Friday, July 24, 2009

Caught in the Act!

A follow-up in our mountain beaver saga...

The kids and I were outside today hanging out in the yard (not very quietly, I might add) when we heard a rustling in the bushes behind the raspberries. I looked down into the hedge and saw a tiny little clawed hand clutching a laurel branch and the beady-eyed creature attached to it. A real, live mountain beaver sighting! The kids were thrilled.

I ran to fetch the camera and didn't have to wait long for the chance to snap a few shots...the Mountain Beaver (who I call Butt Head) seems to have no fear of people...or regard for their ownership of prized fruit plants. He can't get at the raspberries now because of my elaborate electric fence shield.

Latest update: Summer 2011


Make your own Fizzy Milk Bath Bombs

My kids love taking baths and they love using fizzy bath bombs when they do. Here is a quick tutorial on how to make them yourself...

Materials: 1 cup baking soda, ½ cup citric acid, ½ cup corn starch, ¼ cup fine sea salts, ¼ cup powdered cow or goat milk, 2 teaspoons apricot oil, 1 teaspoon melted shea butter, 1 teaspoon essential oil (scent of your choosing), 3-5 teaspoons witch hazel, dried flower petals or food coloring (optional), molds…just about anything rigid will work (Dixie cups, plastic Easter eggs, small silicone baking or ice cube molds, yoghurt cups, etc.)

Mix all dry ingredients together well with a spoon or mixer on low speed.

Mix the apricot oil, melted shea butter and essential oil together and drizzle over the dry ingredients, while mixing on low speed.

Gradually add the witch hazel (plus a few drops of food coloring). The best way to do this is to put the witch hazel into a spray bottle and squirt it into the other ingredients while constantly stirring. This is because too much added at once will activate the fizzing action and make hard, clumpy bits in your bath bomb.

It has reached the right consistency when the mixture holds its shape like dry snow.

At this point, pack it into a mold as tightly as possible.

Wait 5-10 minutes then tap out the bath bombs onto a flat surface.

Let them dry overnight and store in an airtight container to protect them from moisture until they are ready to be used.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Pity the Poor Pipers

This weekend is the 63rd annual Northwest Scottish Highland Games in Enumclaw (the "Claw"), Washington. There will be over 25 pipe bands in attendance from all over the western US and Canada, in addition to highland dancers, athletic competitors and herding dog demonstrations. It's a two day tartan extravaganza that also includes many vendors and lots of greasy food. If you are an Irn-Bru lover, you can come and get your fix here. At the beginning and end of the pipe band competition each day there is a "massed bands" ceremony in which all pipers and drummers play at the same time on the main competition field. It's quite a site and sound!

The pity part comes in as a result of the weather. You see, traditional Scottish dress includes a wool kilt made from 7 yards of fabric, wool socks (hose), black leather shoes (ghillie brogues), a black wool vest (waistcoat) and a black wool jacket (Braemar or Prince Charlie, usually). Remember that the climate in Scotland is considerably different from that of the Pacific Northwest. The forecast for this weekend is for the low 90s in the greater Seattle area, which probably means in the high 90s for Enumclaw. Imagine wearing all that wool, standing in the hot sun (no shade at the King County Fairgrounds) and blowing and squeezing like crazy on a set of pipes or carrying and marching with a heavy drum...that's a recipe for heat stroke if there ever was one. Wish us luck, and come out to hear the music and see us drop like flies in the heat.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Handmade from Hasenpfeffer!

My new niece was born yesterday and I'm buying for her the greatest little doll! My friend Daniela makes the most beautiful handmade creations at her home on Camano Island. Her company is called Hasenpfeffer Incorporated (yes...remember Lavern and Shirley?) and her shop can be found on Etsy.

Artfulness and creativity should be part of our daily lives. I think it's terribly important to support artists and crafters who take the time to create and make the world a more beautiful and personalized place. Of course you could go to Target or Walmart and buy some (admittedly) cute things, but thousands of other people will have bought the same.

The beauty of Daniela's dolls is that each one is special, to be played with and treasured for a lifetime. They're extremely well-made, from recycled or "up-cycled" materials, with great attention to detail. They're really spectacular! I can't imagine how many hours it must take her to craft each one.

Handmade items are easy to find. Visit your local craft fair, weekend market or go to Etsy or 1000 Markets to see thousands of online shops with handmade items from around the corner and around the world.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Wet Shaving

My dad has used a shaving brush and mug filled with a bar of shaving soap as long as I can remember. Until recently (when I got him a new one), he had a white mug with a handle and the red "Old Spice" logo on it. He used a badger hair brush with an ivory colored handle that would stand on end when not in use. He used a Gillette razor, but my grandfather used a "safety razor" with disposable blades. This is called the traditional wet shave.

There is a growing movement to return to this classic style for a number of reasons. It makes shaving more of a ritual and art, instead of being just a means to an end. There was a time when women would hang out at the beauty parlor and chat for hours, while men would go to the barber shop for their male bonding ritual. At "How to Shave Like Your Grandpa: The Art of Manliness" they list several good reasons to go back to (or stick with) the traditional wet shave: it's less expensive, has less environmental impact, you get a closer shave, and you feel like a bad-ass.

I, myself, have gone to using a safety razor to shave my legs because I was tired of paying ridiculous prices for the disposable razor blades. I bought a pack of 100 safety razor blades for $10 (on Ebay). I think they will last me at least another year at the rate I'm going. It did take some time to refine the small-motor skill needed to not cut my shin, but I totally have the hang of it now. Did you know, by the way, that the "Gillette Model" in business is when a company sells part of its product (in this case the razor handle) for virtually nothing, knowing that the customer will have to come back for the refills (disposable razor blades) in order to use it and that's where they will make all the profit. It makes good sense for Gillette, but it ticks me off.

I went to to find brushes for both my dad and my husband. They have a great selection of beautiful badger hair brushes that cost between $8.00 and $380.00. That's a huge range in price, of course, and I'm not sure exactly what more you're getting at the top end. The one I bought for my husband was $49.00 and he likes it very much.
All of this led me to the conclusion that I should come up with my own special shaving soap, so I that's what I did. After doing lots of research on ingredients I decided to use green tea (rather than plain water) because of its powerful anti-oxidants, vitamin E oil because of its skin healing properties, bentonite clay to improve razor glide, and shea butter for moisturizing. I then tried to come up with a fresh, manly scent that would be cat nip to the ladies... and I got Smooth Shave Soap. I just made a new soap (premiering soon) that contains beer, which is great at producing a stable, creamy lather in soap. I think that will be a great shaving soap too. I'll keep you posted!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Palm Oil Quandry

I have been wrestling lately with the issue of palm oil. WHAT issue with palm oil, you say? It's ridiculously complex, and I'm not joking when I say that sometimes it keeps me awake at night pondering how I should deal with it as a business owner and world citizen.

I have been making soap since the early 1990s and have used palm oil as one of my base oils for many years. Palm oil is produced primarily in SE Asia and is, in many ways, an excellent kind of vegetable oil. From a soapmaking perspective, palm oil has replaced traditional tallow in soap because it makes a very hard bar that cleans well and is also mild, yet is not animal-derived.

Many food industries use palm oil in their products. It is the oil that is most often used at movie theaters for popcorn and in many other food preparations, including fryers at many fast-food chains around the US and abroad. It's very high in saturated fats, but does not contain trans fats and does not need to be hydrogenated, since it is solid at room temperature. The palm oil industry makes claims about its health benefits based on this, but one could hardly call it healthy, since saturated fat is a major contributor to high cholesterol.

Until recently, it was the 2nd most widely used/produced vegetable oil (after soybean) in the world. Palm oil production is a basic source of income for many of the world's rural poor. The oil palm is by far the highest-yielding commercial oilseed plant, which lowers palm oil cost, comparatively. In 2004 it became the most produced oil because of the sudden interest in bio fuels as an energy source.

Because it has become so popular across many industries and demand has grown so much, its a very enticing source of income for small (and large) farmers in palm oil producing countries...often to the detriment of the land and native species. Palm oil production has been blamed for massive deforestation, wetland and peatland degradation and the rapid demise of several species, including the Sumatran Orangatan .

A joint palm oil industry and environmental organization group has formed to try to address the many issues and to make the production of palm oil both an environmentally sustainable practice and commercial industry. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) issues certifications to palm oil producers who meet certain farming requirements. Participation is voluntary and the cost of the oil is slightly higher than non-certified palm.

As a consumer and as a soapmaker it's hard for me to know what to do. I could stop using palm oil altogether in my soap. The best substitute for palm in a soap recipe is tallow (rendered beef fat). That has its own set of issues (future blog post, perhaps?). I could substitute another type of vegetable oil which has inferior properties for soapmaking, but fewer environmental impact implications. I could continue to use palm oil in my recipes and reassure myself that my comparatively tiny palm oil consumption would not have enough effect to do any real damage. Or, I could use only RSPO certified palm oil. Right now, I'm choosing the last route. I feel that there's something to be said for creating a consumer demand for the RSPO certified palm. The palm oil industry is too big and too much of a moneymaker for poor SE Asian countries (and farmers) to think that it will go away any time soon. I believe that our best bet is to encourage (if not force) regulation in farming practices and be willing to pony up the extra money to support the farmers who are trying to produce sustainably. I'll let you know if I change my mind...

Saturday, July 11, 2009

In praise of clotheslines

When I was growing up, my grandma Evelyn always hung her laundry to dry on the clothesline outside her house on the ranch. She had an electric dryer, but used it only in the winter or the rainy season. I fondly remember the slightly stiff feel of the blankets and dish towels that smelled like fresh air and sunshine.

Last year I bought a five line, retractable clothesline to hang in our laundry room here in Seattle. Although an outside line would have been preferable for that fresh air smell, given our climate here on the coast and my husband's dislike for looking at laundry hanging outside our house, putting it up in the laundry room made the best sense for us. It's great. Instead of being a time-consuming labor of love, it has turned out to be a boon. Besides being good for the environment, our clothes don't wear out or fade as quickly, stains don't set as easily because they're not going through a hot dryer, and I don't need to do NEARLY the amount of ironing that I would if things weren't being hung to dry (I don't like ironing). We try to use cloth napkins as much as possible (getting several meals out of each napkin before it goes into the wash) and they all look nice and crisp after coming off the line. The same goes for the girls' cotton dresses, which would always need to be pressed to look decent don't need a thing. I can hang two full loads of clothes at one time on my 5 line set-up. In the winter when we have the furnace going in the house, the evaporating water from the drying clothes makes having a humidifier unnecessary. Bath towels still go into the dryer to keep them soft and bed sheets are too ungainly for me to deal with on the line, but 90% on our laundry is line dried and I love it!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Highland Fling Soap

I thought I'd use this blog also as a place to give more information and background on some of the soaps I make, ingredients that I use and projects I've been working on:

One of the first kinds of soap I started making (in the early 90s) was a GREAT smelling bar made with honey, oatmeal and beeswax. The beeswax is added because honey makes the soap really soft and hard to get out of the molds. Beeswax firms it up and contributes to its color and natural scent. The soap is a beautiful amber with little flecks of ground oatmeal (which I use a coffee grinder purchased at Value Village to make). I made and loved this soap for a number of years before I decided to start a soap business.

When I needed a label and a theme for it, something Scottish seemed like an obvious choice. I have strong associations with honey, oatmeal and Scotland...and bagpiping, of course. I've played the bagpipes for the past 27 years and am a founding member of the Elliott Bay Pipe Band here in Seattle (since 1992). The bagpiper on the label was a tribute to those long-time friends in the piping world. After a name change or two, I have finally settled on "Highland Fling Soap." Check it out!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Mountain Beaver is my enemy.

I have a long-standing war with a Mountain Beaver that has taken up residence in the bushes near my yard. His scientific name is Aplodontia rufa, but let's just call him "Butt Head." You may have never heard of a Mountain Beaver. They aren't actually beavers and they don't live anywhere near the mountains. They rival Skruben in their elusiveness. They have opposable thumbs. They eat my raspberry bushes, and therefore, are my sworn enemy.

Two summers ago I started noticing the new shoots of my raspberry bushes (the next year's crop bearing stalks) were being cut off near the base. After first secretly blaming several different people for the damage, I spied a small fury creature trotting along the base of my raspberry bushes...clutching a bouquet of new shoots in his hand. I instantly knew who the culprit was after having heard tales of local mountain beavers. I consulted with several different garden experts here in Seattle and eventually settled on putting up an electric fence to keep BH out. That worked well, and I settled into a state of egotistical and reckless complacency.

This spring I took down the electric fence, thinking that BH had moved on to greener pastures. There was no sign of him at all through the spring and early summer. My raspberries grew long, lush new shoots and were looking very fine, if I do say so myself. Last Thursday, in the dead of night, he came back. He took half of them the first night and most of the rest over the next few days after I thought I had re-installed the electric fence properly. Idea for a new blog post: how to correctly install an electric fence.

Mountain Beaver: 2, Anne: 0

Follow up (with actual photos):  Caught in the Act!



So, you may be wondering what Skruben is. When I was growing up on our ranch in northern Idaho, my family often referred to a fabled creature named Skruben who was blamed for anything bad or unexplained that happened. I'm not sure what the origin of the word is, I assume it's probably Norwegian, or some variation. It probably was passed down from my great grandparents Theo & Gina. I suppose we all had a different idea about what Skruben looked like. In my mind, it was always a half man-half coyote type creature, with a little bit of Loki (Norse myth) thrown in for good measure. If something was broken or went missing, Skruben was evoked. Good times...and a good name for a random blog, I think.