

Wait, it gets better.  Part of the mojo of this soap is that unlike nearly all other soaps, it’s made of 100% coconut oil — the only soaping oil that will reliably lather in salt water.  No need to waste precious freshwater while you’re out on (or in) the bounding main, waiting for that record marlin to catch a whiff of that sexy, irresistible anise and head straight for your lines (or your camera). I’ll be taking a few of these on the next trip to St. Croix, where an excellent fishing crew, as well as dozens of beautiful snorkeling sites, await.

Fishing isn’t all soap can do for us tough guys.  Hunters have their own problems — what you’re after for dinner can usually smell you a mile away and decide to take their custom elsewhere.  (The more peaceable tough guys like birdwatchers and wildlife photographers have the same problem.) There’s a big business in scent-masking strategies and products:  everything from layering your clothes in baking soda to expensive sprays and washing powders.  But one of the oldest, and simplest, approaches for deodorizing your deadly/voyeuristic presence is —

let’s not see all the same hands —

Hunter’s Dirt Soap.  Yep, soap that smells exactly like dirt and makes you smell exactly like dirt. (Here’s a report on dirt soap.) It’s the good kind of dirt, like a garden you’re just beginning to work, or the smell of a freshly-turned field after a rain.

Hunter’s Dirt Soap.

The soap itself is a pretty simple coconut, olive and castor formula with a dollop of dirt fragrance, enough to stay on the skin and mask the fact that you’re a human with a camera, binoculars, or a pointy-edged (bow) or explosive (rifle) projectile looking for something to eat.  The camo (activated charcoal, black walnut hull powder, and ultramarine green) is just for fun.

So, say there’s some meat in the freezer now, and you need to do something with it.  For example, if you go after a wild hog and get a nice pork shoulder (or even ambush the latter at the local grocery store) smoking it might be the way to go.  There are a zillion different approaches out there for how to smoke a big solid piece of meat, but one of the consistent points of agreement is that it’s great to use a rub of some kind.  The UUH is fanatic about one in particular — a wet rub made from a mustard carrier and herbs.

In the beginning, there is a mustard/herb rubbed pork shoulder.

Giving credit where credit is due,  the original formulation of this rub comes from the Weber grill company, where they suggest using it on a beef prime rib and cooking it at a fairly high temperature on a grill.  Let me tell you, it works on pork shoulder even better than prime rib (although the prime rib is stupendous as originally written) and like a charm in a smoker as opposed to on a grill.  You won’t taste the mustard flavor after it’s done. The mustard holds the herbs and other ingredients together and forms a “bark” on the meat — the addictive flavor-bomb crunchy covering of the meltingly tender, obscenely rich roast beneath.  I’ve also found that fresh herbs, while nice, aren’t really any better flavor-wise than dried herbs as long as you’re generous, and you should use the herbs that you really like.  For example, this time  I swapped out the rosemary in the original recipe for a healthy dose of English thyme, and it worked beautifully.  So here’s my estimate on how I worked a mustard rub for a 7-8 pound pork shoulder:

  • 1/2 cup (or more, as much as you need to cover) ordinary yellow mustard
  • 1/4 cup (maybe a little less) each marjoram, basil, oregano and thyme
  • A couple tablespoons A1 Steak Sauce
  • A generous dribble of Sriracha Hot Pepper Sauce
  • Dehydrated garlic powder, onion powder, salt and pepper to taste

Rubs are really personal and amounts can be adjusted up, down, sideways, or abandoned altogether.  This rub is really thick with herbs, as you can see from the photo; I find that the long smoking I do mellows and evens them out.  For a roast this size,  I smoked for 10 hours at between 225-250F over peachwood until the center of the roast hit 180F.  Waiting a little longer, until the roast hits 190F or above, can make it even tenderer and absolutely perfect for pulled pork recipes.  The best thing to do, as an alchemist, is to EXPERIMENT.

It’s done — time to eat! (UUH has gnawed off one end.)

Okay, you say.  I’m partially convinced.  But you forgot one thing.

Oh, come on, nobody forgets rock and roll!

Now I’ve made a couple soaps with certain people or events in mind already.

Tracy’s Rose



There was Tracy’s Rose, a shea butter formula with a rose absolute and vetiver fragrance.




Monsoon Wedding


Then there was Monsoon Wedding, made for some friends getting married in India.  It was twice-milled for the right consistency, and needed a complex layering of scents. Everyone in my family get hunted expressions as I pursued them with my latest attempt at the “right” fragrance combination.

This last soap arises from different, and more worrying, circumstances.  A friend became very, very sick recently, and remains in the hospital.  He was one of my first soap testers and gave me terrific feedback every time I fired a new soap in his direction.  From here in California, I can’t do much for him — except make and dedicate a soap to show my thoughts and gratitude.  Now this guy has made a movie, is a hellacious rock and roll singer, and has a heart and personality as big as the universe, so I had to make something as over-the-top as he is.  And there was no holding back on the photo. The photo had to show it all.

So I’d like to introduce “Tommy’s Heavy Metal THUNDERR!” soap — hide your wives and children!

Tommy’s Heavy Metal THUNDERR!
My eyes! Good Lord, woman, what have you done?!

Because they don’t make a “cocaine, beer, cheap perfume and eau de tour bus” fragrance yet, I had to go with a really nice sandalwood.  I was worried it would detract too much from the effect — but looking at this puppy, somehow I don’t think it will.

Signing out for the night, the Tough Guy Hunting, Fishing, Rock ‘N Roll and Soap Club.