Gourmet soap needs attention

TAKING the week's castoffs to the community's sanitary landfill has its compensations, and this time I made the acquaintance of gourmet soap. Among the donations I found a wee wooden box that said, improbably, ``Gourmet Crate.'' Semantics ceased, I realize, some time back when television commercials superseded intelligence and erudition, but gourmet soap needs attention. So I read on the label of this wee box that it had held the first soap for the true gourmet -- one with refined taste with the subtlest decorating accents. From juicy lime and citron to succulent p^eche, savory cerise, and tangy orange, gourmet soap is a distinctive addition to the bath or kitchen. And most assuredly I did -- I retrieved the wee box by tossing it into my pickup truck and fetched it home to study the label in leisure and meditate on the delicious nature of soap.

I never knew it to happen but in my boyhood having one's mouth washed out with soap was the folklore cure for naughty language. My fetching up was suitably decorous and I never ran the risk, but if one of the cruder boys over on the other street used overexuberant prose, some young lady within hearing would cry, ``Why! You ought to have your dirty mouth washed out with soap!'' This was, of course, well before gourmet soap, and with the homemade soaps of that uncouth era, such a cleansing would suit the crime and deter effectively.

My mother made soap, but in her time there had been refinements in the process. She made cake soap, and soft soap was in the past. I surmise that the washing of mouths originated in the days of soft soap, with which I am familiar only by hearsay.

There was a leachboard tucked away in the back of the wagon shed, relic of soft-soap days, and its use was explained to me when I asked its purpose. Big enough so two 60-gallon barrels could stand on it, it had a chiseled groove around the edges that drained lye or potash or whatever it was into a pail. The two barrels had small holes in their lower ends and were filled with wood ashes from the kitchen stove and the parlor heater. Then, rainwater was poured in at the tops, and the ``leach'' ran out at the bottoms. Household fats were saved and when enough accumulated they were heated and the leach was added to make soft soap.

This was by no means a casual task. It took a time. When the leach was added to the hot fat, there occurred a stench that gives potent meaning to the mouth-washing allusion. And, I was told, the soft soap not only took the grimiest farm dirts off the hired man but would also induce excoriation if he didn't ``rense'' promptly. For ablutions one stuck a finger in the soft soap and proceeded, but for the weekly laundry a cupful was dumped in. A crockery cup - soft soap would eat metal away in time.

Several things of late have reminded me of good old days in my Uncle Ralph's country store, and gourmet soap revives another incident. Every morning after the up-train arrived, just about everybody in town would come to the store to wait for the mail to be ``put up.'' Uncle Ralph was the postmaster and kept the post office in a corner of his store, and he would disappear with the pouch to sort. After he sorted, he would open the window and bring an end to the community witenagemot -- as soon as he got his mail everybody left.

Amos Tuttlebrown, a gentleman of considerable unimportance who lived on the fringe of town, came every morning to wait for the mail to be put up. He did this unfailingly, even though he had never received any kind of mail thus far in his life. There was, indeed, a sort of community understanding that if Old Amos ever got any sort of communication there would be cheering.

So Amos would come into the store, step over to the cracker barrel to pick out a couple of St. J. commons, and then he would go to the cheese case and cut himself a generous slice of cheese to complement the crackers. This was a self-inflicted gratuity, and since Uncle Ralph was behind the post office partition it was some time before he learned what Old Amos was doing. When he was told about it, he gave the matter some thought, and then in a way that was strictly Uncle Ralph. He cut a wedge of yellow soap that looked just like cheese and left it enticingly on the cheese knife.

Amos fell for it and was so enraged at Uncle Ralph's mean trick that he frothed at the mouth, off and on, for two years.

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