Alchemy

KATHLEEN B. GRANGER lives on a farm in Orwell, Vermont. This is her first appearance in the ATLANTIC.

B KATHLEEN B. GRANGER

Pink doves flying up from a vest pocket; silk scarves produced from nowhere; rabbits pulled from top hats; all these tricks enchant me. Perhaps that is one reason I find so many things connected with housework and cooking fascinating. Mix a cake of yeast with a bit of sugar, warm milk, and flour, and almost immediately the little yeast plants start to grow, and mysteriously the bread dough begins to rise — sheer magic! Or make the impossible mix of dry flour dumped into boiling water and butter which logically should make the most fearful lumps; stir vigorously and it becomes smooth. Add a whole egg to the stiff mixture. Logic again would tell me that it simply will not mix. Sure enough, the egg skims around, the lumps of unappealing dough separate, yet after a bit of stirring, a wonderfully smooth mixture appears; another egg added, and another, and still another, one at a time with the same dubious approach, and before long I have the satiny texture ready to drop in small balls on a baking sheet to produce light, golden cream puffs!

Or take butter. Have you ever made butter and watched the sour cream in the churn? Nothing changes; but you keep turning the handle or rocking the container, and suddenly before your amazed eyes appear a few golden lumps, then quickly many more, and in a matter of minutes the cream has separated into large solid masses of bright yellow butter (if your cream is from Jersey milk). I never cease to marvel at this sight, and the last few minutes of churning are filled with excitement and wonder.

The making of bread and butter seemed very primitive to me, a city woman, when we first came to our farm, but in the making of them I take a great delight. Six light loaves of white bread, six oatmeal-molasses loaves each week because we love it so; and butter, about three pounds to a churning. But if I thought the mastering of these two arts almost an obsolete accomplishment, certainly the making of soap seemed linked to a far more distant past.

Behind our great central chimney is a low, bricked-in square hearth where for a hundred years the women of our farm made applecider butter and soap. Tradition says that nothing else was ever cooked here in the huge black iron caldron that rests snugly in the one large opening of the top plate. And so, each time I passed the great black caldron I would give it a little mental pat. “Someday,” I would think, “I will try to make soap.” But I did not know of any method beyond the complicated one of our ancestors.

Happily a more modern friend showed me the way. It was a momentous occasion when I finally plunged into this newest mystery, and the whole family gathered around to watch.

My friend had said, “Buy a can of lye and follow the directions on the label,” but I could not wait to accumulate the specified five pounds of waste fats. Instead, I combined one cup of clear salad oil, one cup of white commercial shortening, and one cup of bacon grease already on hand. I used only a quarter of the can of lye, which I poured very carefully and slowly into one and a half cups of cold water. Already I felt the excitement of adventure. The dry grains of lye fell into the water and immediately the mixture became smoking hot! No wonder the directions had cautioned against pouring rapidly, or allowing drops to come in contact with skin or clothing. And no wonder an iron or enamel pan was suggested — anything else would have had a hole eaten through it, I am sure. However, soon the lye solution cooled, and again, cautiously, I began to pour it into the cool, melted fat — no telling what might happen! But this time a new magic was taking place! Lye and fats combined, and as I stirred, the clear mixture thickened, smooth and opaque as a thick cream sauce. I poured this into the shallow cardboard cover of a shoe box and left it to solidify.

But I had not finished — I had kept out about a cupful of the liquid soap for an experiment of my own. I wanted not only a nice white soap, I wanted fragrance as well. Since I had no idea how it would turn out — and at this point I was not even sure the soap would harden — I decided not to sacrifice any of my perfume, but simply to add a few drops of Nick’s shaving lotion. Apparently shaving lotion has no affinity to soap. Even as I stirred, my fragrant bit of liquid soap began to bubble in a peculiar way; yet I was not concerned and poured it into a small muffin pan which I had lined with silver aluminum foil. Now I really had done something! The stuff not only bubbled, it actually boiled, writhing and seething and sending off fumes, and under our fascinated gaze the aluminum foil disintegrated, and the whole small mass turned a violent yellow liquid, evil-looking, a regular witch’s brew.

Soapmaking — with no interesting bypaths — is easy. But of course one of the secret charms of soapmaking is lost to me, since I make it for pleasure and not necessity. Think how wonderful it must have been to discover that two home products of such doubtful value, plain wood ashes and kitchen waste fats, when combined properly, would make soap!

Never mind the time and effort. First the ancient round barrel in the cellar must be made ready with a thick bed of straw laid in the bottom, wood ashes shoveled in almost to the brim. Then water, not too much at a time, so that it may percolate slowly through the ashes, dissolving out the alkali and seeping through the straw, ready to be drawn off as liquid lye. Up in the kitchen the sorting, the scraping, the boiling of the winter’s accumulation of fats in water, not once but several times, to separate the wastes and leave the fat clear and saltless. The skimming, the pouring, the straining, the measuring; finally the combining of lye and fat in the great black caldron to make soap, a whole year’s supply of soap: soft green soap, hard yellow soap, and lighter hand soap. But for me, using as I do store products out of tins and jars, the whole process of mixing and making takes only about ten minutes, and I have eight large cakes of good quality white soap. Yet I have something more: a good feeling, a satisfaction, in making something that is almost a forgotten art in the home.