7QT: Lessons Learned from Making Soap

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Join up with Jennifer at Conversion Diary for Seven Quick Takes Friday!

We tried out our second First Disciples project, in order to draft a set of project instructions to send to our Beta Team Extraordinaire. As you may remember, our first project was learning how to make a fire and keep it going. Our second project was making the kind of soap that Mary may have used. What have we learned so far?


Herodian life seems, so far, to have been full of little trinities. In order to have fire, you need fuel, oxygen, and heat. Flint strikes metal and creates a spark. In order to make soap, you need lye, fat, and water. You can’t remove one of those things from the other and still have fire or a spark or soap. The more I work with these kinds of things, the more it feels on a very visceral level like the Trinity has seared His image into the basic stuff of humanity–fire-making, fire-tending, soap-making… I wonder, where else will we find the face of God in this process, peeking around the corner, smiling, looking to see if we’ve noticed?


Primitive success required primitive tools, or, Some things just don’t translate across eras. Before making our foray into the world of soap-making, we studied what felt like a gazillion bajillion YouTube videos on how to make soap at home. It all seemed simple enough to follow until we got to the part in most of the videos where the star says, “And now you get your stick blender…” Mary did not have a stick blender. Fine, we said. We’ll make the soap using our plastic vessels, but we’ll just stir it all by hand. What could go wrong?

I’ll tell you what could go wrong. The ingredients won’t reach “trace” (the point-of-no-return in the emulsification process) if they lose their heat too quickly, and no dollar store plastic bowl is going to retain heat the way, say, a warmed terra cotta pot would have while the Herodian housewife stirred the soap. And no hand held dollar store mixing spoon will whip the ingredients together as fast as a stick blender would, hence why a stick blender is necessary in a world of plastic bowls, but a wooden spoon will work just fine if you have a vessel that retains heat.

Our result after three hours of stirring, then re-heating in a low slowcooker, then stirring some more: lye-olive oil slurry that never reached trace. Doubtful, we poured our runny goop into the mold and set it aside to dry. Then we went to bed, because I doubt even Mother Mary wants to stir a greasy mess all through the night.


God chose to be born in a time when human life was hard. On my personal Facebook page, I left a few statuses about how our soap wasn’t seeming to come together. A couple of friends teased me with hashtags such as #teamstickblender and #WWJD #useastickblender. Ah, but He could have and very clearly chose not to! What does that tell us about our God? A lot, I’m sure, but the first thing that comes to mind is that He wasn’t afraid of hard work. So what excuse do we have? That’d be none.


God chose to be born in a time when human life was slow. The easiest soap to make in Mary’s time would have been either tallow (rendered animal fat) or vegetable (probably olive oil). We started by making the olive oil soap because it was what we have in the pantry (this may surprise you, given my previous admissions of obesity, but we don’t have actual lard on hand all that often). Olive oil is the softest soap you can possibly make. The recipe we followed promised it would be ready to cut into curable bars after 24 hours. We waited one day, and it had become sludge. Another day and it had remained sludge. A third day, and it became slightly thicker sludge. Finally, on Day 4, it was firm enough to crack out of remove from the mold…


…and cut into little bars and squares and such.


I’ve read these might take three weeks to five years to cure hard enough not to fall apart under a running tap and clog up our drains. This is slightly more time than it takes me to drive to the store and buy a bar of soap somebody else made more cheaply than we’re making ours. This is the schedule for which God volunteered? Thoroughly Modern Erin is all like, “Dude. Whoa.”


Becoming like a little child. Okay, so First Shift isn’t “little” any more (Ellen Gable, they very well may be taller than you–which, you may be irritated amused to know that Older Member of First Shift made that a goal last year when she met you at CWG Live). I digress. Anyway, I was ready to throw out the aforementioned sludge after the first 24 hours of not drying, but First Shift convinced me to keep it around and see what happened. Maybe we could turn it into liquid soap or something. I grumbled and placed the mold up up and away on a high shelf. If I had ignored their hope, we would have assumed failure, which fire taught us is always dangerous. Their living hope breathed life back into mine.


We learn patience by living as patient people did–and do. Whenever I tell someone new about the First Disciples Project, I often wonder how crazy they think I am for wasting time teaching girls skills that they don’t really need any more. Now that my kids have seen our slow, hard work and patient waiting turned into success, I see that taking the time to live, even in a small way, as a more patient people would have done, bears fruit in our modern world. First Shift learned by making fire that we have to keep trying, even when it looks like we’re wasting our time. I believe it was that lesson that inspired them to ask me to wait upon the un-emulsified sludge. Their practiced hope breathed life back into mine.


Stepping into Mary’s sandals brings us closer to her Son. First Shift knows lots of faith facts and prayers and a generous number of faith “whys,” because I’d always been big on “why.” “Why?” is the question that brought me to Catholicism, so I’m not about to stop anybody from asking it. Still, it wasn’t until we began First Disciples that my kids started asking their own questions. “Would Mary have gone to Elizabeth alone? Why not? But what would it have been like if she did?” “Did Mary know how to find edible plants?” “What would Mary have grown in her garden?” The fact that they’re seeing her as a girl so like themselves is a gateway drug, I hope, to seeing Jesus as a real person. Mary suffered a hard life to bring up Jesus. Jesus suffered for love of them, for love of us all. Appreciating that is what brings us into relationship with him, what helps us see that He doesn’t owe us a darned thing He didn’t already give us.

We’re still looking for a few moms with girls ages 8-15 to join our beta testing team. If you’re interested, please email me at emccolecupp at g mail dawt com.

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