Aunt Bett, Porky, and Lye Soap
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times"......from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
The first fall that I remember very well came just before my sixth birthday. We had lived with Granny Ninna for about a year, it was my Dad's childhood home and it had wonderful nooks and crannies to explore. I had begun to hang around Aunt Bett and Ninna the summer before, and life was very good. Our country was still recovering from WWII, and money was scarce, but we had Old Pied the milk cow, a few chickens, several shared garden plots, Pepper and Tuffy the dogs, Kitty Fluff and Jofa the cats, and my beloved mountains to play in. We also had Porky the Pig. I am not sure who gave us the pig, but it wasn't unusual to barter for necessary items at the time, and I guess a pig was a necessary item. I didn't often visit Porky because his pen was pretty far away from the house, and when I did see him, I could tell that he was growing in leaps and bounds. Porky wasn't very friendly and he grunted and snorted and rolled around in mud and smelled terribly bad. On the other hand, Old Pied was pretty mellow and she and I shared a few conversations from time to time. Porky didn't seem to care too much about curious little girls, but he was patient when I scratched his bristly back, and he squinted back at me when I talked to him. I was very friendly with the chickens, too, gathering eggs for breakfast and visiting them in the hen house when they were sitting on their nests.
The first time I saw my Gramma Ell wring an old hen's neck and then cook it for Sunday dinner, I cut quite a shine. "Cutting a shine" means something akin to having a major temper tantrum. I was well known for them in my little world, but only for important reasons. I never talked back, I did what I was told to do, and I behaved well, most of the time. But when it came to eating animals that were my friends, or even eating the buds of my favorite daylilies, I cut a shine. I closed my eyes tight, I put my hands over my ears tight, and I cut a shine. I spent some evenings locked in my room where I could cut a shine all by myself.
Thanksgiving was always nice. At that time of Porky the Pig, I had not yet made friends with a turkey, so turkey for dinner didn't upset me. And for some unknown reason I never saw a turkey being killed, that didn't come till a few years later. I got to help with the dressing because Aunt Bett and I had gathered sage and dried it, but we also had gathered chestnuts, so I felt that I had contributed to Thanksgiving dinner. We always gathered with extended family for the holiday and I got to see cousins that I had not seen in a while. It also was the day my birthday was celebrated. I was indeed thankful. But the Friday after Thanksgiving remains dark and miserable until this day.
Food was in short supply unless we grew our own. The Friday after Thanksgiving was set aside for hog killings. I didn't know that for my first few years, but by the time I was six, the adults must have decided I was old enough to know where bacon came from. It was a dark cold day and the men were up early before dawn loading their shotguns, and hauling chains out to the shed that was built onto the old barn. The old barn was only used for storage of farm machinery and various farm tools. I had never seen the shed used for anything.
Now I did not see the actual event, but soon after it took place I went with Granny Ninna and Aunt Bett out to the shed where the men were standing around. There was a peculiar smell in the air, one I had never noticed before, smoky and sort of greasy. We turned the corner and I saw Porky hanging by his heels with blood pouring out of a wound on his neck. Oh, he was very dead. I cut a shine. They dragged me back to the house kicking and screaming with my eyes shut tight and my hands hard over my ears. Neither Porky nor I was a pretty sight.
I guess I recovered from that shine, but to this day I won't eat a pork chop, nor sausage, but there are times when I will eat a bit of bacon if it is well hidden down in a salad or a baked potato. The week after the Porky episode was a great improvement. I stayed out of everybody's way and far from the kitchen where Porky was being prepared for his entry into the world of chops, hams, bacon and sausage. But I did watch Aunt Bett cook Porky's leftover fat down to make lard. It also made cracklin's out of the fat, but that is for another story. Part of the lard would be used for cooking, but a large part of it was used to make soap.
I loved to watch the women making soap. Aunt Bett was always the lead soap maker. For weeks she and Ninna had been collecting white ashes from the hardwood kindling used in the cookstove. I already knew the ashes were used to make the lye that was needed to make soap. It wasn't something they allowed me to participate in, but I watched and learned how lye was made. Here is Aunt Bett's and Ninna's recipe:
...enough wood ashes to fill a 5 gallon wooden bucket (white ashes from hardwood: maple, oak)
...use a little nail to make a hole in the bottom side of bucket (for lye to leach out), find a small stick that will fit in hole to plug it up, put stick in hole.
...fill bucket with ashes, and pack ashes real good. Leave some inches at top for water.
...hang the ash bucket up where it can stay for a good while.
...below the drip hole that is in ash bucket, place another wood or iron container to catch the lye water as it drips from the ash bucket.
...use a wood spoon to press a hollow in the middle of the ashes.
...heat 1 gallon of rain water to bilin' and pour into packed wood ashes. It will bubble and spit. When it calms down, take stick stopper out of hole. It might take many days before the lye water starts dripping. Don't bother nuthin' while you wait.
...when leakin'/drippin' has stopped, put stopper back in hole.
...heat the lye water to bilin' in enamel pan or iron kettle. Use rubber gloves and be careful.
...Pour bilin' lye water back in same ashes. Remove stopper and catch again in catch pan.
...Do again for a third time, and you can add new ashes if need be.
...After the third time, dip a feather in lye. Any bird feather will do. If the feather dissolves, lye is ready.
LYE SOAP (remember, this is enough for an extended family to last a year. It was used to wash clothes, too.)
32 pounds of lard
16 quarts of rain water
about 4-6 pounds of lye
....stir lye into the cold rain water, start the fire.
....add the lard real slow.
....boil 2 hours, then add about 1 more gallon of water.
....stir. When stirrin' stick comes out with thick white coat stuck on it, it is done.
....put out fire, and pour soap into mold.
The mold was made in a frame that was built on top of a solid wood table. After it was poured, it was covered loosely with a piece of oil cloth to keep bugs out and left to set up for about 24 hours. After that time the frame was pried off the table and the soap was in one long flat rectangle. I got to help with the slicing, and that was one fine thing to do. The soap was firm but sliced like butter. Each piece was put aside on a shelf in the cellar and left to age for a couple of weeks, and by that time it was ready to use for baths as well as for laundry. I usually got to sneak a piece or two of my very own just so I could carve it into shapes or to carve designs in it. I was allowed to use an old butter knife.
Homemade lye soap was excellent for laundry, and must have been excellent for baths, too, because I don't remember ever having any skin problems. It didn't smell very good, and always reminded me of Porky, but I outgrew that pretty quickly. Lye soap is also effective if used on poison ivy or other skin irritations. I learned that from Aunt Bett. She had multiple uses for most things.
One word of caution: lye made from wood ashes is potassium hydroxide, and commercial lye is sodium hydroxide. They are generally not interchangeable. It is also advisable to wear rubber gloves and protective eyewear when making or handling lye. Another caution, do not make lye in anything except an enameled or iron container. Lye can eat through most everything.
So Thanksgiving was always the best of times and the following Friday was always the worst of times for me as well as for all the Porkies around the mountains. I remember only one accident with making soap. My mother decided to help add the fat to the lye, and she added too much too soon. It splashed out and landed on her feet. Mom started yelling "Oh lawdy, oh lawdy," and Aunt Bett grabbed a bucket of ice cold rain water and poured it on her burning feet. Mom settled down and went back inside the house to dry her feet off. She never did help make lye soap again. It seemed that soapmaking was only for us strong women.
If you would like to try your hand at a small amount of lye soap, here is the short version:
1/2 ounce of lye (store bought), 1/4 cup cold water, 1/2 cup lukewarm fat (lard)
Stir lye into cold water with a wooden spoon; slowly add lukewarm fat; stir until thick.
Pour into plastic mold and cover with plastic wrap for 24 hours, remove from mold and allow to air dry.
All soapmaking information is from the writings of my Aunt Bett.
Information on the difference in homemade lye and commercial lye came from multiple sources on the internet.
Photos are from Wikipedia's Public Domain.