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!
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
There was Tracy’s Rose, a shea butter formula with a rose absolute and vetiver fragrance.
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!
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.
According to the inestimable Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs, a poet in the 16th century wrote the following riddle:
What flower is that which bears the Virgin’s name,
The richest metal joined to the same?
John Gay was speaking about Calendula, though at the time it was called the “pot marigold” due to its ubiquity in cooking. The ancient Romans spoke of it and its popularity continued through centuries of history for all its flavorful, colorful, and medicinal properties. It dries beautifully for arrangements, creates an attractive yellow dye for fabric, and can be seeded for a lovely display of bright, long-lasting flowers in the garden.
But that wasn’t why I was after it today. I had randomly seeded some Calendula in the side bed right before winter, just to see what they would do, and have been drying flower after flower ever since in the McGuffin. This plant is prolific. I wanted the petals for two reasons: first, they are the only flower petal I know of that maintains its color in cold process soap, and second, they are renowned for making an exceptional skin-healing and smoothing salve. My friend Natty, the Chickenkeeper Alchemist, had grown some in her increasingly expansive garden and gave some to me. She noted as an aside that in Russia, Calendula skin salves were well known.
The Russians aren’t no fools. Herbalist manuals consistently back up the reports of Calendula’s effects on inflamed, irritated, bruised and scraped skin, minor wounds, and even sprains. Tomes like Medical Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine, (D. Hoffman, Healing Arts Press 2003) , Making Plant Medicine, (R. Cech 2000) and the Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine (A. Chevallier, Dorling Kindersley 2000) as well as many others all confirm that this little flower can do some remarkable work in lotions, salves, and balms. So with Natty’s words in mind, I decided to make a calendula oil and beeswax salve.
The first thing to do was to get the ingredients and equipment together. The bright orange petals in the leftmost jar had been steeping at 105 degrees Fahrenheit for sixteen hours in eight ounces of pure olive oil — after all, the most useful feature of the McGuffin is to maintain a steady temperature over many hours. (God I love that thing.) One ounce of beeswax, which came from the beekeeper a few blocks down the street, had been laboriously grated off the solid unrefined block. (Memo to me: Next time get the pastilles if you want to avoid carpal tunnel syndrome as well as peelers bent into bizarre modern art pieces.) I had the lavender and rosemary essential oils that I’d use gently to fragrance the salve set to go, and the Chinoise strainer and cheesecloth that I’d use to clarify the Calendula oil. Now all that was left was to suit up and get going.
I’m pretty compulsive about manufacturing practices, even though this is an “anhydrous” (meaning no water) formula using completely dried herbs, so the possibility of ickies growing in it should not be an issue. But I still wash up and sanitize all dishes, implements and containers, wipe down all surfaces with bleach solution, tie my hair back, wear gloves and a mask in case of sneezles, and of course wear the Herbwitch Hat. It’s actually a traditional Ghanaian hat I found at, of all places, a Renaissance Faire. I immediately fell in love with it. Call it cultural appropriation if you will, but I feel pretty cool and competent with the Hat when I’m dealing with herbal preparations because it is simply so spectacular. I hope I’m forgiven.
Once the oil is strained of the petals, first through the Chinoise (how does anyone live without this thing?) and then through several layers of cheesecloth, it’s put in a bowl atop a saucepan of water.
The beeswax gratings are added, and the mixture is very, very slowly heated, monitored and stirred frequently. Getting it too hot will lose a lot of qualities of both the Calendula and the beeswax (in particular the fragrance), so patience is a must. The beeswax will eventually melt. Eventually. Seriously, eventually, although it does feel like geologic time now and then.
Once the beeswax is melted, the clock starts ticking a bit. 10 drops of essential oils — six Hungarian lavender, four rosemary in my formula — get mixed in and then it’s poured into the prepared containers to cool and solidify. It will solidify fast so that’s why you need to stay focused. Up to 40 drops of essential oils can be used, but I wanted a very gentle formula, so I stuck with ten drops of oils that have their own known skin reparative properties.
The salve is best kept in a cool place so it won’t melt and resolidify frequently, and with proper care should last for months. As with all balms, salves, and lotions, it’s best to use something other than your fingers to get it out of the container. But all minor cautions aside, it’s a wonderful-smelling, comforting salve that’ll come in handy the next time the wall gets spiteful with your knuckles when you’re carrying up the laundry.
I spent a pretty good portion of the day yesterday combing through comments posted to the blog. Considering I’ve been out of the ring for a couple months, due to the Bad Situation and its ongoing effects, there were more than a few of them. Over a thousand, in fact. And most of them were autogenerated come-ons for various websites selling — well, here’s a very partial list:
replica handbags, knockoff handbags, michael kors, levitra, viagra, retin a, clarisonic, soma, parajumpers, strattera, propecia, nike, kamagra, bose, dr dre, montblanc, seo, burberry, bose, and apparently Michael Jordan.
It was pretty clear pretty fast that my filters really needed fixing, but I was unwilling to universal-wipe the comments just in case there was some gem buried in there. (For the impatient types, there wasn’t). Accordingly, I was able to experience the full spectrum of Interwebs barker teases, which kept raising unanswerable questions in my head as I scrolled through. Most were fairly innocuous: If soma is a drug, how do you make a bra out of it? Who is Karen Mullen and why is her coat so important — does it make you invisible or something? Is she here standing behind me, transparent, right now? What on earth is a “parajumper” and why do I need one? Do I get a base jumper for half off if I buy it? Is everyone on earth selling “replica” handbags except me, and if so, how did I miss the memo?
Others were a bit more disturbing — such as the website that asked, “Does Viagra work on dogs?” or the one that promised in English not just broken but annihilated that I’d become a “supercharged dildo” if I used their SEO scripting.
I finished the job and fixed the filters (again) and then, hoping for some lighthearted entertainment, moved over to my favorite vice: the U.K.’s best rag, also known as the Daily Mail. There, I learned about various family murders, a guy too dumb to turn off his truck when the tailpipe got buried in mud, more than enough about Kim Kardashian’s sartorial choices, and the news that a cute young woman had just received a $500,000 advance to write a book about her life buying drugs, taking drugs, having sex for drugs, and writing magazine pieces about all of the above plus some comments about makeup.
I had the John Cleese moment in “A Fish Called Wanda” — the courtroom scene where he says, “Right, that’s it” — and went outside into the back garden, wishing that life had a “Reset” button.
Well, sometimes it does. As Robert Orben remarked,
Spring is God’s way of saying, ‘One more time!’
Instead of my usual manic winter cleanup last year, I’d decided to let the various containers, pots and the side bed do as they would without any interference. And sure, I found a tangled mess of dead tomatoes and peppers, a marjoram that looked like it committed seppoku, and what I think are three-foot-tall dandelions in the side bed. They’re either dandelions or they’re triffids, and I have no more bandwidth to worry.
But I also found that the Brave Little Valerian had not only survived me ripping it up last fall, chopping off its roots, and cutting its root crown into four pieces before replanting — but that all four of them were thriving.
The passifloras, both Big Fred and the Little Guy The Butterflies Gnaw Down To A Stick During The Summer, had also pulled through.
Fred seems to have forgotten that he is supposed to be a “vine,” the kind of plant that climbs things, and settled into a comfortable couch potato position on the fence.
The side bed was a jungle. I’d sown calendula seeds at random right before the rains set in, simply out of curiosity as to what they would do. I found, amidst the three-foot-“dandelions” mentioned above,
a riot of blossoms that I immediately started cutting and drying. (Calendula has an herbalist and culinary history since the Middle Ages. King Henry VIII insisted that his food be brightly colored and his cooks used Calendula for bright orange and yellow shades. According to ancient and modern herbalists, it’s also a superb treatment for skin conditions, burns, bruises, and strains, and has applications for gastrointestinal disturbances as well). But it wasn’t just the calendulas that had taken advantage of my benign neglect.
The various thymes had run riot, the yarrow was exploding, and a strawberry plant that had appeared really, truly, and seriously dead for months had resurrected itself.
Even better, the lemon verbena had come roaring back after my perhaps too-enthusiastic harvesting last fall.
(Lemon verbena makes a fantastic tea all by itself, adds terrific flavor other less appealing medicinal teas, and can convince almost anyone to eat their vegetables when added as a delicate seasoning, either fresh or dried.)
And much to my delight, my lavenders had survived. I’ve had about as much luck with lavenders as I had in the past with passifloras — I’d plant them, they’d flourish for a while, and then they’d curl up and die overnight. Less water, more water, less sun, more sun, feed them, don’t; nothing I did seemed to make any difference. But simply being left alone was more to their taste.
There’s also another one, planted next to an aloe that also seems to have pulled through pretty well.
It’s a smaller varietal which, unfortunately, I seem to have forgotten the name of, though its flowers last year had a lovely, rich, deep scent that a lot of lavenders don’t possess. (A lot of them have that cutting, acrid, headachy sweetness that smells like Grandma’s wardrobe). It’s looking a little punky right now, but I hope the spring will inspire it as it has its companion.
It takes a lot of stress and awfulness to make someone like me ignore a garden for months. But you’d think I would have learned from something I posted myself a while ago — sometimes, it’s not a disaster to step back, take a breath, and leave things alone for a while. There might just be a “Start Over” coming down the road.
When everything starts ripening and the harvest is in full swing, I’d have to argue from sheer exhaustion that it’s September. This morning’s haul from the garden: Steel bowl top left, from top left: tarragon, rosemary, golden lemon thyme, lime thyme, Faustino thyme, silver thyme in the center.
Most of the herbs will be going into the dehydrator, along with the rose blossoms (so nice for teas), and the peppers prepped and either frozen or canned whole or as puree. Now that the tomato flats are coming into the farmers’ markets, I don’t think the canner is going to be leaving the stove anytime soon.
Fire to heat you,
Earth to hold you,
Water to heal you,
With the wind in your arms, now rise
I don’t remember where I read that, or even if it’s an accurate memory that I read it at all; it came back to me this morning when I was suffering through yet another coughing fit from my usual bout of late-summer bronchitis. I tend to get it when the weather turns cold and damp in the mornings, right before the rains come. It’s the kind that lags on for weeks, bothersome not so much for the coughing (though that’s annoying) but for the aches and fatigue that come along for the ride.
As I think I’ve mentioned in another post, houses, kids, pets and gardens need care even when you’re sick, and the advice to “take it easy” is pretty laughable (something you can’t do because you’ll trigger another coughing fit) when cars break down, ants are making exploratory forays into various parts of the house, kids need rides, the dog gets sick and has to go to the vet, the new herbs you’re counting on are shriveling visibly, and everyone is suddenly out of clean underpants.
It’s pretty easy to get overwhelmed at times like this. When it happens, I usually retreat back to the Middle Ages. (I highly recommend this approach — it doesn’t have to be medieval Europe, it can be any ancient epoch, anywhere. Pick one that appeals to you.) The legend of the Phoenix was the first thing I ran across in my books. Cultures from ancient China and India to Arabia and Europe share the story of a beautiful and wise bird that consumes itself on an incensed fire yet returns, reborn and new. It is an image of a terrible trial, a vision of horrifying suffering and yet, somehow, great hope.
Medieval European alchemists used the figure of the phoenix in their writings as the clue to the element of sulfur, the color red, and the representation of a fire that at first seems to destroy, but instead purifies and transforms what it touches.
I had a request for more soap today, and I had a very small new batch that was cured and ready. It’s a classic coconut, olive and castor oil formula with a very rich element of shea butter and the addition of organic crushed chamomile flowers from my garden. With the idea of the phoenix in my mind, I stamped it and brushed it with copper and white micas. The fragrance is, I think, a very appropriate milk and honey.
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.”
Unexpected intrusions of beauty. This is what life is. — Saul Bellow, Herzog
The daily garden walkabouts are usually pragmatic affairs: this plant seems a little dry, there is some weeding to be done on the raised bed, the basil plants need pinching (again), the “Shoot-the-Moon” Bougainvillea’s dropped bracts need to be cleaned out of pots (and the pool, and the garden umbrella, and my hair), and the like. Some plants simply don’t make it for whatever reason, and I contemplate how their spots could be used to reseed California poppies and borage, which I need for tea; I note that there are now, briefly, a few glorious roses whose petals would be perfect for drying; and if I don’t do something about that pumped-up lemon verbena it’s going to go Thunderdome on the tarragon next door. It’s usually a no-nonsense and task-oriented routine. But every now and then some vision jumps out at you, a picture framed as if an artist designed it just for you, at just that moment.
The grape arbor out front is a riot of greens and grapes. Every now and then I trim it back a bit to keep the vines from taking over the entire driveway, but on the whole I leave them alone. The other day I noticed a bright spark of color buried in the brilliant green leaves — it was a single leaf that had burst into crimson and gold. There were no others like it. It was gone two days later.
The same day I saw the grapeleaf beacon, I passed the plantings near the front of the house. Here we have a plant that I call “The Martian Maw Of Death” — a plant that appears so irredeemably hostile that even the Hive Queen giant opuntia cactus is afraid of it. Robert Heinlein, the science fiction writer, once remarked that it was generally a bad idea to scare a little man; I can see that principle applying to this cactus, if that’s what it is. But there are several more of them, and I was surprised and delighted to see that even the prickliest curmudgeon of a plant can produce something of striking and even unnecessary beauty.
The Hive Queen herself is no slouch in this department. For a giant cactus covered in brutal thorns, featherlike needles that can drive you insane if they get under your skin, and possessing a general posture of incipient homicide, the Queen can also strut her stuff when it’s time.
Each of these flowers tops a structure that will turn into the rare and delicious “prickly pear” fruit. The petals range in color from brightest yellow to blush pink to deepest rose, and only last a few days. It’s always surprising to see something so delicate, so perfectly fragile and absolutely lovely, on a plant like this. But that’s what I think Saul Bellow was getting at: unexpected intrusions of beauty are what life is, and no matter how unlikely, they are all around us. Gardens are really good for this.
One of the fascinating features of the little island in the Caribbean is the extraordinary diversity of its geography. The East End of the island is hilly and dry, covered in low scrub and bush like tan-tan and Ginger Thomas stands, and bears the forefront of the tradewinds that sweep in from the sea. The center of the island flattens out a bit, but still features gentle curving hills that once sustained sprawling sugar cane plantations. And going on to the West End, you find an remarkable feature — a genuine rainforest that climbs into the sky. There’s really only one main road that will take you through the rainforest, and it’s a trip best done slowly and carefully; there are sections of the road that wash out in interesting ways, and you’ll find yourself crossing running water more than once. But the varied colors and movement of the forest that surrounds you, the shifting light and fragrances of the plants and the earth, make it a trip well worth making. It also inspired me to try to recreate at least some of the experience in a soap.
St. Croix is remaking itself as a destination island for people interested in highly skilled, deliciously authentic, and locally grown organic food. There are several farms now that not only supply local restaurants and markets, but also offer apprenticeships, vacation stays, and camps teaching how to grow quality organic food in a tropical clime. In honor of this resurrection, I decided I’d use only herbal colorants for the soap this time.
There are a number of online shops to obtain soapmaking resources. I found one, soap-making-resource.com, that offered a sample pack of various spice and herbal colorants for use in cold-process soaps. The bag I received was enormous and contained everything from activated charcoal to madder root to alkanet to dandelion. After a bit of research on the type of greens I was after, I chose three: Comfrey Leaf, Nettle Leaf, and French Green Clay.
Greens and blues can be tough colors to create in soap, even if you’re using the more ordinary pigments, micas, and liquid colorants. As in any alchemy, colors can change, morph, or even disappear on you without even so much as a courtesy phone call. Herbs double down the difficulty — so many have hideous reputations for turning bizarrely awful colors, smelling odd, or refusing to do anything at all. So I knew going in that practically anything could happen, and there was an additional level of pressure involved — my mom was coming into town and I’d promised to show her how to make soap.
She was coming in on a mercy mission — to help take care of the Kid, who was having sinus surgery that week and more hands are better in that kind of situation. I knew the day after the surgery the Kid would be off on a sleepy-happy little cloud of Vicodin, so that would be the best day to try the soap. I started gathering and setting up the gear. But what mold to use?
The guys to the right are classic soap molds. The dark blue is a loaf mold, and the lighter blue is a single-bar slab mold that I usually use for testing new colors and fragrances, or for overflow soap. I’m also going to start experimenting with it for swirling techniques that are difficult to do in loaf molds.
Yes, that is a Pringles can, and it creates a lovely round bar if everything goes right. I’ve heard of some folks lining theirs and using it multiple times, but for me it’s a one-off. This is primarily because it gives me a perfect excuse to eat the chips. “I need a new round mold!” I’d used a Pringles can before and produced the “Morning Sun” soap.
Trying another round soap appealed to me, so I fished out a can I’d been saving (much to my mom’s amusement), and we got the show on the road. Mom had chosen a combination of fragrances that she thought smelled like a bright, tropical forest: a coconut, lime and verbena fragrance oil with a dollop of lemongrass essential oil to add a citrus crispness. The recipe was extremely simple: coconut oil and olive oil, which should produce a creamy and moisturizing soap with decent lathering and bubbles.
The mixing went fairly well; the comfrey leaf was put into the base batter, and then split into three. The nettle leaf and green clay were mixed into the other two measuring cups, all stick-mixered into a light to medium trace, and then the nettle and clay colors were poured from a height into the base batter at the 12 and 6 o’clock positions. One and a half circular sweeps of a spatula swirled the mix, and then it was poured into the Pringles can. We wrapped it up in some towels. And then we waited, tended the Kid, made herb tea, pitted cherries, and drank white wine.
Mom had to leave before I could unpeel the can and take a look at what we’d made. It had produced a tiny volcano at the top (this is the second time I’ve seen that phenomenon in a Pringles can), but otherwise seemed hale and hearty. Today I opened and cut it. It is a firm, sturdy little beast — still a little soft, but that’s to be expected — and it cut like a dream with the Unbelievably Useful Husband’s handcrafted device. I was delighted and even dumbfounded by the herbal colors, and couldn’t help but add a leaf soap stamp and paint on a little mica. To me, it does reflect the rainforest; the colors shift like the light in the canopy leaves, and the fragrance is gentle, earthy, fresh and relaxing. And while it might darken, I’m going to be working more with herbal and spice colorants now. Turmeric? Paprika? Sandalwood? Dandelion? Have at you!
As well as being the ChickenKeeper, our poster Natty is also an intrepid MushroomHunter. This might spring from her background, which (in my estimation) apparently involved leaping from crag to crag toting a Kalashnikov from a tender age, foraging for survival in frozen forests while being pursued by bears and running-dog capitalists, and excelling in mathematics, sarcastic remarks, complex computer systems, and the like. She’s gathered some pictures of her applying her elite skills to the fey and cautious mushroom populations here in Northern California. The poetic digressions, I’m afraid, are entirely my own. — Stargazer
NUMBER ONE: THE DEATH CAP (AMANITA PHALLOIDES)
Amanita Phalloides, such a lovely fungus,
Amanita Phalloides, delicious and among us;
Amanita Phalloides, what for do I shiver?
Amanita Phalloides, what costs a brand new liver?
The reports are nearly universal: people who’ve eaten this report that it’s one of the most delicious mushrooms on the face of the earth. Unfortunately, it also contains a compound that destroys the human liver in an astoundingly short period of time. Every year a handful of Northern California mushroom hunters mistake it for another mushroom — mostly its harmless little brother (below) or for other varieties. They have a great dinner and then a not-so-great stay in the hospital and on the liver-transplant list. Mushroom hunting is not for amateurs.
NUMBER TWO: THE COCCORA, OR AMANITA CALYPTRODERMA
Sings Dey-O in the rain
Yet its sullen older brother
Will bring you lots of pain;
Before you go on piercing
That universal veil
‘Tis best to check that it sings
Lest your organs fail.
All young Amanita mushrooms feature a membrane called the “universal veil.” In the Coccora, it’s very thick and cottony, and there are a few other giveaways that this is not the Mushroom of I-Literally-Ate-Myself-To-Death but rather a very pleasant and agreeable dinner guest. But as Natty says, “It’s very different. I still wouldn’t eat it.”
NUMBER THREE: LACTARIUS RUBRILACTEUS
Lactarius rubrilacteus says, “I’m a bit redundant;
I’m milky and red-milky, but then I am no pundit.
It might say something to you that you cook me with a rock,
And even with the salt and herbs, I still taste like a sock.”
A reference I ran across for this mushroom mentioned that it was traditionally cooked by layering it in salt and herbs, weighing it down with a rock, and then simmering it for hours. Natty confirms that in her experience the salt was definitely involved. My attitude is that any supposed food item that has to be packed in salt and boiled, much less squashed by large rocks (for what reason? To prevent it from escaping?) in order to achieve even basic edibility is probably not worth the trouble.
NUMBER FOUR: CANTHERELLUS CALIFORNICUS, THE GLORIOUS CHANTARELLE
Will cheer the most forlorn of us.
To see that massive golden crest —
Our Destiny so Manifest —
It’s clear that dinner super-sizing
Isn’t just our own devising.
They can get monster, these Chantarelles, and they are a culinary treasure. On Natty’s own blog, http://squeakolas.blogspot.com/2011/12/gribnik.html, she demonstrates how to make a delicious main meal from the three pounds of chantarelles she foraged on a single walk.
While mushroom hunting isn’t my gig — I prefer huddling inside over a warm computer to digging around in the cold damp wild and almost certainly coming home with a whopping case of poison ivy, if not actual pneumonia — it’s pretty cool that someone knows how to do this. And Natty promises that once the rains start again, we’ll be expanding on the Guide.