This week, thanks to the leisurely summer school schedule, I’ve tanned my coon hide, dug potatoes, cleaned out the fridge, put up garlic and corn, and rendered something like four gallons of lard. Today, I aim to get a batch of soap curing. Soap making is a process that, for us, starts with a half a hog laid out on the kitchen table.
When we butchered our pigs, we just heaped the lard up in piles to deal with later and focused on the cuts of meat. At the end of the day, we threw the heaps of fat-chunks in grocery bags and stuffed them in the freezer. This was a poor choice because 1) it was a waste of the high quality lard that we should have saved for pastries and the like and 2) we wound up with 25 pound “lardbergs” to contend with when we finally got around to rendering. I spent hours yesterday trying to cut a greasy fat-glacier into chunks that would fit into the food processor! Next time, we’ll sort the lard by quality, then freeze the (strategically sized) chunks on sheet pans and bag them once they’re frozen.
Rendering is the process of turning the chunks of fat that you’d find on the end of your porkchop into the buttery, smooth, shortening that you’d cut into your pie crust. We do it by grating chunks of frozen lard in the food processor and then putting the resulting shavings in the crockpot or in a pot on the stove over low heat.
The lard has to be very frozen to grate well. While dismantling the lardberg, we had to refreeze the chunks to get them to run smoothly through the grater. If you process enough lard this way, you’ll notice a buildup of white goo on the grater that resembles nothing so much as twinkie filling. The melting takes a while, but you don’t need to stir or monitor the pots. Most of the lard will turn to liquid and you’ll be left with floating, gray debris. At this point, strain the lard and set it aside.
You can use it immediately if you’re making soap, or store it for later use in the fridge or freezer. It’ll solidify when it’s cool, but ours is liquid at what we call room temperature in Arkansas.
Mixing up the soap
You will need:
- a couple of hours, most of which is wait-time
- essential oils, herbs, whatever stuff you want to put in your soap
- an accurate kitchen scale
- kitchen supplies that you’re willing to sacrifice to soapmaking: a jar for mixing lye and water, something to measure lye into, a pot to mix the soap in, and a spoon to stir the lye and water mixture
- something to use for a mold: a cardboard box lined with a plastic grocery bag works just fine
- vinegar. SAFETY TIP: While mixing, know where your vinegar is, and have plenty. Vinegar will neutralize the lye if there’s an accident. Sean and I have made soap twice without a problem, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
We’ve used the process and recipe described in this article from Mother Earth News. You weigh your lard, then calculate and double check how much lye and water to use. Add the lye to the water (NOT the water to the lye – this could splash lye around, which is dangerous) and let it heat up by the magic of chemistry and then cool to room temperature/slightly warm. This takes about an hour and it will get HOT, so make sure that you mix the lye and water in a place that you can count on to remain safely undisturbed for an extended period of time.
Carefully add the cooled water-lye mixture to the warm (95 degrees if you have a thermometer, warm when you touch the pot if you don’t) lard, plus any essential oils or goodies that you’d like to throw in there. We have used lavender oil and flowers to great effect, and we’ve just guessed at the amounts. Stir stir stir until the soap reaches the trace stage. This takes FOREVER. If it is at the trace stage, a drizzle of soap stays on top of the mixture. At this point, it’s ready to be poured into the mold. Don’t do it before it reaches trace: we made that mistake and had quite themess to contend with.
When we have made soap in the past, we’ve lined cardboard boxes with plastic bags, poured and scooped the soap in, then let it sit overnight. By morning, it had stiffened up enough to cut.
The first time, it was still soft and we were able to cut it with dental floss. The second time, we let it sit too long and it was harder and more brittle. We had to cut it with a knife, and the bars cracked and split. We’ve only made rectangular bars, but I think I’d like to try different shapes this time if I can find appropriate objects to use for molds. I might cut the top and bottom off of a plastic bottle and try to make some round bars this time, or use a pringles can.
Carefully rinse anything that had lye in it with vinegar, then wash it normally. Some sources recommended that you label your soap making supplies and use them only for soap making. I leave the mess in the pot that the soap was mixed in, set it aside in a dark and ignorable corner, and wash it out when the soap is declared cured a few weeks later.
Lye soap must cure for at least two weeks before use, or it can burn the user. Some sources recommend waiting longer. I have laid out cardboard on the floor of the spare room or the dining table and spread the bars evenly on that, flipping them from time to time during curing. We haven’t had any hiccups in the curing part of the process: I think it’s pretty foolproof as long as you have some airflow and keep the soap away from children and pets (our cats were fine, but unlike dogs or children, they are very discerning about what they eat).
The soap we make lathers wonderfully. The bars are hard, but the soap is smooth and creamy. I use it to make liquid hand soap (meaning I grate my bar soap and add warm water, then stick it in a dispenser) and dish soap, and when the huge container of laundry detergent I bought a year ago runs out, homemade laundry soap will replace that too.
If you’re planning to make your own soap, good luck! I can’t emphasize enough how rewarding it is to have all of our household soap coming from our land, animals and kitchen.
I haven’t written a post quite like this before because I like to be very careful about how I talk about social and environmental issues. Words can be politically polarizing and I don’t like to be labeled an environmentalist because the label dismisses the other parts of my identity and the economic and social impacts of the way that Sean and I choose to live.
Thanks to Westwick Dreaming for the bounce over to My Make Do And Mend Year and for reminding me that it’s important to share these things. In the spirit of reusing, recycling and repurposing, this post lists some of the simple things that we do at the homestead, in addition to buying local, to minimize the stuff we throw in a landfill and the money that we contribute to businesses that don’t match our values:
Part 1: Recycling, Repurposing
- Sponges: I cut a corner off of a dish-sponge and it becomes a counter sponge. I cut a second corner off and it becomes a floor/nastiness sponge. After that, I throw it into a container on the back porch and it becomes an outdoor sponge. Sometimes the progression is shortened or modified depending on the needs of the moment, but the principle works well. This was inspired by the dish-sponge, bulkhead-sponge, sole-sponge, head-sponge progression I learned in my weeks with Ocean Classroom in middle school.
- Old rubber scraper: It became brittle and the end began to disintegrate, but instead of throwing it away, we hung it on a nail by the chicken fence and now use it to scrape out containers of nasty goop on its way into chicken-bellies.
- Packing materials: we keep a bag of them in our storage room and delight in mailing them back to our friends and family.
- Recycling: A lot of folks in our area don’t recycle. Even the progressive young teachers that we spend most of our time with are daunted by the absence of a curbside recycling service in our community and wind up discarding hundreds of pounds of recyclables each year. Sean and I use a set of three Rubbermaid tubs that fit in the trunk of our car. As one fills up, we pull it onto the porch and bring in another. We rinse our recyclables before throwing them in the tubs, which prevents critters from taking an interest and unpleasant odors from developing. We dump the tubs when we make trips to the city. Usually, this system works fairly smoothly, though we do occasionally produce too much recycling between trips.
- Clothes: if they’re good quality, we donate them, but if they’re too torn or stained, we toss them in my rag tub. I use them as cleaning rags or to make patches, potholders, and new seats for old chairs. I may also use small scraps in lieu of twine to build trellises and tie tomatoes. I saved the pockets from my old overalls and I’m planning to nail them up in our tool-storage area to use for small tools and bits of hardware.
- Tissue paper, gift bags and wrapping paper: I use wallpaper glue and make pretty lanterns with the tissue paper we save. Otherwise, this stuff gets folded neatly and stuffed in a drawer to be used next holiday.
- Twist-ties and bread-tags: Stored in the junk drawer, these things come in handy from time-to-time. A bread-tag can be used to extend the life of a flip-flop when the strap pulls through the sole.
- Plastic grocery bags: We use these for covering bowls of rising dough, harvesting and storing greens, and in the place of paper towels for picking up dead mice and frogs that the cats dragged in. Thanks to the grocery store, we have never bought garbage bags: I stuck wall-hooks to our trash-can and they keep grocery bags from slipping into the bin when they grow full. Between composting and recycling, we don’t make a lot of trash, so this bag size works well for us.
- Paper grocery bags: I store packing materials, clothes that aren’t in season, craft materials, and overflow recycling in these. They also make good table-covers for messy projects.
- Feed Bags: One of these on the porch makes a great trash-bag. They also make drop-cloths for painting, skinning or other messy projects.
- Egg Cartons: We use them over and over for our eggs. These would also make good packing materials if we were ever to run out.
- Yogurt containers, cans and peanut-butter jars: I sort bits of hardware or rubber bands or twist ties into these, or use the lidded yogurt containers as backup tupperware.
- Jugs from vinegar or detergent: These make great scoops for feed.
- Compost: it’s easy and as a bonus, our trash never smells like garbage.
Part 2: Making from scratch
- Soap: We use the lard from our pigs to make bar soap. I often use the bar soap to wash my hair, and it can be grated to powder and mixed with borax and baking soda for use as laundry detergent. Liquid hand soap is easy to make out of the odd ends of the grated bars or bits scraped out of the pot: just add water and allow the soap to dissolve.
- Trellises: Bamboo (not to be mistaken for the native cane) is not indigenous to the forest here, so I feel no qualms about harvesting poles for trellising our tomatoes, cukes, peas and other climbing or trailing plants. I simply pound some canes into the ground and tie cross-bars to these uprights to provide support for my crops.
- Food: obviously, we grow a lot of food ourselves. I’m not sure this has saved us much money, (we’ve spent a lot on infrastructure in the past few years) but it helps us cut back on packaging materials that we have to throw away, and contributes to reducing emissions from shipping and chemical use in industrial agriculture.
Part 3: Minimizing by borrowing, buying used, or buying quality
- Books: I read a lot, and instead of buying books I go to the library or download for free. I pay a membership fee to use the library in Memphis, and it’s absolutely worth it. Supporting artists is important to me, but I’m not sure how to do this most effectively when it comes to authors: I don’t want a larger cut of my purchase going to a chain store or Amazon if I can help it. For now, I’m sticking with supporting libraries.
- Clothes: My clothes come almost exclusively from Goodwill and moving-out piles. This arrangement suits me because I don’t feel guilty discarding something that I don’t love as much as I thought I would if I hardly spent any money on it.
- Food Storage: We bought a set of pyrex containers that will last into the next century and totally eliminates the Tupperware-lid-matching problem.
- Furniture: Our furniture is all used or homemade, which I’m extremely proud of. It’s not all beautiful and it doesn’t match, but who cares? We’ll upgrade when we’re ready, probably piece by piece as I learn to refurbish nifty old stuff.
- Farm Equipment and Appliances: From lightbulbs to fencing, Sean does his research to make sure it’s durable, effective, and energy-efficient before we purchase anything new. We also get away with borrowing a lot of these items from our wonderful neighbors. Gifts of pork and garden veggies make these arrangements mutually beneficial.
Anything cool that I should be doing and haven’t thought of yet?
Last year, we were a little more on the ball when it came to purchasing feeder pigs. We tracked craigslist for a while, made some phone calls, and finally reserved our pigs a few weeks in advance. We didn’t yet have a truck, so we borrowed a dog carrier from a neighbor and drove the three stinky little critters home in the back seat of the Nissan. We had to ride the whole way with the windows rolled down to keep from gagging on the stink.
When buying feeder pigs, it’s important to get healthy animals from a knowledgeable, competent source. If they aren’t healthy as piglets, they’ll grow more slowly and convert feed to bacon less efficiently. Meat from intact males can have what’s called boar taint. I’ve never tasted it, but it’s not supposed to be delicious. If you don’t want to deal with castrating your own, ask for cut males. Last year we purchased two barrows and a gilt. Barrows are cut males, and a gilt is a female who has never had a litter. They were part China-Poland and part something else.
At that time, our chickens were only a few weeks old and still lived in a Rubbermaid tub in the living room. We brought the pigs home and locked them in the chicken house overnight to get them used to their new home. In the morning, we let them romp in the fenced chicken yard. I remember flipping out the first time we saw one snurfling in the dirt with its little spade face. We had set up the electric fence just inside the chicken yard fence to train them to the electric wire. With the fence set up this way, if they ran through the electric fence, they’d hit a real fence and have to turn back. Pigs are very smart, and these learned quickly. They’d bump the fence with their sensitive snouts, squeal, and back off. A week or so later, we put them out on the site of our future garden with nothing but the electric fence to keep them in. After one mishap (which I described here) they were fine. By the summer, our pigs wouldn’t cross a single strand of electric fence lying on the ground unless they were in a panic.
The first of last year’s pigs, BigUn, was slaughtered for a whole hog barbecue to celebrate the end of the school year. A neighbor helped us butcher the hog, which was a tremendous learning experience for us and for everyone who came to be a part of the festivities. It was fun to watch the fascination and revulsion take turns on our friends faces as they passed around a warm heart. We shared that meat with our community, and I had a ton of delicious pulled pork in the freezer to get me through the summer. The second hog, Raccoon Eyes, we butchered with the help of some visiting friends and the internet. That process was much longer and more challenging for us, since there was no one experienced there to help. We ground meat for almost two days straight to make several kinds of sausage.
Finally, there was Pinkie.
Pinkalink was the last man standing, and he must have weighed over three-hundred pounds. We hoisted him with a rope slung over a tree limb and tied to a comealong attached to our truck. It looked like the truck might come off the ground before Pinkie did. Butchering Pinkie was a slow and careful process because this was the pig we had saved for cuts: porkchops, shoulder roasts, bacon, etc. Sean actually cured the bacon and hams himself. We saved lard from Pinkie (he had plenty) and are still rendering that to make soap.
Slaughtering Pinkie was an emotional experience. As I’ve said, pigs are intelligent. They are also sensitive. With Raccoon Eyes gone, Pinkie was less active. He would lie in his shelter all day, only getting up when someone would come to feed him. When someone was down there, he’d be all exuberance, running up to scratch against your legs, sometimes even rolling over to get his bacon scratched. It looked a lot like loneliness, and it left perfect muddy snout prints on my legs every time I’d go into the pasture. Pinkie was really attached to Sean and would roll right over when Sean walked up like nothing so much as a hugely oversized pink puppy. When it came time to shoot him, Sean put the .22 right against his skull and Pinkie didn’t budge. He went down completely relaxed and easy, which is what I would want for any animal in my care. I cried over that pig for two days, but I was also proud of what we had accomplished.
At New Years, when we ate that roast, our friends shared a perfect Wendell Berry poem, For the Hog Killing.
For the Hog Killing
Let them stand still for the bullet, and stare the
shooter in the eye,
let them die while the sound of the shot is in the
air, let them die as they fall,
let the jugular blood spring hot to the knife, let
its freshet be full,
let this day begin again the change of hogs into
people, not the other way around,
for today we celebrate again our lives’ wedding
with the world,
for by our hunger, by this provisioning, we renew
Raising my own meat is important to me. With a very few exceptions, I don’t eat meat that wasn’t raised with respect for the animal, the planet and people anymore, and in this part of Arkansas that pretty much means raising it ourselves. Sean was a vegetarian for years before he had the revelation of “happy meat.” I became aware of the issues around meat around that same time and transitioned to a mostly vegetarian diet with what happy meat we could afford when we could afford it. If you’re interested in hearing more about why we eat the meat we eat, ask me! I’m happy to talk or write about it all day, but this post is about our new piggies, so I’m cutting myself short.
This year, we didn’t reserve pigs ahead of time and actually had a pretty hard time finding any. Nobody nearby has feeder pigs for sale, or if they do, they aren’t posting on craigslist. We wound up getting three Hereford gilts from a man a few hours north of us who is selling off his stock in preparation for a move. Since the truck isn’t working this week, we had to drive them home in the dog carrier again. My most recent experience with pigs was with Pinkie, so it was impossible to believe that three pigs could fit in such a small carrier. We hopped out of the car, put on our gloves and the man walked us over to his pig enclosure. He had a network of very clean pens on a concrete slab, and we got to see a few young Hereford hogs before we got distracted by our little squealers. When you pick up a baby pig, it screams bloody murder and releases any solids or liquids it can come up with all over you. Sean got a nice poop splatter down the front of his pants. The man we bought them from carried one by its back leg to avoid this. I wasn’t sure I could pull that off without hurting it or dropping it, so I carried my pig under my arm and it relaxed a little and stopped screaming, which surprised me and confirmed the rumor that Herefords are easygoing pigs. I also managed to come out clean. When we got them into the crate, they hardly took up half the space.
We got home around ten thirty last night, and put them out in their temporary enclosure. For shelter they have the a-frame structure that Sean built for our pigs last summer, and we’re, once again, using the chicken fence as a backup against the electric fence’s failure, though we made the electric fenced area about half the size of the chicken yard, and it doesn’t include the chicken house this year, so our birds still have someplace to scratch.
When we set them down, they stood still for a moment, then scampered away from us. It’ll take a few weeks before they’re really friendly, but these babies are already less skittish than the last bunch. They bumped the fence a few times (squeeeek!) and then stopped, already miles ahead of what we expected. They immediately began rooting in the mud, searching for tasty grubs and shoots and roots to eat. We went to bed listening to their soft little snores through the bedroom window last night. They are awfully cute when they’re this little.
Our freezer is still nearly full of homegrown pork, as well as turkey and chicken, so we won’t be raising these girls to full size.
One of them is for the end-of-year barbecue, and a second is for Sean to practice his charcuterie on. The third is for a friend, who has asked us to raise a pig for her family. I’m thrilled that we have the opportunity to share what we do here. It’s all very well for us to try to eat sustainably, but the two of us aren’t that big a deal in the grand scheme of things. Spreading the skills and desire to raise and eat good meat is what it’s all about, and our friend is going to leave here knowing how to turn a hog into porkchops!
It’s time to get up and get ready for the week. I don’t want to: I can see the little piggens snurfling in the corner of their pen from bed, and I can hear them grunting and occasionally squeaking as they bump the fence. What more could I want? But there’s gardening to do, and, as you can imagine, laundry. It’s a beautiful day for it. I’d best put on my work pants and get busy.
Here they are! I saved the best for last.