Whitesburg KY

Recalls making soap on Blair Branch

Points East

So bear with me here. This column is eventually going to be about soap but I have to put it into a bit of perspective.

A few weeks back, Grant Robinson, who lives here in Garrard County, sent me some lye soap that he had made from an old-fashioned recipe. Grant is not in the soapmaking business but he has recently had some time on his hands and, as a result of retirement and excess energy, decided that he’d learn to make lye soap.

This is a fairly dangerous and ambitious undertaking but Grant is an adventurous sort of fellow so he emailed me and told me that he’d come up with a recipe for soap and it sounded sort of like but somewhat different from old times back there in the head of Blair Branch when I was growing up.

When I was but a child, brought-on bath soap such as Dial and Ivory and Irish Spring was a luxury that you got to use in the bath water on Sunday night so that you could go to school without smelling unpleasant on Monday and maybe even have a whish of nice aroma on your carcass when the morning bell rang. I’m reasonably sure that Monday was the favorite day of the week for all my grade school teachers.

We all smelled clean or we didn’t smell at all (much to be said for that) there on Blair Branch at the grade school on Monday mornings. And by Friday we all knew one another well enough that it did not matter that much if you smelled a little bit rank. The deal was that you didn’t come to school on Monday smelling way too ripe in which case a teacher might suggest you trot your behind back up the hollow and take a bath. My mom would have died on the spot if that had ever happened to one of her boys. But it was OK to stink by the weekend. And we took a bath on Sunday night in a number 2 washtub whether we needed it or not.

But I’m off the point here and point being that my mom and my aunts would get together a couple or three times a year to make soap.

The leading cause of death in eastern Kentucky, though nobody realized it at the time, was pork. The diagnosis was heart attack or stroke. Every once in a while someone got cancer but five times out of six people ‘fell dead’. Heart attack. Stroke. Or, as some old Baptists will proclaim, “Called home at the end of a heartbeat.”

Called home, for sure. Way too much lard in the bloodstream, which is what happens when 75 percent of what you eat comes off a hog. And we didn’t raise beef there on the hollow. No way to keep it, unlike pork, which we could salt down and use almost year round. If my mom had not insisted on raising white leghorn fryers which we ate throughout warm weather, I probably wouldn’t be alive today. Salt back would have killed me long ago.

So we killed hogs and stashed the meat there, salted down, to cure out in our “smokehouses”. (I never,ever saw any smoke in a socalled smokehouse, but Pap had salt-laden tables and Dad kept them going long after Pap was gone, where we laid out the dressed carcasses of hogs and covered them with thick layers of salt. We fed on pork chops, hams and shoulders, and lean bacon from Nov. until l the first of May, when the pork ran out and we could start killing chickens.)

My mom and my aunts saved every scrap of bacon hide and trimmed-off fat from the seasoning pork and rendered it into quarts of brown, stinking lard in a huge old cast iron kettle set atop an open fire there just behind the house. Aunt Nan and Aunt Lona knew the trick to render lye from wood ashes and they would char pieces of oak firewood and soak them in a barrel and then drain off the water from a hole in the bottom of the barrel. Liquid lye. Dangerous stuff.

It didn’t smell good, did the soap, when the batch was all cooked down and poured into molds to cake up, but it made soap when they got done with it that would clean you for sure if your skin didn’t come off in the process. And that’s basically what Mom used to do our laundry. Suffice to say that it came out clean.

The soap that Grant is making is oh so wonderful on my feet. He gave me three small cakes and it is not nearly as strong as the stuff that my mom and aunts used to make and it is buttery soft. Grant is onto something here but he thinks his recipe went bad. Grant uses granulated lye that you can find in any hardware store and he uses pure white lard.

I sliced of a few thin strips from one of the bars Grant gave me into a bucket of hot water on a recent Sunday night, stirred it until the soap was melted and then plopped in my feet into the tub. I’m betting now that I have the cleanest feet in Garrard County and they have not felt this good in decades. And they sure don’t smell up the place when I pull off my sneakers.

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