Salt, Soap, Tangs, Tattoos and Turtles: The Final Showdown

It’s a little-known fact that fish are telepathic, even from great distances.

It's been a month already. Where's the post, and my lunch while you're at it.

It’s been a month already. Where’s the post, and my lunch while you’re at it.

In our last installment of this excruciatingly long series, I wrote about my experience with the Blue Tang Clan off Buck Island in St. Croix.

The Blue Tang Clan.  There were hundreds more of them.

The Blue Tang Clan. There were hundreds more of them.

As ecstatic experiences go, swimming as one of a huge clan of beautiful fish seems a little, well, lacking.  There weren’t any angels or any thunder or any spectacular hypnotic visions that anyone else who travels the snorkeling trail at Buck Island doesn’t have the opportunity to see for themselves.  But I’m not going to discount the “still, small voice” that’s been written about — and I think I heard for a moment — when I swam with them, totally at peace and utterly unafraid (and that doesn’t happen for me a lot), even though I am a weak swimmer and the sea can be rough and very deep in places.

Now Psycho, who is the star of our first photograph, is a very pragmatic barracuda and appears somewhat skeptical of anyone’s epiphany if there isn’t a lionfish spearing involved. When I was cleaning up my chaotic desktop I ran across his picture and guilt set in immediately, as if he’d smacked me in the head directly from St. Croix. You promised a photo of the result of your little event, I thought.  You haven’t posted anything except a tedious pictorial of that somewhat underwhelming tomato paste experiment.

Guilty as charged.  So let’s get right to it — a few days after I swam with the Clan, I got my first tattoo.  And here it is.

I try to remember I have this, when things get rough.

I try to remember I have this, when things get rough.

I’ll admit most folks wouldn’t think of a fish for a tattoo, unless it were a shark or a dolphin (okay, the latter’s a mammal) or maybe a whale (ibid.) silhouetted against a moon.  The spirit animals crowd always seem to lean in on wolves, lions, raptors and the like; I don’t think I’ve run across anyone who admits to a cave mole or a hyena.  (Although it can be pretty fun to take a test to supposedly find yours out.)  The blue tang doesn’t have much going for it except for speed and one hidden armament — a wicked sharp barb near its tail that it can deploy in times of great need.  It’s hardly the kind of image that our cultural and financial “masters of the universe” are going to go for, which is why it’s perfect for me.

The fish him or herself.

The fish, him or herself.

The Blue Tang Clan wasn’t the last extraordinary experience on St. Croix, though.  A friend invited us into a group that would visit Sandy Point during the leatherback turtle-hatching season.  St. Croix, like many Caribbean islands, is a nesting site for several types of sea turtles, and the far-west beach of Sandy Point is an important part of their habitat.  It’s so important, and taken so seriously by the Crucians, that the entire beach is closed for entire chunks of the year.  It is a very lovely place, with the colorful buildings of Frederiksted on the right, the silky white sand beneath your feet, and the endless stretch of sea before you.

A Wilson's plover, sharing a quiet moment on Sandy Point.

A Wilson’s plover, sharing a quiet moment on Sandy Point.

Squads of volunteers organized by the Crucians and researchers from around the world guard and monitor the nesting sites twenty-four hours a day.  If you’re lucky, you can arrange for a guided visit to the Point when the nestlings are hatching.

Leatherback turtle nesting site, marked by the Sandy Point guardians.

Leatherback turtle nesting site, marked by the Sandy Point guardians.

As peaceful and beautiful as the beach is, there are predators that wait for the nestlings to emerge from the sand.  The primary offender is the Magnificent Frigate Bird, whose psychopathic tendencies I have noted in an earlier post.

Magnificent Frigate Bird, doubtlessly looking for something small and defenseless to eat.

Magnificent Frigate Bird, doubtlessly looking for something small and defenseless to eat.

That’s the guy I saw circling obsessively above our group as we were led by a ridiculously young marine biologist to a large circle dug into the sand.  Beneath the surface, laid in layer upon layer, were the eggs of a leatherback turtle that had been coming to this beach for years.  Somehow the researchers and volunteers know when eggs in a certain nest are likely to hatch — though there’s no guarantee.

We were lucky.  It wasn’t long before we saw an odd pointed nose poking out of the sand.  The marine biologist waited for a bit, then gently brushed some sand away, and suddenly there were more noses.  A LOT more noses.  And then there were fins and shells and little turtles clumsily digging and flailing and attempting to crawl in this heaving mound of TINY TURTLE.  (Visitors to this spectacular event aren’t allowed to take photographs, otherwise you’d better believe I’d have some).  As they emerged, a volunteer would whisk them away to a nearby camp where yet another set of biologists would take a tiny scraping of their skin for a DNA sample, which is used for tracking and health analyses.  Though this isn’t my picture, this is what a baby leatherback turtle looks like: Baby_Leatherback_Sea_Turtle_600

The entire time that the babies were emerging, the Magnificent Frigate Bird circled lower and lower and faster and faster.  That bird was auguring in like a drill. The absurdly young marine biologist repeatedly gave him the stink-eye and he prudently removed himself (I wouldn’t have messed with her either), though it was pretty easy to imagine what would have happened were we not there. In the end, there were sixty baby leatherbacks born of the nest we saw, and not one lost as an aperitif.

Once the DNA testing was completed, the volunteers loaded some of the babies into a bucket (you have not lived until you’ve seen a bucket full of thrashing baby turtles), and we were guided to a clear spot a little farther down the beach and very close to the wave line.  We were each given a baby turtle.

Let me tell you, those little dudes can kick.  The biologist told us that they were preloaded with enough fat and energy to help them swim for days without stopping out into the open ocean, and boy did they ever demonstrate this.  It was like trying to hold on to a tiny object infused with an otherworldly strength and determination. You got a feeling that if you held it next to a concrete wall, it could punch through it without hesitation. They wanted the water and the hell with you, they’re going to get to it.

We set them down and they started the sprint to the ocean.  Only a couple got a little distracted and looped back on themselves (one was the UUH’s, of which I never fail to remind him) but were set aright.  The knockback from the waves made the attempt a little frustrating, but they kept trying, and I’ve never rooted so hard for anything in my life.  We were all hooting and cheering and dancing around like a bunch of diehard fans at the Super Bowl. And when the last baby turtle made it through the surge, heading out for his or her great adventure in the ocean, it was, quite simply, glorious.  We walked off the beach and through the scrub back to our cars like we were drunk with joy.

It has been a difficult year, and writing this has helped me remember that there are good things and people as well as bad ones.  So with a tip of the hat to the UUH, Psycho the (Nagging) Barracuda and the Blue Tang Clan, I’ll let a little turtle sign off for me.

Arrivederci and vaya con Dios!

Arrivederci and vaya con Dios!





Salt, Soap, Tattoos and Turtles: Episode Two (Good Lord, My Spirit Animal Is . . .)

Now I’m not trying to torture anyone, but we do need a bit of backstory before I can answer the question posed.  Here’s a hint, though.

Blue Tang fish

The mystery deepens, as it were.

One of the things that I’m most thankful for to the UUH is that he showed me the marvels of What’s Under There (and by “there” I mean the surface of the ocean.  Get your mind out of the gutter.).  I’m not a strong swimmer and have about as much body fat as a stick insect — which means the iconic “Dead Man’s Float” they teach you in swim class really IS — so I’d always been cautious to the point of paranoia about getting water deeper than my (bony) knees.  Clamping a clumsy plastic mask to my (terrified) face and trying to breathe (without hysterical gasping) through a ridiculous plastic tube was not first on my list of priorities.  But when you’re in St. Croix, you’re in one of the most extraordinary places on earth to snorkel, and the UUH eventually coaxed me into it.

Now it’s one of my favorite things of all. I have a list of favorite places to go, certain fish I want to say hello to, and the usually justified expectation that something utterly surprising will happen at least once during any swim.

The UUH is way ahead of me on this because he’s a certified diver.  On the last trip, he bought an underwater camera.  He’s seen sharks,

I would have levitated out of the water back to the boat.

various pretty bubbles and things,


and a barracuda named Psycho that hangs around a certain reef, waiting for the divers to off a few lionfish for its lunch.  (Lionfish are a destructive introduced species that are destroying fish and reefs everywhere they go.  Certain divers are authorized to carry spearguns to kill them.)

This is Psycho the barracuda. He’s about four feet long.

Now I don’t usually do quite so much dramatic sightseeing, but our last trip to Buck Island was extraordinary.  I’ve mentioned in past posts that Buck Island is a National Marine Reserve, and contains a marked snorkeling trail through its reefs that everyone should try at least once.

Part of the Buck Island snorkel path. Sometimes even the natives need directions.

As we’d been to Buck Island a few times, I took a different direction than the rest of the swimmers.  I was poking around the corals, minding my own business, when I was surrounded by hundreds of blue tangs in a matter of moments.  They streamed past me on all sides — I was in the center of this amazing moving tribe — and while a couple of them gave me the side-eye, most of them were utterly unconcerned by the appearance of this odd-looking creature amongst them.


A small part of the Blue Tang Clan at Buck Island. There are hundreds more.

Blue Tangs (in the Caribbean, Acanthurus coeruleus) vary in shade from dark to robin’s egg blue, eat krill and algae off corals, and can group in gangs to beat up damselfish for the best buffets.  No joke.  These guys have a “caudal spine” near their tails (that’s the yellow marking you can see in the first photo) that when deployed is sharp enough to slice through a wetsuit and leave you with a nasty infected cut.  Some even are thought to have poison glands at the caudal spine, which is pretty cool if you think like a twelve-year-old, like I do.

The more usual way to see blue tangs.

The more usual way to see blue tangs.

On our various trips, I’d seen a lot of blue tangs, but nothing like this massive flow of fish.  I swam with them for at least a half hour as they wended their way through the snorkeling trail, grouping occasionally to pick algae off the corals, and then surging away again.  When they finally streamed off through a gap in the reef to head out into the open ocean, I turned back to the boat, where I sat for a while like a person who’d just been hit with a skillet in a cartoon.

The Blue Tang Clan was on my mind for the rest of our stay.  I did have some work to do; I had to test out some soap formulas to see how they performed under the different weather conditions of the Caribbean.  My first batch was an unmitigated disaster — wet, sticky and beyond ugly in virtually every possible dimension.  I tossed it and reworked the formula from the ground up. With that in hand, I looked at what I had available for ingredients —  I’d scored some genuine St. Croix coconut oil from the Mango Melee festival, St. Croix honey from the tiny farmer’s stand down the hill, some unrefined Ghanaian shea butter from a local beauty store, and a slightly oddball silicone bread mold from Gallows Bay Hardware.  It came out beautifully and smells like heaven.

St. Croix Pure Honey.

“St. Croix Pure Honey.”

The second batch I made on island wasn’t quite so successful. I had added a touch of my handmade sea salt to make the soap a little harder, and apparently I added too much; the soap was crumbly and unappealing in texture when I cut it after we got back to Northern California.  Time for a rebatch.  And what better time than to commemorate that amazing swim at Buck Island?   A bit of coconut milk, a  bracing shot of lavender, a touch of jasmine and some ultramarine blue, and I had “Blue Tang Clan.”

"Blue Tang Clan."

“Blue Tang Clan.”

The soap wasn’t the only way I memorialized  the experience, though.  You see, I’d been thinking about getting a tattoo for some time . . . which I’ll talk about in Episode Three.

Oh come on, it’s practically required nowadays to save the Big Reveal until after the commercial.  Psycho wouldn’t have it any other way.

'Till the next lionfish.

‘Till the next lionfish.

Salt, Soap, Tattoos and Turtles: St. Croix, The Intermission

In our last St. Croix episode, I described making seawater salt. (A lot easier than you think). The next installment will be about making soap on the rock, which is a bit different in circumstances than in Northern California.

Soap -- Island Jasmine on the left, St. Croix Pure Honey on the right, and the sea salt

That’s Island Jasmine on the left and St. Croix Pure Honey on the right. Both batches were on-the-fly reworked versions of a go-to formula I have here in Northern California.  The Honey soap came out like a beaut.  The Island Jasmine wasn’t satisfactory in texture, so I rebatched it into two versions back here in Northern Cal — another pure Island Jasmine with a touch more color, and one jasmine and lavender, colored with ultramarine blue, to celebrate the Blue Tang Clan I swam with (and got my first tattoo for) at Buck Island.

Blue Tang fish

Both soaps are unmolded now and I hope to cut them tomorrow.  But in the meantime, a quiet and contemplative moment.  (Soapmaking can drive you crazy with impatience.)

Wilson's plover, on Sandy Point during our leatherback turtle hatchling adventure.

I hope for another post tomorrow — a barracuda named Psycho, the Blue Tang Clan at Buck Island, mangos and coconut oil and baby leatherback turtles and sharks all want to show off.


Salt, Soap, Tangs, Tattoos and Turtles — St. Croix, A Multi-Episode Event

Episode One:  Birds, Butterflies, and Salt

The Accidental Alchemist found herself fetched ashore upon a certain island again, fortunately not by shipwreck but instead by a rather painless plane flight from Miami.  And while I failed to bend any local spirits to my will, I did bring some bananaquits around through the magic of Turbinado sugar.

I’m pretty sure that’s a new kid on the block — you can still see some  “baby fuzz” sticking out from his grownup duds.  Most of our BQ gang has moved down the hill from us, because the Ginger Thomas is not flowering very much at this point in the year and I think they’ve moved on to other nectar food sources.   The concentration of hummingbirds has decreased as well, though the kingbirds are more active and vocal than usual.  This is because it is snowing.

Well, that’s what some call it — “Crucian snow,” when a local species of small, white,  faster-than-a-Wall-Street-banker-after-your-IRA butterflies (probably these guys) decides it’s time to get it on.  There are masses of them and when they start dancing together in the air, it does look like a snow flurry.  The problem is, they’re so fast they are almost impossible to catch in a photograph when you’re as clumsy as I am.  This is as close as I got to capturing the blizzards that circled our house for days.

IMG_3404(He’s the tiny white dot in the middle of the picture.)

It’s not all unicorns and rainbows, though.  The kingbirds LOVE these guys for dinner and it’s a real airshow when things get serious.

Like most other birds right now, the kingbirds have kids to feed and probably mortgages to pay, so they’re pretty determined to make as much of the butterfly buffet as possible. Much Discovery Channel drama resulted.

My own goals were a little less strenuous, as supermarkets do not regularly attempt to escape.  It had occurred to me that we were surrounded by salt water, being on a Caribbean island and all, and that “local salt” seemed to be a gourmet item flogged to death in every cooking article I’d read in the last six years.  Most “everyday” salt is mined, but a great deal (and most of the fancy-dan stuff) is made from seawater.  Enter me, a gallon jug, and the Caribbean sea off Tamarind Reef. Twice, because I’d read of two methods to make seawater salt, and as a proper alchemist I had to try both. DIGITAL CAMERA

The first method is the classic one used even today in the San Francisco Bay.  Pool some water in a shallow area, let dry in sun and wind.

The second is a bit faster.  Pool water in pot and boil the living hell out of it until you get salt.

As I am a bit OCD about ingredients, I made sure to wallow out on the reef until I could capture as clean a wave as I could.  (The UUH bravely helped with one of these attempts).  There’s a bit of seagrass and other debris that bobs around closer to the shore, and I wanted to avoid as much of it as possible.

 Even so, the water has to be sieved several times to make sure you get as clean a source as possible. A regular sieve lined with a coffee filter works great for this. IMG_4119

 Eventually, you’ll get a beautiful sparkly pool of seawater ready for the pot. IMG_4121

With the first gallon, I boiled the water until there was about 1/2″-1/4″ of water left in the pot.  The salt was precipitating out and crystallizing on the bottom even then.  One glass baking pan and a towel later, out it went into the St. Croix sun.  You can see how wet it remains, even after a day and a half out there in the wild. IMG_4098 The other gallon was used in a “Boil That Dust Speck” approach (kudos to anyone who gets that reference, minus a half-point if you’re a parent).  As it was pretty muggy and there were Some Complaints about  Using The Stove In The House, out the stainless-steel pot went onto the Weber. IMG_4125 I was surprised at how fast the process was.  The salt was still a little damp when nearly all of the water had evaporated, so I spread it out on another platter and set it outside with its buddy. IMG_4126
When all was finally said and dried, I noticed a couple differences between the two techniques.  The “evaporator pool” salt seemed clumpier and definitely more brilliant white in color — I wonder if a bleaching effect from the sun had something to do with it.  The boiled-down and sun-finished salt was crumblier from the get-go.  Both were intensely salty and have a tang to them that my “regular” salt doesn’t have.  For both techniques, I estimate about a salt-shaker full from a gallon of seawater; I got a little more from the boil-down process. IMG_4137 I used some of the salt from this experiment in the soap I made later on in the trip.  But that adventure is part of Episode Two: Wrestling With Soap And The Shocking Discovery That My Spirit Animal Is A Fish.  “Soon come,” as they say in St. Croix.







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.

By Any Other Name, Would Smell As Sweet

Where’s Waldo in the Ginger Thomas? (If Waldo were a bananaquit.)

The Ginger Thomas is the official flower of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and on St. Croix it is everywhere.  It grows as a shrub or small tree, sometimes in thick stands, stays green all year long and produces thousands of trumpet-shaped, fluted, bright-yellow flowers.  Maybe because of its ubiquity, it has nearly as many names as its blossoms:  Yellow Cedar, Yellow Elder, Yellow Trumpet Flower, Yellow Trumpetbush, Yellow Bells, and in Spanish “Esperanza” (meaning hope). Or, if you’re an alchemist into Latin, Tecoma stans.

Ginger Thomas stand outside Blue Yonder.


Around Blue Yonder, the Ginger Thomas stands support a thriving community of bananaquits, Anguillan crested hummingbirds, yellow warblers, St. Lucia warblers, and the occasional smooth-beaked Ani, cattle egret, zenaida dove, or one of the kestrel pair that lives down the hill.


The plant’s not just useful for the birds, though.  According to Traditional Medicinal Plants of St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John, a remarkable book produced by the University of the Virgin Islands, the Ginger Thomas has had therapeutic uses for generations.  The leaves are used externally for fever and strengthening women after childbirth.  Internally, they are a treatment for colds, diabetes, headaches, high blood pressure, and jaundice.  It’s not all folk wisdom, either; a 1977 study showed that plant compounds in the Ginger Thomas demonstrated hypoglycemic activity, and may show promise for developing insulin substitutes.

You have coffee, I’ll have lunch.

While it’s cool to have what is essentially part of a medicine cabinet right next to your house, though, that’s not really why I am so passionate about these flowers.  There really isn’t anything like waking up to a mass of green and yellow glowing in the sunlight, and listening to the bananaquits and hummingbirds bicker their raspy, musical little complaints at each other while you have your morning coffee on the deck.  The bloom is highest in August, but there are flowers all year round.  There’s always a riot of green and yellow — so of course, inspired, I had to make a soap.

“Ginger Thomas.”


It’s a straightforward formula of olive, coconut and castor oils, colored with ultramarine green and lemon micas, and swirled using the “ITP” (in-the-pot) technique.  The fragrance of the flower is very delicate (and believe me, you have to watch out for bees if you try to smell one), so I mixed a number of fragrance oils to try to replicate it. The scent is both blossomy and lemony, with a touch of greenery as a base note.  I think, once cured, this soap will bring me right back to the island whenever I use it.

The greenery isn’t the only transfixing thing about St. Croix, though.  There’s always the water.

Waves over a reef on the way to Buck Island.

At just the right time, usually in the late afternoon when the sun lowers, the light can turn everything it touches to gold.  It will trace along the breaking waves in streaks and bolts, almost as if it is dancing with the water, and it lasts for only a moment.  I’ve never caught a picture of this happening, and given my clumsiness with a camera, probably never will.  But I have enough of a memory to try to replicate it.

“Swirling Reef of Death.”


Now I’d done more than one sea-inspired soap, the last being the “Swirling Reef of Death” — named after a snorkeling site that really isn’t.  It was obvious that I needed to create and name the next one after another dive site, but I had to show the golden light on the wave, and maybe make the soap itself a little less “busy.”

I used the same “tiger stripe” technique as Swirling Reef, and pretty much the same formula, but I let the soap thicken more before pouring. I also created a “mica swirl” with some gold mica and oils set aside from the base formula, and drizzled it along the peaks and valleys of the soap top to try to show the afternoon light dancing along the wavefoam.  The scent is my go-to island fragrance, sea and flowers and fruit.  What resulted was “Cane Bay.”

“Cane Bay.”

Cane Bay is a first-rate snorkeling, sunning, and dive site on St. Croix’s North Shore, visited by both residents and tourists, and about as low-key a place as you can find anywhere in the Caribbean.  It’s popular with young families because the water is warm and usually quiet. There’s a dive shop right there, because the Wall is very close by, but you don’t have to go far out to see astonishing visions of fish and corals. In fact, the UUH and I saw one of the biggest green Moray eels that I would not want to see ever, ever again, considering I was about a foot away from its astoundingly toothy face (seriously, you have never seen that many teeth in a single animal smaller than a shark) when I blundered close to its headquarters. I was amazed by how fast I could swim backwards and that it is indeed possible to wave one’s arms around Kermit-the-Frog-like while making incomprehensible but obviously alarmed sounds through a snorkeling tube at one’s husband.

I made one more soap from the images from the island.  Hibiscus flowers (Hibisca rosa-sinensis), like the Ginger Thomas, grow enthusiastically everywhere you turn.  They’re not only cultivated for their beauty, but for their usefulness — the flowers make a delicious traditional tea in the Caribbean.  One afternoon, I saw a single deep ruby blossom floating in a tidepool, itself as blue as a robin’s egg, near the shore.

Now I had a vague idea of how to reproduce this, and it involved a two-step process — making an insert for the flower, and then placing it in another batch of blue soap once it had hardened a bit.  I’d tried this before, last year during August’s Blue Moon, with a somewhat simpler insert.

“Blue Moon, for Neil Armstrong”

“Blue Moon, for Neil Armstrong” came out pretty well, so I forged ahead.

The first problem was the flower.  It’s one thing to pour soap into a tube.  It’s entirely another to make it look like a flower.  It stumped me until I thought of a cookie cutter — once the soap had set, I could push a cutter down the tube of soap, peeling off portions of the exterior into petal shapes.

And here’s where I made my first mistake.  I didn’t pay enough attention to how big I should make the flower insert, so I used a much larger cylinder mold than I should have.  Once I popped it out, I realized to my horror that not only was the bloody thing harder than a rock, it was enormous. (Spatial relations are not my strong suit.)  It was so big that it wouldn’t fit into the mold I was going to use for the finished soap. Stalemate.

A panicked search through the house produced a cardboard box that just might work.  And now I had to do the cookie-cuttering.  It must have taken an hour to push the cutter down the insert with about as much sweating and swearing as you’d find in a boxing gym.  I was so fed up with it by the time I finished that I briefly considered tossing it into the pool and saying, “THAT’S IT I’M DONE,” but fortunately rationality won that war.  I lined the box I found with a patterned silicone liner usually used for fondant on cakes (hat-tip to Cake Alchemist Navi for that idea!), whipped up the blue soap, and as carefully as I could I placed the insert inside.  24 hours later I had this:

Out of the box.

I immediately discovered ANOTHER problem.

Tank cutter.



The thing was so big it wouldn’t fit into the tank cutter.




The UUH’s handmade cutter (that’s the first “Christiansted” soap on it).




In fact, it was so big it wouldn’t fit into the other cutter either.




It was so big that the UUH had to make another cutter especially for it.  We had to use a gigantic chef’s knife to assault the thing. But in the end, after all the work and angst, we had “Hibiscus In Blue Water.”

“Hibiscus In Blue Water.”

Now I’m not kidding when I tell you this soap is BIG.  While most of my soaps run between 4 and 5 ounces, these dudes weigh in at about 11 ounces.  We could use this soap to deflect asteroids and then take a shower with it.  The irony is that it has a delightful combination of really lovely, full fragrances — the flower is scented with osmanthus touched with a deepening amber, and the sea is the island fragrance I love. Due to its size, it’s a soap for the sensitive, discerning yeti, I suppose.  But on the other hand (well, both hands) it will be a gentle, bubbly and creamy soap once it’s done curing and it will last forever.  Let’s not be sizeist.

Everything is relative.

Now that I’m back on the mainland, other things are starting to take precedence.  There’s a garden that needs tending, jerky and sausage and bacon to make, and the Hive Queen has some prickly pears that should be made into syrup, jellies, and hot and barbeque sauces.  Calendulas and roses need drying and the front of the house needs replanting since the water main explosion. (Don’t ask.) There’s a lot of recordkeeping and paperwork and accounting to be done for Blue Yonder Botanicals — not to mention a massive reorder for supplies — that needs to be fitted into the usual routine of shopping, feeding, cleaning, and dealing with water main explosions.  You know, just like everyone else’s life.  So I’ll leave you with this:

Wherever you go, there she is.

Until next time.

/ps That’s Big Fred The Reluctant Passiflora in the pictures.

Don’t Break The Line, The Last Gasp, and A New Start

Over at Great Cakes Soapworks, Amy Warden has thrown out a weekly challenge.  Each week presents a new technique for cold process soapmaking.  The first week’s was the “tiger stripe” technique, which resulted for me in “Kathakali Dance.”

Tiger stripe technique, “Kathakali Dance”


This week’s challenge is what’s called an “elemental swirl.”  It involves splitting the formula into four colors, swirling two of the colors into one pot and the other two into another pot, and separating the two swirled pots into the mold separated by a dividing line.

It’s nuts. It will make your lab look like it exploded and it requires you to work faster than the guy trying to sell you OxyClean on late-night cable.

So I did it.  I had a vague idea of a St. Croix beach, where the sand slides into the sea, reef lines calm the closest waters into gentler greens and blues, and the sky and clouds touch the ocean out on the horizon.  I used my go-to shea butter recipe, assembled the colorants — ultramarine blue and violet, the stargazer flower stamen colorant, a bit of apricot Labcolor, some crushed chamomile flowers, a bit of titanium dioxide, and some purple and blue micas for the dividing line between the two sets of swirled colors.  (Of course I had to clean the kitchen about three times before this, because somehow we create more dirty dishes than the 49ers cafeteria on a daily basis.)

The key to this technique is (well, actually there are enough “keys” to suit a janitor’s belt) but the KEY is DON’T BREAK THE LINE.  There are a number of ways and materials to make the Line, but I used the foot of a new pair of nylon stockings stretched over a ramekin full of the mixed blue and purple micas.  I experimented with “poofing out” the micas through this primitive device and in the fog that resulted ended up looking like part of the Blue Man Group.

Apologies to the artists, but you really need a visual for this.


Micas are basically colored dust and boy do they act like it.  A half hour of cleanup later I determined that gently tapping the bottom of the ramekin would distribute the mica evenly in a (sort of) contained area.  The next trick is to slide the following layer ever so gently atop the mica line.  Of course, I had to do two mica lines instead of one, because I am that kind of idiot.

Frantic mixing, panicking, and pouring later, I ended up with something I didn’t quite expect, but pleased me all the same because I knew exactly what to call it.  For those not in the know, the “Painkiller” is a pretty powerful rum-based mixed drink that’ll sneak up on you worse than the next Twilight movie.  It’s the official drink of the British Virgin Islands and the unofficial drink of all the others.

Elemental Swirl technique, “Caribbean Beach After A Few Painkillers”

If you’d like to see other phenomenal examples of the Elemental Swirl technique, check out the challenge page here.

Before “CBAAFP,”  I’d finally decided to make a lavender soap.  A lot of people like lavender, but I’ve never been a big fan — until I met a little varietal called “Thumbelina.”  Thumbelina is a dwarf lavender that produces a fragrance so rich and deep that it bears almost no resemblance to the powdery, headachy, acrid lavender scent you run across way too often.  I knew that would be the kind of lavender I wanted, and finally found it in a Hungarian lavender essential oil “fixed” with a touch of patchouli.

“Night Lavender.”

It smells exactly as I hoped — very much lavender, but full and complex. It was colored with a purple mica, touched with blue (much like the combination for the Line in the CBAAFP).  I’ll be making it again.

With “CBAAFP” and “Night Lavender,” I’ve come down to the last of my oil and butter supplies, which is what I intended to do.  I have a new soapmaking program that not only records formulas, costs, and batch production, but also controls inventory.  Trying to make sense of what I had would have only made things more difficult, so I thought I’d draw everything down as close to zero as I could before starting up in a “serious” fashion.

Now’s the time I take final inventory on colorants and fragrances, make up the order list for oils, butters, and other necessaries, get the inventory program up and running, and finally get Blue Yonder Botanicals off the ground.  I think a few Painkillers are in order.


The New Christiansted

Blue Yonder from the South Shore

Ten minutes away from Blue Yonder lies Christiansted, one of the two major towns on St. Croix.  It’s small; Wikipedia will tell you that in 2004 it had a population of about 3,000.  The population might have grown (slightly) since then, but it remains an eminently walkable and very beautiful little town, arcing up from a brilliant blue harbor and wooden boardwalk with cobblestone streets and stone-floored pedestrian pathways that look like medieval cloister walks.  Each building seems a pastel bleached by salt wind and rain, and heavy wooden doors built to withstand hurricanes conceal little shops containing extraordinary treasures.  St. Croix is known for its jewelrymaking — you have to look hard to find the usual “Made in China” junk jewelry here — and the area around Christiansted’s “Company Street” is one of the places to find not only jewelry, but gorgeous handmade items from clothing to original art to woodworking and home decor.

Christiansted is a continuing inspiration.

The first Christiansted color inspiration.


Last year, I came home from a trip to the island with a picture that I wanted to reproduce, in color, in a soap.



I’d tried an enfleurage of the island’s official flower, the Ginger Thomas, while I was there.  I thought I would use that as a starting point. While at first the brilliant yellow seemed to hold true in the soap, in a short time it had morphed a creamy white.  Now this wasn’t at all what I was after, so I “remilled” it.  I shredded the original soap, added new oils and a good shot of Morroccan red clay, and did what’s called an “in the pot swirl.”  It turned out to be one of my testers’ favorite soaps.

The first “Christiansted.”

I’ve made a lot of soaps since then, but Christiansted as a subject kept coming up. I had another picture that I kept referring to, the washed and textured pink of one of the cloister walks leading down to the harbor, and it would not leave me alone.

The Walk.


Helpless, I decided to try this year’s version of “Christiansted,” emphasizing the delicacy of the pink and the texture of the surfaces.  I would use the same remilled technique as I had with the first version.



For Step One, I started with a coconut oil, olive oil, shea butter and castor oil formula. For scent, I used some essential oils I’d picked up in Kochi, India:  lotus and jasmine, with a touch of patchouli to “fix” the scents.  Once the soap had set up, I discovered that not only had the scent oils “poofed,” but they hadn’t even bothered to leave a forwarding address.  So I had a free hand with fragrance on the remilled step.

Once the Step One soap was shredded and moistened with coconut milk, it was added to a new batch of coconut, olive, and castor oil as well as a healthy dose of mango seed butter, fragranced with my favorite “island” scent of salt air, fruit, and ginger blossom, and then colored with a swirl of ultramarine pink.  Oh, and I added a couple tablespoons of St. Croix honey, dispersed in warm retained water, to the formula to increase lather and bubbliness.

The gentleness and delicacy of the color and the fragility of the swirls surprised me when I finally unmolded and cut it.  Below you’ll see “The New Christiansted:”

Two or three of the pieces, not shown here, contain tiny droplets of pure St. Croix honey that reformed from dispersion during the curing process.  I call those my “Sweet Honey in the Rock” surprise, and I covet them.  Since then, I’ve learned how to avoid the phenomenon (it’s well known), but I’m still ridiculously pleased by its appearance in the “new Christiansted.”  It’s nice to receive a surprise gift like that.

The new Christiansted is loaded with skin-loving oils and butters — both shea and mango seed — and has the fragrance of the tropics.  It’s more than ready for use-testing, and I’ll report back on how it does.

And Now For Something Not Too Completely Different

Up in Blue Yonder (that’s her center in the picture above — she’s kind of hard to miss from the St. Croix South Shore, where this picture was taken), you’re surrounded by Ginger Thomas flowers.  From the deck, you quickly become aware that there are entire nations
of birds, lizards, mongeese, bees, and other bugs you don’t really want to think about that view the place as home.

The most common birds, bananaquits and Anguillan crested hummingbirds, rely heavily on the nectar produced by the bright yellow Ginger Thomas flower.  They get it, though, in two different ways:  while the hummingbirds use their tongues to go into the center of the flower, the bananaquits are a little more brutal.  They use their curved beak to pierce between the petals and the calyx (the little green pocket that holds the petals), to get directly to the nectar without any fuss.  This might be because, unlike hummingbirds, they cannot hover and must perch to get their food.  It also might be because it’s more fun that way, which is the explanation I tend to believe because of their relentless pugnacity.  (Also, anyone who’s ever torn apart a baked potato might appreciate this.)

I found this time that the Ginger Thomas isn’t the only local plant that produces the nectar these guys desire.  Along a stone wall above the house, some wild-looking cactuses grow.  They have long, spindly, wickedly thorned appendages that look like they just stopped flailing around the second you turned to look. And this visit, I found that they produce an equally-weird looking flower that was like crack cocaine to the hummingbirds and the bananaquits.

This is the lone bananaquit I caught actually getting at the cactus flower.  The rest of the time, the cactus was surrounded by a buzzing swirl of divebombing hummingbirds, who would argue in their rasping musical-saw voices with each other, the bananaquits, and me whenever I dared step foot outside.  (I always apologized profusely. I doubt the bananaquits did.) Now the hummingbirds move like lightning, and I’ve never been able to get any good photographs of them.  But when you’ve got the avian equivalent of a “Free Beer” sign right outside your door, you might just have a chance.

Gotcha. Anguillan Crested Hummingbirds on the Weird Cactus Flower.

In fact, one stuffed himself so much that he had to stop and take a break.

I ate the whole thing.

Most of the time, in the light you have, you’ll see these guys as nearly black, tiny little projectiles whizzing around in the branches or right past your head if they’re annoyed.  But in the shot above, you can really see the irridescence of their feathers.  (A moment later this guy de-poofed and zipped off, yelling at the top of his lungs at an interloper.)

The ferocious competition over the Weird Cactus Flower made me start thinking about nectar, and then honey.  St. Croix has a thriving apiary/beekeeper community, and the honey they produce is the best I’ve ever had.  Like fish and lobsters and fruit on the island, you can buy local honey in unexpected places:  for instance, from a little stand by the side of the road on the way from Blue Yonder to Christiansted.  So I bought some,

The secret weapon.

(well, a lot), and when I got home I started thinking about a St. Croix honey soap.

Mushroom cloud or alien spaceship? You make the call.

Honey soaps can be tricky; as with any additive that involves sugars, you take the risk of massively overheating the saponification reaction in the batter, and ending up with a) a mess  b) a disaster or c) a Soap Volcano, which is the absolute epitome of all soaping screwups.  I’ve seen pictures of soaps that their horrified makers described as “crawling out of the mold and across the counter,” bubbling and steaming and spreading its active lye on anything that came close. (Go ahead — Google it.)  But it isn’t that I’m blameless in this.  I’ve had a Tiny Soap Mushroom Cloud, and that’s about as close as I want to come to this experience.

So I had to think pretty carefully about the formula I’d use, and the technique for incorporating the honey, at what temperature I’d mix the oils and lye, and how I’d handle the molded soap afterwards.  It was pretty clear from my research that I had to disperse the honey in reserved water first, mix it in at “trace” (the point, demonstrated by a certain thickening, that the saponification reaction between the lye and oils is well and truly roaring along), and then whip that puppy into some ice after I molded it up.  If I didn’t disperse the honey well, it might recollect in droplets inside the soap — harmless and actually kind of cool (think “sweet honey in the rock”), but not exactly what I was after.  If I didn’t cool it down fast enough, I might end up playing Steve McQueen in “The Blob” to the dismay of everyone else in the house as well as the local HazMat team, who I seriously do not want to piss off.

So with all due caution, “St. Croix Honey Blossom” began to come together:  olive and coconut oils, shea butter, and a generous dollop of genuine St. Croix wild bee honey premixed for addition right before the mold.  I picked a combination of amber, honey, and citrus blossom fragrances to try to maintain the richness of the honey scent in the bottle I had.  And then I had one of those orthogonal ideas about how to color it — I’d try the stamens from a bouquet of Stargazer lilies that the UUH had brought home out of the basic goodness of his heart. For the next couple days, every time a blossom opened, I’d carefully clip the bright-orange stamens off and collect them in a little container.  Once they were done, the moment of truth arrived — would the stamens release their color at all, and if so, into what?  My first experiment was a grand slam.  Olive oil will release the color of the stamens, and it’s a beautiful dark red-orange.  I let it set for a day, strained it a few times, and then my new natural colorant was ready to go.

The very last aspect of the soap involved the garden. It ran wild all winter after I sowed a few seeds, and I went out a few days ago to find it blanketed in Calendula blossoms. Calendula is both a flower and an herb that’s been recognized since the Middle Ages for certain medicinal properties — but that wasn’t why I was going to use them this time.  Unlike almost every other herb or flower petal, Calendula petals do not turn brown when in contact with the high-pH of cold process soap. (Lavender is well known as turning into “mouse poo” after a few weeks on top of soap).   I cut a few, tossed them into the dehydrator, and in a few hours had the petals I needed for the tops of St. Croix Honey Blossom.

“St. Croix Honey Blossom.”

It’s a softer soap that’s going to take a bit longer to cure, but the stargazer colorant came through as a lovely honey shade, and when it’s done it should have superior lathering and conditioning qualities due to the honey and shea butter.  The fragrance is citrus blossom with a deep bottom note of pure honey.

I think both the bananaquits and the hummingbirds would be pleased.