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Soap Opera

by Roberta McReynolds

Hobbies and crafts are a source of relaxation for me, as well as a way to express myself. Many people are drawn to one or two in particular, becoming quite expert in their area of endeavor. My ‘hobby’ seems to be exploring everything from A to Z, at least once. I admit, some rooms in my house look more like a well-stocked arts and crafts store than actual living space. They reflect years (no, let’s be honest and make that decades) of impulsive creativity.

My best friend’s daughter is responsible for this one. While it’s possible that it was purely an innocent thing, I suspect it was a form of crafter’s revenge. I showed Robyne how to make handmade paper the year before, and her mother and I are both guilty of hooking her on rubber stamped greeting cards.

The revenge? Robyne had the audacity to give me a beautiful basket of homemade soap for Christmas. She had even hand milled it. Curiosity is really a devil for me: I had to try it.

I purchased an instructional book complete with recipes, studying the pages carefully. I felt like I was back in my high school chemistry class, flooded with nightmarish recollections of broken test tubes and acid dissolving the linoleum flooring. Determination won over my apprehension over handling alkalies. If my grandmother could make soap for her family a hundred years ago, then I could do it, too. Besides, I had decided to draw the line at rendering my own fat from butchered animals as she had done, so how hard could the saponification process be?

Armed with newfound knowledge, I set off with the checkbook in one hand and a shopping list for equipment and supplies in the other. My husband is familiar with that sparkle in my eyes when I’m on a mission, calmly standing back and waiting for my return. Mike knows that at some point I may ask him for assistance, but until that moment it’s best to just watch the circus from afar.

A huge stainless steel pot, thermometers, pitchers, a primary mold, rubber gloves and a kitchen scale filled the trunk of the car, even though I couldn’t locate everything I needed the first time around. Mike helped me carry it all into the kitchen, looked it over and commented, "So the first couple bars of soap are going to come in at about $30 apiece?"

My answer, "Um, yeah, pretty close to that." Perhaps I should begin thinking of them as luxurious, rather than expensive.

Next I had to buy cooking oil, cocoa butter, lard and lye. I learned, after several fruitless shopping trips, that cocoa butter can be a rare commodity. It reached the point that I preferred to walk around a store for an hour, rather than ask for help, because it tended to go something like this: "Do you have pure cocoa butter?"

"What’s it for?"

"To make soap." That’s when the clerk would inevitably give me a look best described as somewhere between the blank stare of not knowing what to do and desperately wanting to point out that the store sells soap already made on aisle 17.

I told my friend at one point that I was ready to give up, except for the fact that I was into the project too deep financially to just forget it. Margie and I half jokingly considered going down aisle 17 to covertly acquire a case of Ivory soap, melt it down and remold it.

The special order for cocoa butter eventually arrived and the scavenger hunt was complete. It was time to don the rubber gloves, safety goggles and go for it. I promised Margie a generous supply of the results (good or bad), if she would assist me. I’m certain Mike was relieved he didn’t need to participate. Besides, that left him free to dial 9-1-1 if anything went wrong!

The kitchen ended up looking like some madman’s laboratory, but after hours of measuring, heating, timing, and mixing caustic ingredients, we poured the results into the primary mold to cure. We wrapped the mold in towels to keep it from cooling too rapidly, said a prayer to the ‘guardian angel of soap’ and hoped for the best.

Have you ever seen a 10-pound bar of soap? I won’t bother with all the steps involved, but after two weeks it was ready to grate up into manageable sized chips, melt it back down again and mix in final additives. While waiting for the original batch to cure, I had purchased scented oils and dyes. I had also collected and dried flower petals from the garden. We had finally reached the fun part! Our special mixes were poured lovingly, if not carefully, into the final decorative molds to harden. We ended up with soap drippings coating the counter top, stove, cutting board, floor, ourselves ... well, you get the idea.

Every so often Margie paused to ask, "Tell me again. Why are we doing this?" The next most frequently asked question was, "What did we put in the yellow batch?"

The bottom of the bathtub was covered with all sorts and colors of soap. My fascinated cat desired to jump into the middle for a closer look and to sniff at the various batches: rose, vanilla, aloe vera, jasmine, and whatever the heck those yellow ones were. The soap needed to sit there for another 2-4 weeks, still curing and getting firm before they could be tried out at last.

My conclusion over this experiment could be summed up this way: soap making is at least one hobby that you come away with clean hands and is much more satisfying than a stroll down aisle 17. Besides, not everyone can say they have actually washed up with a $30 bar of soap.

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