Mayor Kurt Schmoke's recent entreaty to start recycling garbage and refuse got me thinking. Was what he proposed really anything new?
As a child, we returned soft-drink bottles for 2 cents each. The milk man took back the empty glass jugs. Used paper envelopes became scrap paper. And animal fat never went into the ash can.
My thrifty grandmother saved grease and fats for the scrubbing soap she made. In the 1950s, not too many Baltimoreans made their own soap. But she deliberately clung to the ways of her mother and ran a decidedly old-fashioned household.
Grandmother Lily Rose's soap was rather famous in the old Guilford Avenue neighborhood. But she didn't have the stage to herself. Other neighbors had their specialties. Julia Hoopper made her chewy chocolate caramels. Audrey Eastman's pot bubbled with bean soup. Anna Menkel's sour beef was considered the best on this side of the Atlantic.
My family was not a convert to time-saving, quick-and-easy elixirs and Madison Avenue-promoted products. Lily Rose turned up her nose at bottled dish-washing liquids. Too easy. Too perfumed. Too expensive. She also believed that sponge mops were invented for lazy women. She had arms and elbow-grease for scrubbing.
Lily Rose's soap had two main ingredients -- lye and animal fat.
The lye always scared me because it is extremely caustic and dangerous. My mother still has a scar on her mouth from the time that, as an infant, she was crawling around the kitchen floor one soap-making day and picked up a scattered piece of lye. From that day on, the children were banned from the kitchen the day the women made soap.
Even after the soap was made, it had to be stored a certain way. The lye content would eat through cardboard boxes.
The second principal ingredient in Lily Rose's soap, the fat, was not so dangerous. But it certainly was a chore to save. Other families disposed of their bacon grease. We preserved it. In fact, neighbors even donated fat to us. Louise Carpenter, who lived two doors away, sent us pork drippings. In return, she'd get a cake of the finished product, which was held in high esteem around Guilford Avenue.
Lily Rose and her sister Cora seemed to make everything. They tailored their own clothes. A cake from a commercial bakery was a disgrace -- and an affront to their oven. They made and bottled their own catsup. They obtained fertilizer for their rose garden fertilizer when a horse pulling a wagon chanced through the alley.
Their kitchen exploits produced all sorts of odors. The absolute worst followed a trip to Belair Market in Oldtown where they bought honeycomb tripe, the stomach lining of a cow. I wanted to leave the state the evening they fried the tripe. The smell of the rendered fat and lye was no joy either. The made soap on a dry day, opening all the windows.
Nevertheless, my grandfather would put his key in the front door, walk in and note dryly, "Lily the soap maker is at it again."