Monday, May 23, 2011

Hog Fat, Red Devil Lye, and Memories

Hog Fat, Red Devil Lye, and Memories
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Last Tuesday my friend Rebecca Hofer invited me to the North Harlem Colony to watch them make laundry soap. Becky and Judy were teaching their daughters Melanie and Emberly, passing on the tradition. When I arrived, a batch was bubbling in the huge propane-fired, rectangular steel cauldron. The smells of the lye, the fat and the soap flooded my mind with memories.


Every fall when the weather turned cold, back when I was a kid, we butchered a hog. With a neighbor’s help, my Dad hoisted the hog by its hind legs over a wash tub to drain the blood for sausage. Then they lowered the hog into a kettle of scalding water. The men scraped the hair from the hide and peeled the hide from the carcass. They scooped huge curls of fat from the meat, scraped the hide clean, trimmed excess fat from the chops and roasts and threw the scraps into buckets. Dad removed the hams and sides for bacon and set them aside to sugar cure to his own recipe.


I watched the whole process in silence. I knew better than to get underfoot. The men never shooed me away.


In a Dickensian way, it was the best of times; it was the worst of times. I didn’t have a mother. I was raised by a grandma who didn’t believe in coddling children. She cooked meals and cleaned and did laundry, but very early I figured out her main job was to teach me all she thought a woman needed to know.


When the men were finished, it was our turn to take over. Grandma and I cut up the rest of the meat. We canned chops and chunks of pork in large Mason jars with a pressure cooker. Grandma put the fear into me with gruesome stories about pressure cookers blowing up, maiming and killing women, some whom she knew, careless women who didn’t maintain a clean seal on the cooker. We made sausage and head cheese and pickled pigs feet. We filled the big black kettle with the best cuts of the hog fat and, over a low, slow fire out in the back yard, rendered the fat into lard. We munched a handful of the cracklings but tossed the rest of them, along with the remainder of the fat, back into the buckets to save for making soap. We poured the lard into containers and stored them in the cool underground cellar. We worked rapidly. The pork had to be processed quickly, so as not to spoil. The only part of the pig we didn’t eat was the part we made into soap.


Soap making for the North Harlem Colony requires the labor of two families and takes two days. Out of ten gigantic batches, I have no idea how many pounds of soap they made. To make just one batch, the men filled the vat with a mixture of about thirty pounds of lye, water up to here, and forty gallons of lard and cracklings. While the men brought the mixture to a slow boil, Melanie and Emberly stirred it, keeping it moving. Once the mixture had bubbled and boiled and the soap separated from the lye water, the girls scooped it into buckets. Darius and David and Douglas carried the buckets of liquid soap and poured it into huge steel trays. Once the soap cooled, the men cut it into chunks and placed the bars in mesh bags which they then hung in a storage room to cure for two to three years. The whole time I was there, Becky and Judy never sat down, cleaning up after one batch, preparing for the next.



I remember soap making in my childhood. I remember the red and white can of Red Devil lye with the skull and crossbones poison symbol. I remember stirring those same bubbling ingredients of fat, lye and water in the black kettle over the fire, the same kettle Grandma and I had used for rendering the lard. I remember pouring the soap into baking pans and cutting the cooled soap into bars. I remember grating the soap into flakes for laundry. I remember using the bars of our lye soap to scrub floors and to take baths and wash my hair.



I grew up hearing that lye soap would cure itchy skin, poison ivy and oak, chigger bites, athlete’s foot, dandruff, acne, mites, eczema, bed bugs, head lice, and mosquito bites. It also works to clean cement. Some people use it as catfish bait. I know from my Grandma it cures a sassy mouth.


Next year I’ll go back out to the Colony when they make soap. This time I’ll pitch right in to help. I’ll take my rubber boots, a rubber apron and heavy rubber gloves and a scarf to keep my hair out of my face. I have no desire to make my own lye soap. But I might bring home a bar to see if it still works on mosquito bites.


Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

May 12, 2011
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