By Wayne Alan Brenner
AUGUST 2, 1999: Eventually, you've gotta wash.
Even if you don't engage in something especially active that'll leave you covered in sweat, dirt or, depending on your eroto-culinary proclivities, chocolate sauce and ramen noodles ... Even if all you do is sit around like an amorphous blob of protoplasm while watching decaying tapes of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman for days on end ... Even if, due to God-or-science-only-knows what strange compulsion, you actually enjoy facial and bodily filth, still, even then, you're going to have to wash. Eventually. And when you do wash, soap will help.
But which soap?
There are, of course, innumerable mass-market soaps awaiting your consumption in every retail outlet that has half a reason to stock those items: such American childhood staples as Dial and Zest and Palmolive and so on. But, with surprisingly little effort, you can also find an impressive variety of cleansing bars from smaller mom & pop concerns -- businesses that are to personal hygiene aficionados what microbrewers are to the oft-sodden acolytes of John Barleycorn. And, as with the microbrews, many of these lovingly made, low-volume soaps are of much higher quality than those routinely offered by the ubiquitous juggernauts of the human detergent industry.
Not only that, friends and neighbors, but some of these handmade wonders are produced right here in River City.
Sarah Nitsch, a former body-care buyer for Wheatsville Co-op, makes several different kinds of soap for Natural Magic, the store she runs with her business partner, Cedar Stevens. Sarah arrives at the store -- carrying a lunch of breakfast tacos and entering her domain like a brunette whirlwind -- minutes after I show up for some impromptu research. She immediately disappears into a back room. She comes back out, briefly and sin tacos, then disappears again, then comes back out again, all the while unleashing a barrage of chatter at Cedar and tossing an occasional smile my way.
Cedar tells her partner that I'm working on an article about soap.
"Yeah?" says Sarah, finally pausing. She makes eye contact the way archers make points at tournaments, then grins and pushes a cataract of hair off her left shoulder. "What do you wanna know?"
Why someone starts making soap in the first place, I tell her.
"Because other people were doing it, and they weren't doing it well," says Sarah, without hesitation. "It was infuriating to me. I mean, people try. They try, but they make lame attempts, and it's infuriating. What's the sense of making something for yourself at home if you're gonna fuck it up anyway?
"So I wasn't satisfied with what was out there," she continues. "There wasn't enough of it, and it wasn't good enough for my high standards. So I went home and did it myself -- made it better, made it cheaper, added some different ingredients. And people liked it, and now I'm stuck. Now I have all these people making demands on me for soap. I'm a soap slave."
I glance around the room, scanning the fruits of her enforced labors; one group of items in particular arrests my vision. Artfully wrapped in corrugated paper (the robin's-egg blue of which contrasts beautifully with the soap's dark amber), carefully stacked upon the glass counter at the back of the store's main room, nestled there among the vials of essential oils and jars of healing balms and salves and unguents, are rectangular prisms of what these two body-care entrepreneurs call The Must-Have Shampoo Bar.
"This is made with olive oil and castor oil and just enough coconut oil to make it lather," says Sarah, thrusting a bar my way. "And then I add an extract I make of rosemary and nettle, and then add rosemary and lavender essential oils. It's pretty simple, but it's also really effective."
"Effective ..." I repeat, my olfactory system gone distractingly tropo from the overlapping heavens of scent exuded by the products Natural Magic is home to.
"Well," says Sarah, "my boyfriend had really bad patches of eczema and stuff. I mean really bad, just huge patches of it, and he was always scratching at his head. He'd do it in his sleep, it was so bad, and I couldn't get him to stop. So I got him off the medicated shampoo he was using and onto more natural shampoos. Those had some detergents, too, which aren't good for your skin, but I was just easing him off the hard stuff. And then he started using our Shampoo Bar, and he's never had that kind of condition again."
I realize, suddenly, that I'm scratching at my own head. Out of pure sympathy, I'm hoping.
"And, here," says Sarah. "Feel my hair. I don't condition it at all, and I dye the hell out of it, too."
I take a few strands of her long hair and rub them between my fingers. It occurs to me why "silky" is such an overused adjective, hairwise: It can be so precise.
"Wow," I say.
"We use it on the dog, too," says Sarah. She indicates a large Labrador-looking creature resting in a nearby corner. "Maggie's about 13, and she has the typical dry coat of an older dog, but -- go ahead, feel her -- she gets the Shampoo Bar, too."
I feel the dog.
"And we have these, too," says Sarah, pointing at the other bars atop the crowded counter. "Vetiver soap, and patchouli, which are both pretty hard to find. I mean, people don't usually make patchouli soap because the oil is so expensive and, well, it's obnoxious, really. It smells like a hippie camp. But, you know, people like it -- especially in Austin -- so I make it. And these are based on the same shampoo formula, so it's a head-to-toe type deal: You can use one bar for everything. And, hold on, this is our newest one." She goes to the back room, returns bearing a small container. "Here," she says. "Smell this."
I move my snoot to the vessel's opening and give a hearty sniff. I almost reel backward. The smell is incredible, like inhaling a Key Lime Pie from the oven of God.
"That's lime and peppermint," says Sarah, pleased with my response. "I can tell it's gonna sell out immediately, as soon as the soap's ready. People love it."
And, I wonder aloud, does it take an inordinate amount of care and planning to create such soaps? Does one have to be the sudsy equivalent of a rocket scientist, say?
Sarah shakes her head, laughing. "I'm bad," she says. "I'm irresponsible, basically."
"That's what her mother tells her," says Cedar.
"I'm lazy, I'm unconventional, I'm all these bad things. So sometimes I forget the stuff. Totally. I've left soap out in the yard and it's a hundred degrees out there. So there's a big lump of soap sitting there, and it goes all liquidy, I mean it changes color three times ... and that's what you see right here." She smiles at the perfect Shampoo Bar, as if it were a child gone from Detention Hall to Honor Roll in half a week.
"But, you know," continues Sarah, "I have this skepticism that runs really deep. If I see something in a recipe, I won't go and actively, deliberately challenge it. Not at first, anyway. But at some point I will. If a recipe says 'Oh, you need to do this,' I'm like, 'Well, bullshit!' I might use a recipe the first time, but then never look at it again. And I never follow the proportions exactly, and I've always done something wrong, according to the book, and the soap's come out fine. I tend to run a lot more on instinct and intuition than I do on fact and recipe and that sort of thing."
Which, in this case, seems to have worked. Aside from the two pizza boxes full of "disastrous failures" stashed in the back room's closet, the madness in Sarah Nitsch's methods has resulted in a small array of fragrant miracles.
Out beyond the suburban limits of Austin, however; out in the mostly undeveloped wilderness, in the very midst of the largest Grade A raw milk goat-dairy in Texas, the scientific specifications of soapmaking are more strictly adhered to....
White Egret Farm
"Saponification is a simple enough process," says White Egret proprietor Lee Dexter as she sketches out a diagram of what happens on a chemical level, when fat meets lye. (When Lee isn't busy managing the operation of the farm or assisting hands-on with its various labor-intensive tasks, she's a consultant to dairy farmers the world over; when I arrived early to our interview, she was on the phone to a client in Japan.) "But we've had to experiment a lot when it comes to adding oils and other ingredients," she says. "If the measurements and the temperatures aren't right, the mixture can separate and the whole batch will be ruined."
White Egret Farm has been operating since 1973, producing goat milk and cheese, as well as drug-free beef and pork and turkey. And it's pretty self-contained.
"We make use of everything," says Lee, leading me over a grassy knoll that recent rains have turned to muck. "The fat from our cattle and pigs is rendered to make tallow and lard, which we use in our soaps." We stop near a huge bathtub sitting athwart an ash-filled depression in the ground, the enameled fixture seeming as displaced there as a sandwich in a soapdish. "This is where we render the fat," says Lee, walking around the empty tub, her boots sticking in the temporary mire. "We get a big fire going under there, get the fat boiling, have someone skimming off the bits of sinew and other waste. We do everything by hand here. It can get a bit messy."
From the open barn behind us comes the Nnnna-ah-AH-ahhht! of frolicking goats. This sound, like its accompanying earthy odor, like the way-fresher-than-downtown taste of the air, is a sensory constant at White Egret.
"We needed this rain," says Lee as she lifts a boot clear of the mud.
Back inside the workroom adjacent to the goat pens, Lee picks up a PVC pipe filled with part of the latest batch of Oatmeal Mint. "This one's almost ready," she says. She takes a block of wood, places it into one end of the big pipe and pushes at the soap. She pushes and pushes, forcing the pipe against the top of one of the room's sturdy tables. Eventually the adhesion is broken and a few inches of the soap's smooth cylinder is extruded from the white container.
"This could probably use a week or so more, actually," says Lee, moving the pipe toward me. "Smell that? That faint scent of ammonia under the mint? That'll go away after it's cured a while longer. Here -- I'll cut you off a piece." She takes a ... a ... well, a garrotte, actually, a thin length of wire terminated on each end by a small wooden handle -- the sort of thing a murderer might've employed in a horror film from Britain's Hammer Studios in the early Sixties. And as her assistant Connie holds down the pipe, Lee deftly decapitates the whitish cylinder, producing a disk about the size of a tuna can. She hands the soap to me.
"We've got a Bay Rum Oatmeal, too," says Connie. "And lavender and cinnamon bars."
"All of them are made with goat's milk," says Lee. "And there are no preservatives, no BHT or BHA or anything like that, in any of them. And that's one of the things people are often allergic to, in soaps: the preservatives."
I thank her for the Mint Oatmeal bar, mentioning that I'd already purchased an impressive Cinnamon & Clove variety of theirs from the Whole Foods Farmers Market. And I express my surprise that White Egret is such a big operation, that it's an entire working farm instead of the small soapster's outpost I'd initially expected. How does one staff such a place out here, I wonder. These young Co-Evolution Quarterly-looking people feeding the newborn kids, stacking the bales of hay, adding weights to the draining wheels of cheese ... Where do they come from?
"Most of our crew are volunteers," says Lee. "We get people from all over, mostly by putting up flyers at Wheatsville and other places. Our volunteers work five hours a week, and they get paid five dollars' worth of our products for every hour they work. They sign on for four months at a time, and we train them in all the procedures, so besides the soap or cheese or sausage or whatever they choose, they get a lot of useful experience." She pauses a moment, then smiles at me. "We'll be looking for some new volunteers soon, too. Maybe you could put that in your article?"
Of the Earth Soapworks
Maggie Hanus, the multiskilled craftswoman behind Of the Earth Soapworks, creates a steady plethora of soaps in the kitchen of the concrete-and-railroad-tie-constructed house she and her husband Mike built themselves, out in greener boondocks of Manor. These soaps -- with herbal fragrances so powerful they could deliver a Flying Leg-Scissor Kick to the midsection of your nose's Inner Wrestler -- have names like Serenity and Energy and Happiness and Love. And I get the feeling that these names are descriptive not of a life Maggie would prefer to lead, as is so often the case, but of the life she already has. She's out in the country, after all: away from the din and bluster of Austin's growth-spurting metropolis, homeschooling her children in a gorgeous home, and now leaving even her part-time job at the local YMCA in order to fulfill the big soap order she's just received from the nationally distributing Calendar Club -- this has to be, at least, Just Down the Road From Paradise.
And how was this, particularly the soapy aspect, achieved?
"I like the old-timey, pioneer type of crafts," says Maggie, smiling brightly. "You know, weaving, papermaking, that kind of thing. And soapmaking sounded like fun, so I got some books and started reading, then tried it, and did it, and here I am. I started back in 1995, and I liked it a lot." Her smile widens into a grin; this occurs frequently as we talk. "Taking raw ingredients and putting them together, and stirring it all up and coming out with this beautiful product -- I love it. I'm addicted to it. And I had more soap than I could use, and more soap than I could give away. But I've always been a crafter, doing various crafts for 15 years, and I was used to going to fairs and seeing if I could sell what I make. So I tried that with the soap, too and found out that homemade soap sells really well."
"Like, generally?" I ask.
"Really well," says Maggie, nodding.
Due to the names they're given, perhaps?
"Mine are geared toward the aromatherapy concept," she tells me. "So the names suggest the effect the scents will have on your brain. And my soaps are all natural, I don't use any synthetic ingredients, they're made with essential oils and spices. I use a lot of olive oil in my recipes, too -- this makes them very moisturizing, very good for your skin. Commercial soaps are just, ugh, so harsh and drying! And I never used handmade soap before, not until I started making it. Then I realized how great it is; and now, of course, I can't use anything else. When you make soap at home, it's just so creamy and smooth and yummy."
I look away from Maggie's clear-skinned, smiling face and I scan the tall living room (which looks like a spread from some ultra-crafty issue of House & Garden).I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed by all this cheery good health. The relentlessly positive ambience doesn't sit well with my streethardened, cynical soul. Surely there has to be the smallest trace of a serpent in the garden. Surely nothing can be this easy.
"What about your first attempt at saponification?" I ask nonchalantly. "When you were just starting. How did that turn out?"
"Eeeee," says Maggie, making a sour face. "Not too good," she says. "Not too good at all. In fact, it took me about a year before I got to where I felt confident that I could sell it. I had a lot of failed batches, ruined a lot of ingredients, wasted a lot of money." She chuckles, remembering. "I had some successes in there, too, but it was kinda touchy for a while. The ingredients, the temperatures, the measurements -- there are so many variables."
And variables are something Maggie's got on her mind these days. "I'm going from small-time local craft fairs to malls all over America," she says. "So it's been kind of overwhelming for me. It's a trial phase that Calendar Club is in with their new company Splurge, to see if it takes off in malls. So it's not a sure thing. But there comes a point when you have to make that move, when you have to quit your job. It's kind of scary, but, well, my husband did it and everything was okay for him: Mike's a landscape contractor, and he also makes limestone sculptures -- and I just know everything will work out. You just have to keep plugging away."
Plugging away. Which explains, possibly, how Maggie's become involved with the Calendar Club. And the Herb Bar and Craftown Gallery in Austin. And why her soaps -- maybe you've seen the clear glycerin bars with the silk flowers inside? -- are available at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center. And why -- with the help of her younger son Jory -- an Of the Earth Web site is not too far in the future.
"I believe that you get back what you give, what you put into something," says Maggie. And she gives me a loaf -- not a single bar, mind you, but an entire loaf -- of Energy soap.
"Hey, now," I say. "Thank you, but -- can you give me just half? Jeez. This smacks of payola."
"Well, now," says Maggie, laughing.
In local soap circles, though, merely allowing someone to profile you for an article might smack of payola. Or of something. How else to explain all the cloak & dagger?
Cloak & Dagger"I doubt they'll want to talk to you," says Twila at the Herb Bar on West Mary. "The people who sell their soap through our store, a lot of them, well -- they really don't like to talk about what they do."
"Yeah?" I ask her. "Like, what? Like it's classified information?"
"Well, I guess they're just very protective of their recipes, of the methods they've developed."
But so many developed methods are available in books at the local library; and online you can lose yourself for hours among the openly shared photos and recipes and ingredient lists of the Soapmaker's Web Ring. So why the big hush-hush, I wonder. Are these local soapsters employing advanced technology given to them by aliens? Has Area 51 spawned some sort of body-care franchise? Will the Burt's Bees company have to start watching for black helicopters in the night?
"My wife and I have decided we're too busy to grant an interview," Mark Schiff of Soappourri tells me over the phone.
"Some other time, maybe?" I ask, brimming with hope and boyish charm.
"That's right," he says gruffly. "Maybe."
And the others? Don't even get me started.
But don't these sometimes struggling cottage-industry people want the increased business that press coverage might bring them?
"Most of the soapmakers we deal with are of the opinion that they have enough customers already," says Twila. "And they don't want to divulge the secrets of their craft."
Really? What's to divulge? What the hell is so ...
But that's where I stop. And decide to take matters into my own hands.
Ring of SudsSo it's off to the Internet, to the Soapmakers Web Ring -- to the site of Sugar Plum Sundries, specifically. Wherein (http://sugarplum.net/soap.htm) soapmistress par excellence Karon Adams briefly relates her own experiences in producing soap and provides a simple recipe that can be made by using -- if preferred -- a Big Gulp cup. I'm no craftsman, really, and the most basic technologies are usually the worst kind of Greek to me. But, soapmaking? Truth be told? We're talking E-Z, here, people. We're talking, can you fall off a log?
A few trips to various stores for the ingredients: some Crisco (because mine will be totally vegetable-based), some olive oil, coconut oil, palm oil, a can of Red Devil lye, a pair of gloves, and so on. Then it's into the kitchen, which my slipshod aikido of measuring and heating and stirring quickly reduces to a scene not unlike a Hieronymous Bosch tableau. And then some pouring, a little settling, a bit of cooling -- you get the idea. Then, days later, I remelt the soap to allow the addition of ground almonds and honey, and set it aside to cure. After a few weeks go by, Voila! It's Brenner's Homemade Beauty Bar: a soap worthy of taking its place among the glamorous results of saponification currently stocked in upscale retail joints throughout this urban sprawl of ours.
I'll get off the soapbox now.
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