rub a dub dub

I learned how to make soap for the mission trip I took to Kenya in 2005, and I’ve made it a few times since – but not in a long while. We never finalized the workshop list for my currently-postponed trip to Liberia, but Debra had mentioned soapmaking as a possibility, and so I’d been meaning to refresh my skills.

Then, a week or two ago, my father asked me if I’d made any soap lately, saying that he liked my homemade soap and was now out.

If I’d been on top of things, I’d have made soap a month ago, so that I could have given it out to everyone at Christmas this week – the soap has to cure for a month, and if something turns out wrong and you have to rebatch it takes even longer.

But Dad’s comment got me to thinking. I bought the cheapest little digital kitchen scale I could find a few days ago, while doing some Christmas shopping. I think the last good one I had was intentionally left with the church on one of my foreign trips. I had a little spring scale, but I didn’t trust it – and soapmaking, as I’ll tell you, is an exact science.

What I do, and what I’ve taught on two or three trips, is cold process soapmaking, which is slightly different from the method your great-great-grandmother might have used. The fats are heated up, partially to melt solid fats like lard or coconut oil but also so that the fats will be the same temperature as the lye solution when the two are combined. Lye is added to water, and it heats up on its own, due to a chemical process. The two liquids are therefore pretty warm when they’re combined, but no further heat is added. Your great-great-grandmother would have made hot process soap, a slightly different method in which the soap mixture is cooked to accelerate the chemical reaction.

The cold process mixture is stirred, by hand or with a stick blender, until enough soap has formed to thicken and emulsify the mixture and keep the oil and water from separating. This thickened stage is called “trace,” and the marker for it is that if you pick up the spoon and drizzle a little bit of the soap onto itself, you can see the line. If you’re stirring only by hand, as with my students in Kenya, this can take 45 minutes to an hour – and you have to stir constantly for the first 30 minutes. If you have a stick blender, it happens a lot more quickly.

Once the soap has traced, you can try adding coloring or fragrances. I say “try” because most coloring agents or scents added at this stage won’t actually take. The soap is still quite alkaline, and will be for weeks, until every last bit of lye has reacted with fat to produce soap. That alkalinity tends to kill off anything you add.

Most homemade soap that has colors or fragrances is “hand-milled” soap. The soap is made without any additives and then allowed to cure completely. Then it’s ground up, or “milled,” and melted down with a little water so that color or fragrance can be added. Hand-milling is a tricky process, and one I have not mastered. I end up with something that looks more like cottage cheese than soap, or else I add too much water and end up with a soupy mess.

By the way, there’s a different hobby called “melt and pour soapmaking” which is an easier version of this. It starts with a special soap base, available at any hobby shop, which has been formulated to melt easily and smoothly (think of it as the Velveeta of soap). You melt it down, then add whatever you like – color, fragrance, exfoliants, what have you – and pour it into molds.

Essential oils have the best chance of surviving when added to newly-made soap, but I had not thought to buy any. I added a little bit of peppermint extract to tonight’s batch, but I don’t expect it to actually survive. I think this will turn out to be fragrance-free, off-white soap.

Once the soap traced and I stirred in the peppermint, I poured it into molds – not the real soap molds you buy at Hobby Lobby, but little Gladware lunch containers that happen to be about the same general shape as a bar of soap.


It will take a couple of days for the soap to harden enough to be taken out of the molds, and then I will have to wrap the bars up in paper and let them cure for a month, on the off chance that there are any little crystals of lye which haven’t yet saponified.

It was fun to make a batch, although I’m always a little nervous when working with the lye. As recommended, I wore safety goggles and gloves. Fortunately, I still had some Red Devil lye left over from my older soap-making days. You used to be able to buy Red Devil, which was 100 percent pure lye and perfect for amateur soapmaking, in any store – it was sold as a drain-opener. But Red Devil stopped selling the product. That may have a liability concern, been because lye can be used in meth production, although the company never said for sure. Now, one has to order lye online by mail.

I have a spray bottle filled with vinegar standing by in case of any stray splashes of lye water or young soap. I also soak all the utensils in vinegar before washing them.

Soapmaking is a fun hobby. Part of the fun is searching for the holy grail of soap recipes. Some oils make a hard bar of soap, others provide more lather, and still others are great for conditioning. The website has a wonderful calculator that you can use to work out a recipe, and it will give you some idea of the resulting soap’s qualities.

Recipes must be followed carefully. You must have at least enough fat to react with all of the lye, but you can adjust the recipe to add just a little bit more, called “superfatting,” in order to give a moisturizing richness to the final product. If you try to add too much, however, your soap bar will be squishy and greasy.

I would like to have used palm oil as part of the mix today, but that, too, has to be ordered online, and I didn’t have any. Tonight’s batch included the cheapest light olive oil I could find (no sense wasting money on extra virgin!), a little coconut oil for lather, and some good old fashioned lard, all from the supermarket. When you first start soapmaking, you’re advised to begin with lard. It’s cheap, always a benefit when you’re learning something for the first time, and it makes a basic, well-rounded bar of soap. Its main drawback is a little bit of pork smell, some of which can even survive the alkalinity of the lye solution.

Some day, I want to try making goat’s milk soap. The goat’s milk is used in place of the water, and it’s supposed to give the soap beneficial qualities.

Another fun recipe to try is gardener’s soap – in which you use brewed coffee in place of the water and add some of the grounds to the recipe as a scrubbing agent.

One thing that all homemade soap has in common is that it’s rich in glycerine, a skin conditioner. Glycerine is a natural byproduct of the soapmaking process – but it’s used in so many other products, from hand lotion to toothpaste, that the big commercial soapmakers chemically extract some of the glycerine from their soap so that they can use it in other products. Homemade soap has all of its glycerine intact.

I hope this batch comes out well. It has continued to thicken after being poured into molds. When I take it out of the molds in a few days I should at least be able to tell if all my measurements and ratios were right. If I had too much lye, the soap will be powdery and crumbly. Too much fat, and it won’t harden up properly and will be soft and squishy. We’ll have to wait and see, and no one in the family will be getting any in their Christmas stocking.

Me, Pat and the governor

In August, Gov. Bill Haslam attended one night of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, where he was accompanied on the grounds by State Rep. Pat Marsh.

I had taken a number of photos that night, when Pat — who I’ve known professionally since we were in a civic club together, long before he entered the General Assembly — playfully suggested that since I was always taking photos, I needed to be in a photo him with the governor. I went along, and posed for a photo with the two of them. Someone took it on my T-G camera, and the state photographer who was with Gov. Haslam also took it.

The photo from my camera turned out nicely, and I printed out a little snapshot of it at home and shared it with the family, but I didn’t post it anywhere. Posting a photo of myself with an elected official, of either party, just seemed like a bad idea, even if it was just taken on a whim. People might take it differently than it was intended.

I do not wear my political heart on my sleeve — I don’t think it’s a good idea for journalists to do so. I have always endeavored to be fair to both parties, and I like to think I have good relationships with both parties locally. (I think of myself as a centrist, and I’ve voted for candidates from both parties over the years.) My work should speak for itself, and as long as it does then my private political opinions are my own business. Getting too chummy with one side or the other is just an invitation for people to criticize.

I had the day off work yesterday, but my editor e-mailed me to confirm that I would be in the office at 11 a.m. today, saying only that the reason I needed to be here was “a surprise.”

At 11 a.m., a number of T-G employees were summoned to the front office, where Pat Marsh was waiting with a beautifully framed, and autographed, copy of the state photographer’s photo of him, me and the governor. Pat’s autograph thanked me for being “fair and informative.” It was a very kind gesture; I know the spirit in which it was given, and I was moved by it.

All that is a roundabout way of saying I don’t guess it would hurt too much to show you this:

framed photo

For my out-of-state friends, Rep. Marsh is on the left and Gov. Haslam is on the right. Bill Haslam and his brother Jimmy (now owner of the Cleveland Browns) built a small company started by their father into the Pilot truck stop chain.

book proposal

I am toying with doing another self-published book.

This would not be a novel, like my Bad Self-Published Novel. Instead, it would be a book of essays and devotions, including both new material and a few of my favorite sermons updated and rewritten for the printed page.

Don’t get me wrong – I still think I have another novel in me. I started on National Novel Writing Month this year, but the particular framework I had took a left turn and I didn’t think it was going anywhere.

But this morning, as I was sitting in church listening to the beautiful music of our choir’s Christmas cantata, something started me thinking about this idea. I’ve flirted with it in the past, but never really gotten very far with it. But after I got home from church and ate lunch, I pulled out one of my favorite sermons – about the spiritual secrets of the Frisbee — and started rewriting it.

We’ll see if this goes anywhere.

chili grind

I went into Walmart after work today, to pick up one or two things – and you know how that usually works out.

I was at the meat case and became unreasonably happy to see this:


Chili grind meat! Which I normally can’t find at all in Shelbyville, and not only did Walmart have it but it was on sale! I snatched it up. I could have made chili from scratch, but I wimped out and bought a Carroll Shelby’s kit, a can of tomato sauce, two cans of Ro-Tel and a little tub of sour cream for garnish. The chili is simmering even as we speak.

What you see in the photo above is two pounds of meat. As you can see, it’s ground much more coarsely – it doesn’t look like yarn but like rope. It’s intended for use in long-simmering chili recipes. It can survive long cooking and still give you nice-sized little chunks of meat in the finished product.

I first learned to make slow-simmered Texas-style chili, without beans, many years ago by using the Wick Fowler’s 2-Alarm Chili Kit and the Carroll Shelby’s Chili Kit. At the time, they were competitors – the Wick Fowler product came on a cellophane-wrapped cardboard tray, while the Carroll Shelby product came in a little brown paper bag. Now, they are both made by the same company and they come in identical cardboard boxes. They’re both good. The main difference between them is that the Wick Fowler product comes with the various ingredients broken down into separate little packets, so that you can monkey around with them if you like – a little less of this, a little more of that. The Carroll Shelby kit has all of the seasonings except salt and cayenne in one bag.

Since both kits have the cayenne in a separate packet, you can adjust the heat level to your family’s liking – add it all, or some of it, or leave it out.

Both kits come with a separate little packet of masa flour, to be added near the end of cooking as a thickener and for its wonderful corn flavor. I belive the Carroll Shelby kit has a little more masa than the Wick Fowler kit.

When I first started using the Wick Fowler and Carroll Shelby kits, the main package directions called for either coarse ground beef (like what  you see above) or, lacking that, beef cut into little chunks. They also had, as an afterthought, separate directions for a quick chili recipe using regular ground beef. But those directions were in smaller type and were not as prominent.

Now, the quick ground beef directions are the only directions appearing anywhere on either product. The original, long-cooking directions are nowhere to be found. Even so, they’re still good products, and you can still use them slowly with coarsely ground beef or little chunks. Since I can never find chili-grind beef in Shelbyville, I usually buy stew meat and then cut each big chunk into several smaller ones, using a pair of scissors. So I was delighted to see the genuine article in Walmart today, and hope they’ll keep carrying it, even if it’s not always on sale.

Most big supermarkets now carry both the Wick Fowler and Carroll Shelby products, side-by-side in their boxes, but Walmart, at least today, only had the Carroll Shelby product.

It feels like a wonderful night for a bowl of chili. I’m glad I happened to wander over to the meat case.

remedial freed unit

Nashville Public Television is currently running a bizarre little special called “Classic Hollywood Musicals.” You might think that a special with that title would be about the breadth and scope of Hollywood musicals, but this is basically about five of them: “The Wizard of Oz,” “Singin’ In The Rain,” “Seven Brides For Seven Brothers,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and (so help me) “Viva Las Vegas.” The special jumps around, presenting a clip and a few little details about one of the musicals, and then another, and then another. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, no attempt to connect any of the movies to each other, and it’s written at a really simplistic and elementary level — many of the little details presented as fascinating revelations are actually old news to any classic movie fan. Is there anyone left who doesn’t know that the studio bosses tried to cut “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz”?

What makes matters even worse is that it’s pledge drive season, and the woman co-hosting the pledge breaks keeps gushing about how she hasn’t seen, for example, “Singin’ In The Rain” in decades. She literally said that – decades!

Now, I realize the pledge break is intended to plug public TV stations and their programming. I wouldn’t expect them to mention or acknowledge Turner Classic Movies, a cable channel. But it sounds just bizarre to imply that these movies have been hidden away in a vault somewhere. “Singin’ In The Rain” probably gets shown an average of once a month on TCM. A good three-quarters of the people interested enough in classic movies to sit through this pablum-based documentary in hopes it will eventually become interesting is either a TCM viewer, or has a shelf full of classic movie DVDs, or both.

Yes, I guess there are probably a few elderly technophobes, receiving their public TV station by antenna, without DVD players, for whom catching a glimpse of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” is a rare and special treat. But that seems like a niche, not an audience.

dear santa ….

I haven’t blogged in a while about my weekly time at Learning Way Elementary School as a volunteer with the Raise Your Hand Tennessee program, but I think I’m finding it more satisfying this school year than I ever have before.

Today, Regan gave me three different worksheets to use with the kids, but I really only had time for the first worksheet with each of my three groups. The worksheet was a letter to Santa, with spaces for three gift requests and then three reasons why Santa should bring you things.

Of course, in my actual job, we’re in the middle of processing the scores and scores of Santa letters which the T-G publishes each year (as we have for generations), so it was kind of fun to watch the thought process of such letters being written. Some kids knew exactly what they wanted to write and just needed a little help with spelling. One girl needed a little extra help, and I ended up writing some things for her to trace.

It was just a great time and really put me in the Christmas spirit.

peace pipe

Many of the previews and reviews of last night’s “Peter Pan Live!” noted that the lyrics to one of the songs were changed, with the participation of a Native American consultant, to eliminate negative stereotypes. (Some commentators applauded this, but others still found the scenes with Princess Tiger Lily to be dated and offensive.)

I do try to be sensitive to cultural stereotypes, and in fact I have a relative by marriage who has Native American heritage; connections like that sort of personalize the issue.

Then I noticed that TCM is showing “Good News” tonight. “Good News” is an MGM musical from the late 1940s, starring June Allyson and Peter Lawford, based on a much-older (and supposedly less-sanitized) stage musical. It’s full of all sort of hoary old clichés about college life. I don’t find the story particularly compelling. And yet, I’m going to sit here and watch it for one reason – Joan McCracken, a fascinating musical comedy talent who died tragically young and whom I know mostly from her work in “Good News.”

In fact – and, for reasons mentioned above, I’m ashamed to admit this – I mainly know her from, and am fascinated by, one particular musical number: “Pass That Peace Pipe.” The actual number doesn’t involve any Native Americans – it’s set in a malt shop – but it uses the imagery of the peace pipe and a sort of rhythmic recitation of the names of Indian tribes as if they were nonsense syllables. I know I should find it offensive.

But I can’t look away from McCracken’s performance. She sells that song in a way I’ve seen few musical performers do, staring straight ahead dead into the camera for several long stretches as if she owns the studio and Louis B. Mayer answers to her:

According to Wikipedia, McCracken helped promote Shirley MacLaine, encouraged her then-husband Bob Fosse to take up choreography, and was one of Truman Capote’s inspirations for Holly Golightly. But she had health problems related to diabetes and died when only 42.

I guess I’ll have to take the advice that my friends Brenden and Michael often put out on their podcast and try to be “a filter, not a sponge.”

Coming soon: This year’s audio Christmas card

I’m not very good about sending out Christmas cards.

Two years ago, on the spur of the moment, I decided to do an audio recording of O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” post it to Soundcloud, and send a link by email to family and friends.

People seemed to enjoy it, so last year I did the same thing with Francis Church’s famous “Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus” newspaper column.

I’ve tried to figure out what to do this year. It has to be something in the public domain. I think I’ve found something – it’s short, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I may try to record and edit it tomorrow.

One of these days, I’m going to try my hand at an original story – but I never think about it early enough.

Anyway, whenever I send it out I’ll also be sure and post a link in case I don’t have your email address.

The first two recitations are still online, and you can find them on the Soundcloud web site (my user name is LakeNeuron) or embedded below. Feel free to share them if you like.


2013 (Sorry about the very slight hum):

sullivan’s travels

This is one of those cases where I’ve blogged about a movie multiple times in the past, and should probably just look up the old post and link to it on Facebook rather than reinvent the wheel.

But I think it’s been a while since I’ve actually devoted a whole blog post to “Sullivan’s Travels,” airing at 8:45 p.m. Central tonight on Turner Classic Movies, and so I figured, what the hey, I’d blog about it again.

This is a movie that is funny, first and foremost, by one of the best comedy directors of the golden age, the wonderful Preston Sturges. I love Sturges’ other work, especially “The Lady Eve” and “Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.”

But “Sullivan’s Travels” also has a little hidden message – sort of an irony, since the message has to do with the fact that not every movie has to have a message.

Anyway, the central character is John L. Sullivan, played by Joel McCrea. He’s a movie director, perhaps a standin for Sturges himself, who has spent the 1930s making silly little movies with titles like “Hey Hey in the Hayloft” and “Ants In Your Pants of 1939.” But he’s decided that these musical comedies aren’t significant enough. He has been duly impressed by a “Grapes of Wrath”-style novel which he wants to adapt for the screen. (If you look closely at the cover, the author is Sinclair Beckstein, a wonderful melange of John Steinbeck, Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis).

Remember, this novel, and “Sinclair Beckstein,” didn’t exist – they were made up by Sturges to be a plot point for the movie. I tell you that because the the title of the novel is “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, a title which was appropriated a half-century later by the Coen Brothers and made into an actual movie, although the Coen Brothers movie is a lot more fun to watch than John L. Sullivan’s social-problem drama would have been.

The title, of course, was an obvious play on words back in 1940, when “Oh, brother!” was a much more common expression of annoyance.

Anyway, Sullivan tells the head of the studio he’s tired of comedy and wants to make a film of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

John L. Sullivan: I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism. The problems that confront the average man!
LeBrand: But with a little sex in it.
John L. Sullivan: A little, but I don’t want to stress it. I want this picture to be a document. I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity! A true canvas of the suffering of humanity!
LeBrand: But with a little sex in it.
John L. Sullivan: [reluctantly] With a little sex in it.
Hadrian: How ’bout a nice musical? (From IMDb)

The studio mogul, who’s been making good money off Sullivan’s comedies, tries to discourage him without offending him. He tells Sullivan, at one point, that he’s not the right person to make a movie about poverty because he, Sullivan, grew up in an upper-class family and has never known hardship himself.

Sullivan takes that criticism to heart – but not in the way the studio head was hoping. Sullivan decides to take a leave of absence from the studio and wander the countryside dressed as a hobo. It’s a fallacy that you can truly understand poverty from this kind of gimmicky stunt, of course, and eventually Sullivan will realize that – but not before some twists and turns. Along the way, he encounters a frustrated actress (the mesmerizing Veronica Lake) who is preparing to give up her dream and move back to the midwest. He tries to encourage her aspirations without revealing his real identity.

It’s a lot of fun, and yet there’s a great moment of realization at the end of it. Please, if you haven’t seen this one yet, set the DVR or enjoy it with the family tonight.

silver lining

Bad news, versus thing for which to be thankful:

I’m not due at Dad’s until this afternoon, so I ran to Walmart just now to pick up a few groceries. (I won’t be doing any of my holiday shopping until later.) On the way back, I realized I had to break a $20 so that I could get change so that I could do laundry.

I stopped at a convenience store, and when I got out my front driver’s side tire was completely flat. And this wasn’t a fix-a-flat flat; both front tires need to be replaced. I had trouble with one of the lug nuts, and a stranger was nice enough to stop and help me with it. I have the temporary spare in place now’; I’m not sure whether my tire store is open tomorrow or whether I’ll have to wait until Monday.

I’ve already had to get a new battery this month, and I was not planning on the expense of two new tires.

But on the bright side, it could very easily have gone flat last Friday, on the Interstate, and prevented me getting to Nashville. So that’s a thankful note for the day.