“Mmm, are we having pork roast for dinner?” yelled my brother-in-law Doug from the shower…
To make soap, you essentially combine a fat with an alkali such as lye, stir up the resultant goop, and pour it into a fancy mold (such as a baby wipe container) to harden. I know it sounds like it would sear your skin off, but amazingly, it doesn’t.
My mother learned the art of soap making from my great-uncle Mike, a retired diamond setter. He applied the same meticulous attention to his hobbies as he had done in his profession. He’d collect bacon fat from all the neighbors (back in the 1950′s when suburban dads demanded a bacon-and-egg breakfast every day). Then he’d render, strain and filter the fat multiple times so that it somehow became clear and odorless. The soap that he made would rival any of the finest French-milled soap that you could buy in a store.
My mother did not see the need to go through all that unnecessary rigmarole. Much like the meals she made us, (more on that at a later time) she’d just put it in the pot and “call it good enough”. With four young kids, I’m surprised that she found the time to cook up food, much less soap. Consequently, all sorts of leftovers would show up in the finished product, depending on the theme. With bacon fat, that included all the little burnt, black bits from breakfast, perhaps a chunk of fried egg (because “you don’t waste a separate pan to cook the eggs”) and the odd home fry or two. It had all the sensory cues – look, feel and, most prominently, aroma – of a delicious meal. It wasn’t a cleansing agent – it was the forerunner of the breakfast bar.
The building block of her soap repertoire was the basic bacon fat recipe. For her oatmeal “complexion bar” I have to give her credit – at least she didn’t use the leftover cooked oatmeal from breakfast. But the lumpy, raw flakes that jutted out of finished bar went above and beyond the call of exfoliation. “Mom, this hurts!” we’d cry. “Do you know how much that fancy soap would cost in a store?” was the inevitable response. Like most folks that grew up during the Depression, waste was abhorrent to her.
There were numerous other experimental forays too – rosemary, lavender, and inexplicably, oregano. These were scented with the spices from the largely decorative spice rack on the counter, and I use the term “scent” as more of a concept than a reality. When we were kids in the 1960′s, Moms didn’t go crazy with fancy-schmantzy, “foreign” cooking (aka, anything that had any flavor). Consequently, the stock dozen spices in the 1951 wedding-shower-gift McCormick rack had gone the way of all things on this Earth, to dust. I think she still has them today.
Not one to be discouraged (or swayed by popular opinion), my mother honed her soap-making skills over the years. She graduated to other fat sources – lanolin (did you know that lanolin is the grease that’s cleaned off sheep’s wool?), olive oil (this euphemistically became “liquid beauty cleanser”) and bear fat, courtesy of a hunter friend. Fads in fashion, fads in soap – patchouli-scented, psychedelic colors, goat’s milk (how you turn milk into soap escapes me. It escaped my mother too).
Like a fine wine, soap generally becomes better with age. But some odors retain their unmistakable olfactory triggers. (picture those cartoons of smoke fingers buoying up the hungry character to a steaming plate of roast beef). So 30 years later, when my brother-in-law was soaping up at my mother’s house after a hard day of work, he couldn’t be blamed for falling prey to … the irresistible allure of bacon soap.