Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Rendering

The weather was promising...and so, with the advent of spring would come spring cleaning.  All would be scrubbed, swept, and washed...and to do that they needed soap.  When Imagination and Samuel had come over the ocean they had brought with them several firkins of soap, but soon they needed to make their own, which was not difficult as the New Land had everything they needed to do so.  Every year after, then, come spring, Goody Prymm would make her batch of lye soap, and this year she would teach young Remember the way.  The ocean's tide and the phases of the moon were traditionally taken into account in the making of soap, but of course Goody Prymm didn't always follow the book, often relying on her own extensive experience and oftentimes her deep intuition.  Although it was preferable to "put in" after a full moon as it waned and then withdraw it right after a new moon as it waxed, this process, she had learned, took far too long and didn't prove necessary for success.  Therefore, she decreed that they would begin while the full moon had begun to wane, but then continue until their soap was made.  And, as the making of lye soap took place outside in the dooryard garden area, the light of the waning moon, along with a large fire kept going for some time, would aid them in their pursuit.  All was in readiness, as Imagination and Remember had saved the ashes from their winter fires and the waste cooking greases and fats accumulated from their meals needed to make their soap.

Outside in a back corner of the garden along the path they had packed down firmly with dirt and seashells, sat a stone slab with a groove carved in it, resting on a pile of rocks.  Goody Prymm and Remember brought out several kettles and a bottomless barrel, along with straw and small sticks.  Placing the barrel on the stone, they then laid a layer of straw and sticks in the barrel, putting the ashes on top.  Next Goody Prymm instructed Remember to pour water slowly, slowly, over the ashes, causing a brownish liquid to ooze out the bottom of the barrel.  This was the solution of potash lye, which was gradually collected as it flowed into the stone's groove and dripped into a clay pot.

Earlier in the day, Remember and Imagination had prepared a large fire which would be used in the rendering of the fats, the most unpleasant part of the task, as cleaning the fats and greases of impurities, quite frankly, stunk.  They put the greases into a large kettle and added an equal amount of water, which they boiled until the fats melted, Remember pinching her nose and making such a frightful face as to get Goody Prymm chuckling.  They then added more water, the same amount as before, which they would allow to cool overnight.  Now they could just sit outside in the moonlight among their newly planted gardens and enjoy the cool spring night air.  Their conversations drifted softly in and out like small waves tickling the shoreline as they shared their thoughts and dreams and memories, Remember stroking her little Smoke as she lay purring happily in her lap.  After a  considerable lapse in discourse, Remember seemingly melted down and blurted out to Goody Prymm that she knew she would have to return home in the early summer, as she would have completed her sentence by then, a sentence meant for punishment but which turned out to be her greatest blessing...and she didn't want to go home!  This was her home, she insisted, and she wished she could stay here with Goody Prymm forever!  Truth be told, olde Imagination confessed, she felt the same, as she had come to love the young girl as though she were her own.  Perhaps Goody Prymm could see to it that she stayed.  With that, Remember sighed happily and deeply, and leaned back to gaze up at the millions and millions of stars that looked for all the world like diamonds that had been cast like seeds in a field of black velvet.  And settling back for their nighttime vigil, they took turns, as they always did, tending the fire and catching brief winks.

At the sun's golden rising, they stretched and went to check on their kettle, finding that the fats had indeed solidified as Imagination had expected and had floated to the top, creating a layer of clean fat.  They placed this fat in yet another large kettle, adding the lye solution, which they would boil.  And then Goody Prymm did an odd thing, something that seemed akin to a spell from her great book hidden in the cupboard.  She sent Remember to fetch a potato, which she placed in the liquid, stating that they would boil the solution until only a small portion of the potato was above the surface, an indication of the proper strength needed for the soap.  When at last the potato met its mark, they continued to boil the mixture until it rose into a frothy thickness, this taking another six hours!  Finally, when they suspected enough time had passed, they each tasted it to see if it had lost its "bite," an indication that the soap was ready.  And so it was.  Exhausted from hours of mixing and boiling and bubbling and tending fires, it was gratifying to pour the soft slippery soap into a barrel, which would eventually be ladled out with a wooden dipper for their cleaning.

The small black shadow first halting and then darting ahead of them, it was now time to put out the fire and spruce up the garden area before going inside where they would heat their pottage and prepare their herbal tea...and settle into their stitching and treasured companionship.

***With a nod to "Colonial Soap Making-Its History and Techniques," by Marietta Ellis

© 2017 Nancy Duncan


  1. I swear I caught the scent of woodsmoke while reading this.....

    1. Hi, Lori!! Much better than the rendering, lol!

  2. Fascinating that from such homely ingredients we get soap! Dangerous business working around fires with lye and such. I'm grateful to be living in the 21st century!

    1. Hello, Mary A! Yes, I like living in a time where spinning, weaving, making soap and such are choices and pleasant pastimes. The early Colonials did not make bar soap (theirs was soft, like Goody Prymm's and Remembers) because that required using salt, a precious commodity one did not waste on soap. That came later, in which they would add fragrant herbs. My eldest granddaughter enjoys making soap with her mother...and for Christmas I often get a hand knitted bag containing some of her lovely gentle on the skin.