The Sun Comes

photo credit: Henry Mühlpfordt

Happy Winter Solstice!

It is the darkest day of the year, and the shortest day of the year.  But from now on, every day will be a little longer and a little brighter, until the year turns once more. This is a rough time to be a gardener, even in Southern California. Everything seems to be sleeping. You, perhaps, wish you were tucked in a warm bed, sleeping, instead of frantically rushing getting ready for the holidays.

As a counterbalance to Erik’s gloomy Apocalypse post, I’d just say that the Winter Solstice offers us this annual lesson: there is a dawn after even the longest, darkest night. And then things get better.

We may be facing many challenges right now, as individuals, as a nation, as a global community, but we’ll get through them. We always have, we always will.

Things will change, no doubt about it. The future will not look like the present. As Heraclitus reminds us, Everything flows. But life is always made up of equal parts joys and sorrows, no matter when, or where. So whatever winter festival you celebrate, take joy in it. Get together with the people you love best. Burn some lights against the darkness. Keep each other warm. Eat something delicious.

Our best wishes to you all! Thank you for your love and support.

Hay Boxes or Fireless Cookers

Illustration from The Fireless Cook Book

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Jessica from Holland sent us a letter recently praising our work, but very, very gently scolding us not including the hay box, a groovy old energy saving technology, in our book. We do stand corrected! And her enthusiasm for hay boxes has reignited our interest, too.

We actually considered hay boxes for Making It, but didn’t end up building one for a variety of reasons, including just plain running out of time. But I have to admit one of the primary reasons was that natural gas here is really inexpensive, so the cost savings of starting and finishing a pot of soup on the stove, vs. starting a pot of soup on the stove and finishing it in a box, just wasn’t compelling enough for me to make a lifestyle change. This is a silly excuse–water is also inexpensive here, but I’m obsessed about saving that resource. I guess a lot of what we choose to do just comes down to our various quirks and passions.

I’m thankful to Jessica for reminding me of the hay box. I believe that my New Year’s resolution will be to meditate on the sources and real costs (in terms of the environment, human health, etc.) of gas and electricity, and work on new ways to conserve energy. The hay box, or fireless cooker, may be one of these strategies.

What the heck is a hay box?

Sorry if I’m leaving some of you out of the loop. A hay box aka fireless cooker is a very old fuel saving technology, which perhaps has its origins in Scandinavia.  It is simply an insulated box that you put a hot pot of food into, and leave it all day (or all night) to finish cooking. It’s the forerunner of the crockpot.

This cooking technique isn’t limited to hay boxes. The same concept is used by people who put oats and boiling water into a Thermos at bedtime and enjoy the finished oatmeal in the morning, or by campers who wrap their sleeping bags around a cooking pot so they’ll have hot food when they get back to camp.

As far as I can tell, no one is selling fireless cookers made in the old style, but they are quite easily fabricated at home–or improvised in emergencies. However, if you are in a buying mood, a very similar technology exists in something called thermal cookware. These are essentially giant Thermoses–I’m including a link to a random example of one on Amazon here.

Why would you want to build a fireless cooker?

  • To save time at the stove
  • To have food ready when you get up, or come home from work
  • To save energy, because you’re a do-gooder.
  • To save energy, because energy is expensive/unreliable where you live.
  • To learn this technology well so you’ll know how to use it in case of emergencies. (A fireless cooker combined with something that can boil water, like a camp stove or a rocket stove, would be a great combo for any emergency, long or short.)

Okay, so how do you build one?

It’s really simple. You’re just insulating a pot. There are many ways to do it, including simply bundling the pot up in a bunch of quilts. But if you’re going to do this regularly, you probably want a more stable system than that. You’ll want to build a box.

First, though, you should probably start with your pot and build from there. This technique works best when the pot is full, so you’ll want to choose a soup pot/dutch oven sort of pot that is the right size for you and your family. It should have a lid, obviously, and should be made of something can come and go off the stove top–i.e. no ceramic.

 Once you’ve chosen your pot, you’ll need a box to keep it in. This box should allow enough space for at least 4″ of insulation all around your pot. (We’ll talk about the insulation next.) So the pot height/pot width plus at least 8″= the minimum dimensions of your box.

The cooker could be anything sturdy with a lid, but the tighter built, the better. A big cooler would work great. I’ve just had a crazy inspiration that one of those newfangled ottomans that are hollow inside for stashing away your junk when company comes would also work nicely!

You can make a “two holer” if you want to have the ability to cook more than one dish at a time. In that case you might be able to build one in a hall bench or a big toy chest or trunk. If you can’t scavenge anything, you could build a wooden box with a hinged lid. A well-insulated, box-style solar oven can do double duty as a fireless cooker, too. Whatever you choose, the box should have a lid that either latches or can be weighed down so it closes securely.

If your box is not built pretty much airtight–say it’s pieced together out of wood–you should seal it up before you insulate it. In old manuals they recommend gluing a layer of  paper all over the interior. You might choose to use tin foil or a Mylar space blanket. A space blanket would help reflect heat no matter what your box is made of.

Then you need to choose an insulating material.

Early 20th century options, as per old books:

  • Hay or straw, cut fine
  • Sawdust
  • Wool (they mention this is the best material)
  • Southern moss
  • Ground cork (it seems fruit used to be shipped in this!)
  • Softwood shavings (“excelsior”)

Contemporary recycled options:

  • Styrofoam or foam. Carving a pot-shaped hole into a block that fit your chest would be the best, but scraps could work, too.
  • Shredded paper. At last, something to do with all those bills!
  • Cotton or polyester batting taken from old pillows or quilts. 
  • Wool in the form of cast off sweaters and blankets, perhaps shredded?
  • This might sound nuts, but if you cut down a bunch of weeds, let them dry and chop them up, they would work as well as hay. Straw has that nice hollow stem construction which probably holds heat better than hay, but some weeds have the same sort of stems.
  • Note: I’d discourage using fiberglass insulation for safety reasons. It’s nasty to work with and you don’t want to risk any of it getting in your food.

    Fill the box up all the way with insulation. The box should be filled to the top, but the material shouldn’t be packed so tightly that there’s no airspace. Tiny air pockets are where the magic happens.

    Next, make a permanent nest for your pot in the box by hollowing out a pot-shaped hole in the insulation material. Line that hole, as well as the top surface of the insulation, with a one big piece of fabric. Secure that fabric to around the edges of the box with staples or something. That will allow you to lift the pot in and out easily and will also keep bits of insulation out of your food.

    The final insulation step is to make or find a cushion sized to fill all the empty space in the box from the top of your pot to the closed lid. It should be fat enough that you have to use a little pressure to close the lid. There should be no open space at the top of the box. And again, the lid must latch or otherwise secure tightly. In the image at the top you can see the two cushions that come with that set up.

    It’s often easier to understand something just by looking at pictures. If you do an image search for hay box, you’ll see lots of them, many improvised quickly. Whereas searching fireless cooker brings up more antique images.

    A fireless cooker from a 19th century German catalog, image courtesy Wikimedia.

    Cooking with the Hay Box

    Okay, this is all very theoretical for me because I haven’t done it yet, but this is what I know, and I hope those with experience will comment to help us newbies out.

    The cooker is perfect for anything you’d associate with a crockpot, like pot roasts and other stewed meats, soups and stews and chile, bean dishes and also hot cereals, polenta, whole grains and rice.

    First, it’s pretty much impossible to offer up exact cooking times. It’s going to vary by both quantity of food and the construction of your box. In short, you’re going to have to play with it.

    But the gist of it is that you start your cooking on the stove. If, for instance, you’re doing an initial saute, you’d do that first, then you’d add all your ingredients and liquids and bring it up to a simmer (for how long may vary by recipe–the old cook book I’m consulting most often recommends 10 minutes boiling on the stove for meaty dishes, but if I suspect for non-meat things you could just bring it to a boil and then take it off immediately) then move it to the box to finish cooking. A good box should hold heat for 8 hours. The actual cook time will be less–how much less will vary by dish. But it will not burn or overcook and it will keep warm until you’re ready to eat.

    I’ve heard that in general you would use less water than with stove top cooking because there’s no evaporation.
     
    Here’s some of Jessica’s tips:

    Suggestion: put the beans/lentils/wheat/rice/peas in a thermos flask together with the absorbable amount of boiling water/stock. Do this in the morning. In the evening you have a thermos with still warm and well-cooked food. With just a few seconds of boiling water. Think of the hours per month that you can turn off the stove and still have warm, cooked food!
     …

    It works fine with other things as well:
    Eggs: put pan with eggs and boiling water in, take out of hay chest after 10 minutes (or more, or less, depending on your experience.
    Vegetables: take out of hay chest after 110 to 125% of ordinary cooking time. Experiment! Don’t use a lot of water.
    Stock… why not?


    It even works with things like meat balls and chicken wings. Have the meat on high fire until the outside develops the right crust or color, then keep in hay chest for xx time until inside is ‘done’,

    Mr. Google can lead you to various resources on this technology, but my favorite resource so far is this old book: The Fireless Cook Book by Margaret Mitchell (1909), which is actually both a construction manual and a cookbook–a wonderful crusty old cookbook with recipes for things like Mock Turtle Soup. You can read it online at Archive.org, or download a pdf or even as an e-reader file–for free!

    Do you have any recipes, tips or techniques to share? Please do!

    An obligatory nanny-state warning: If food drops below 140F (60C) for an hour or more, bad bacteria can move in. You might want to take the temperature of your food when you pull it out of the box and see where it is. If it has dropped below that temperature, put it on the stove and rewarm it to at least 165F(74C).

    Cat allergies, cat hearts, cat cuteness: an update on all things cats.

    Many apologies to people who don’t come here to hear about the cats.
    This won’t take long.

    I just wanted to give two quick updates. The first is to let you all know that Phoebe is doing amazingly well despite having an insanely malformed heart. The meds have perked her up, so she and Trout are playing all the time. To look at her you’d never think anything was wrong. So thank you so much for all  your supportive thoughts and let’s hope she stays with us a good while.

    The second update is on allergies. I’ve posted about this before. When we got Phoebe I was technically allergic to cats, but I decided to push on through that little impediment, powered by the twin engines of Denial and Will, just as I’d done when we got our dog. It worked.

    Then Trout came into our lives. I hoped that I’d get a pass on the allergies, as I’d already adjusted to Phoebe. But instead I had to start all over fresh with him. And it was worse this time around. Not least because Trout is super affectionate and is always, quite literally, in my face. (He kisses!)

    I worried that I might have overloaded my system beyond all tolerance, but guess what? The symptoms have been gone for almost a month now, long enough for me to declare victory over pet allergies–my third victory so far.

    The secret? Pig-headedness. Willingness to be constantly snotty. Absolute faith in mind over matter. I took nothing for relief, nothing at all. Not even nettle tea this time, because I was out of nettles. I think it’s important not to have a crutch, to force your body to work through it. The whole process took about three months.

    I realize that there are people with worse allergies than mine, and I don’t mean to underplay anybody else’s experiences. I’m sure some allergies are so severe that they can’t be ignored. But I’m intrigued that this works, for me as well as for others I’ve heard from, and just wanted to say that it is possible to break free.

    My Big Fat Worm Bin

    These worms are fat and happy

    Some of you may remember that Earth Goddess Nancy Klehm taught a vermicomposting class at our house in October. Some of you reading this may have even attended!

    That day, Nancy and the class foraged and gathered materials to fill a bin and worked together to chop, moisten and prep the materials. The materials included our own kitchen scraps, farmers market trimmings, cardboard and newspaper gathered from neighborhood recycling bins, chunks of our infamous prickly pear cactus, a “nitrogen contribution” from one of the more intrepid class members, some well aged humanure compost and some of the aged cat compost from our kitty litter compost barrel. (More on that later.) We didn’t have our final worm bin built at that time, so the materials were layered like a lasagne in a 50 gallon drum. When introduced the worms from our sad little kitchen bin into this pile of goodness, the worms thought they had landed in nirvana.

    Since then, Erik has built a giant wooden bin for us following Nancy’s plans. It’s a simple thing, very like a toy chest. Nancy’s plans called for it to be 4 feet long, but Erik built the chest 5 feet long because he was working with 10 foot boards (less waste that way, you see). The result is a long pine box that looks disturbingly like a coffin! But that’s okay. Really, what better than a pine box full of worms staring us in the face to remind us all that we have to seize the day? 

    Why do we have a coffin on our back porch, you ask?
    The inside view, proving it is not a coffin. We’re going to decorate this somehow–which might help, or it might just look like we have a decorated coffin on our back porch. Right now the process is stalled because we are bickering over which pretentious Latin motto to paint on the side.

    I transferred all the contents into the coffin box. What was interesting about Nancy’s mix is that it is much more like an active compost pile than the traditional newspaper shreds + scraps that make up a typical worm bin. The materials had heated up while sitting. Heat isn’t good for worms–they like to occupy cool compost piles–but I figured in a box of that size they could find cool pockets and edges to hang out in until it cooled off.  And that’s exactly what they did. There weren’t so many of them to begin with, and they were happy to hang out on the top layer until the rest cooled.

    Since then, a wormy miracle has taken place. First, given the space and resources, they’ve started breeding like crazy. That’s to be expected. More interestingly, they’ve grown. The worms are getting super big and fat. I figure they’re like goldfish, adapting to fit their space. I think they really like the diversity of materials they’re living with, both in terms of habitat and nutrients.

    The surface of the bin as of today. You’ll see it looks a lot like a compost pile, as opposed to a bunch of newspaper.

    For my part, I love, love, love having a huge worm bin because it can easily absorb all of our kitchen waste. I can take my entire one gallon scrap pail, dig a hole in the bin, and dump it all in. When we had the small worm bin–which was made of a plastic storage bin–I could only add a cup or two of scraps at a time. This made the bin more of a hobby than a convenience. What’s extra cool is that those huge scrap loads vanish really fast in the new bin, whereas scraps tended to linger in the small bin.

    Here’s a morbid question for you all: Whenever I add new scraps and see the old ones broken down so quickly, I recall something about an old cemetery in France, I believe, which was known for breaking down bodies extra fast, due to the composition of the soil. Mr. Google isn’t helping me recover this lost information, but I believe the cemetery was nicknamed “the man eater” or the “bone eater” or something like that. Does anyone with similarly Gothic tendencies happen to know what I’m talking about?

    On outdoor worms:

    Outdoor worm bins do have to be protected from worm predators–lots of critters like to eat worms, even dogs–either by weighing down the lid or latching it somehow. For now, we’re just keeping a big chunk of broken concrete on top. (Uhh…do I hear banjo music?)

    Extreme temperature fluctuations are a problem outdoors. Worms like the temperatures we humans prefer, essentially. If it’s broiling out and they can’t find cool ground, they’ll die. When their bin freezes, they’ll die. Freezing is not an issue for us, but Nancy, being from Chicago, is an authority on cold. She says what happens with outdoor bins there is that when the deep freeze comes, the adult worms will die off, but the eggs will overwinter, and the bin will rebuild itself in the spring. Obviously, if you want your worm bin to function year-round in a cold climate it will have to be kept in a basement or a mudroom or somewhere where the temperatures are a little more moderate.

    On the flip side, the mass of a big bin helps insulate the worms from the heat. They can dive deep, or hang out on the shady side of the bin. But it helps quite a bit if you can give the worms some shade during the summer, either by moving the bin under a tree or setting up some kind of screen to block the worst of the sun. 

    Managing the waste stream:

    Diverting all kitchen waste to the worm bin works well with our waste stream because of late, Erik has preferred to build his compost piles all at once–usually when we clear out our garden when the seasons change. The piecemeal additions of food scraps interferes with the timing of his compost harvest. See, if you build a pile all at once, you get finished compost much more quickly than if you add material a bit at a time. This is not to say that “bit at a time” piles are bad, they’re just slower. Now we have the best of both worlds.

    Regarding the cat poop compost:

    This should probably be a whole other post. But the short version is that I’ve been composting our cat litter in its own separate pile. This works pretty well, but with two indoor cats (aka pooping machines) the bin fills up fast. When we built the worm bin, Nancy had us harvest some of the older, more finished kitty litter compost from the bottom of the cat pile to mix into the worm pile as a base material, and I will continue to do this whenever our cat bin overfloweth. The ability to transfer some of the mature material to the worm bin will function as sort of a pressure release valve on our cat pile, allowing the whole system to work better.

    Is this safe? I’m not going to say it is. I’m not going to recommend that any of you do this. When it comes to composting pet or human poo, we believe good composting technique, worms and time make all things well. But obviously if this is done badly, it could be quite dangerous. If you’re interested in extreme composting, as always, I recommend you visit Joe Jenkins’ site–he’s the author of The Humaure Handbook.

    So from Erik, me and the worms: A huge and hearty thank you to Nancy and to all the class attendees who helped us make this wonderful bin!

    Meet the Good Guys: Beneficial Insect Poster

     The good folks at the University of California Integrated Pest Management Program (IPM) have created a handy little poster featuring some of our best insect friends–the natural enemies of garden pests.

    They want it spread far and wide, so they’re promoting this link to a downloadable PDF fit for printing. This is a great resource for home gardeners, but also for teachers, schools and community gardens. Laminate it and pass it around! And please feel free to share the PDF link with your circles:

    (The UC Statewide IPM website is a great resource, even if you don’t live in California. Go there and you’ll find fact sheets on residential pests and advice on how to deal with them.)

    The Whip: A Homemade Moisturizer How-To from Making It

    IMG_0571

    This 2011 post has been edited on 7/8/14, also to include new tips and new pictures. Most important of these are directions on keeping the lotion fresh.

    Confession: I can’t live without my homemade moisturizer.

    This recipe appears in Making It as Olive Oil Whip. It’s my everyday body lotion/face cream and I figured it was about time to share it with you. It only has three ingredients. It’s safe and wholesome and very effective. It’s so basic and natural that you could eat it!

    You might find it heavier than what you’re used to, because it doesn’t contain all the chemicals that the store-bought stuff employs to make it absorb fast into your skin (see the Skin Deep database for the scoop on what’s in your favorite moisturizer). But I promise you that if you use it for a couple of days you’ll get used to the difference–and then you’ll get hooked on the results. My skin has never been so happy as it has since I started using this stuff, and I’m saving tons of money. I will never go back. I don’t even like the way commercial moisturizers feel on my skin anymore.

    The Whip

    Ingredients:

    1/2 cup (125 ml) olive oil

    2 tablespoons (.5 oz / 14 g)  of cosmetic grade beeswax, either in bead form or grated and packed into the spoons. (You can use vegan waxes instead)

    1 cup (250 ml) of 90°F (32°C) water, distilled is best.

    Essential oil of your choice for scent, about 10-20 drops, optional

    (Notes on ingredients at the end)

    Equipment:

    You need a double boiler. An improvised double boiler would be a heatproof bowl balanced over a saucepan. I settle a Pyrex (i.e. heat proof) measuring cup in a small saucepan, which is more like a pseudo double boiler, but works for this. If you don’t have a Pyrex cup, you could also put a canning jar in the saucepan.

    You will also need a stick blender. It is possible to do this with a countertop blender, but the stick blender works better and cleans up faster. And in case you’re wondering, no, you cannot make this recipe by stirring really fast. So when the zombies come and the power goes out, we’ll have to beat back our wrinkles with salves–most likely salves rendered from raccoon fat.

    A kitchen thermometer. I did not use a thermometer when I started making this lotion, but I’ve been much more successful at it since I started using one regularly.

    Very clean, preferably sterilized, jars to store your lotion in. This recipe makes anywhere from 1 to 1 1/2 cups. I recommend storing your lotion in several small jars instead of one big one, and we’ll talk about that later on.

    Note:

    This recipe is verbose, but the actual making of the lotion takes all of 10 minutes. It’s really very simple once you have the details down: melt wax into oil, blend oil with water, pour into jars.

    IMG_0558

    The Procedure

    I am going to describe my method for making this. It’s not the only way–you can tinker around to make it work for the equipment you have. I like to do everything in one vessel–in this case, a 2 cup, heat-proof liquid measuring cup.

    Melt the wax:

    Put all the olive oil into the 2 cup Pyrex (or in the top of your double boiler setup) and add the wax. Place the measuring cup in a small saucepan about half full of water. Heat over gently simmering water, stirring occasionally. until the wax melts and vanishes into the oil. Beeswax melts at about 160°F (71°C).

    IMG_0562

    Pay attention to temperature:

    Temperature is very important for the success of this recipe: the temperature of the water, and the temperature of the oil and wax mixture. The wax melts into the oil at about 160°F, as I said. Anywhere between 160°F and 170°F is a good place to be before you go on to the next step.

    If you don’t have a thermometer, you know that you’ve hit 160°F when the wax melts, so if you start blending as soon as that happens, you will be at the right temperature. Just don’t super-heat the mix, or let it cool.

    Prepare the water:

    While the wax is melting, get your water ready to go. I always put my 1 cup of water into a liquid measuring cup, for ease of pouring.

    The water needs to be at about 90°F (32°C). I bring the water to this temperature by adding a splash of boiling water to most of a cup of room temperature water, then checking the temp, adding hot or cold water as necessary to get into the 90° range.  90°, 92°, 95° — somewhere in there. It doesn’t have to be exactly 90°

    If you don’t have a thermometer, you will have to guess. The water should not feel warm, but it should not feel cold, either. You’re shooting for tepid. This is hard, because how “tepid” feels to you is going to have a lot to do with the temperature of the air, and how cold your hands are… I’ll just say a thermometer is a handy little piece of kitchen equipment.

    IMG_0565

    Get your other stuff together:

    If you’re going to use essential oils to add scent to your lotion, make sure you’ve got them on hand in your work area.

    Also put your clean jars in the work area.

    Prepare the blender:

    Get your stick blender ready to go. It helps clean-up if you preheat the head of the stick blender in a cup of hot water before you use it. If you use it cold, the wax in the oil mixture solidifies prematurely when the cold head touches it. It’s not a disaster, just a little harder to clean up.

    If you are going to use a countertop blender, put a cup or two of very hot water in the blender as well, to preheat the jar and the blades so similar sticking doesn’t happen. In this case, it’s an essential step, because there’s so much cold surface area to the blender, you can end up with lots of little chunks of wax in your lotion.

    The next steps happen quickly:

    Add the essential oil to the wax/oil mix

    Stir in your essential oil(s), if using, 10-20 drops or to taste.  Be quick about it.

    IMG_0568

    Add the water and whirl!

    Still moving briskly, take the oil/wax mixture off the stove and move it to where you’re doing your blending. Don’t burn your hand on the Pyrex handle, if you’re using my method.

    Put the head of your stick blender into the hot oil and start it whirrrrrring. Soon as its going, pour in all the water in a fast steady stream, and keep blending until the lotion comes together. If you’re using a counter top blender, pour out the preheating water, pour in the oil, start the motor and pour in the water.

    You’ll see that lotion-like substance form almost instantly. It’s very thick and shiny, like marshmallow cream, so you’ll have to bounce the stick blender around a bit to make sure it’s all getting mixed. With a countertop blender you’ll have to start and stop it and poke at it with a rubber spatula.

    The biggest trick with this stuff is getting the water mixed in. We are not using any chemical emulsifiers, which would bind the water and oil together. We’re sort of uniting them by force of will and our cock-eyed idealism. It doesn’t always go smoothly. Ideally you can get all of that 1 cup of water to incorporate in a few seconds. But sometimes it just doesn’t want to mix in. Don’t overmix the lotion trying to force the issue, or the texture will be off. This is a very fast process.

    IMG_0570

    If after a few seconds you see that you have a lot of stuff which looks like lotion in your jar, but that there’s also pockets of water in there, and the water doesn’t seem like it’s going anywhere, just pause and pour the excess water off. Give the lotion another short whirl to bring up any more water that might be lurking at the bottom and pour that off as well, then call it done.

    Note: You certainly may make this recipe with 1/2 cup of water instead of 1 cup–intentionally. The result is a thicker, heavier cream which is really good for harsh weather and outdoor sports, or just those times when your skin is extra dry and itchy. It also makes a good make-up remover/cleansing cream. Basically, the more water, the lighter the moisturizer, the less, the heavier. It’s all good. If you use no water at all, you’ve made a salve–and that’s good too!

    Scoop the cream into jars:

    While the cream is hot, transfer it to your prepared jars.  Let the jars cool a bit, and then cap them.

    IMG_0573

    Clean-up:

    I have two words for you: baking soda. It’s hard to get this stuff off your tools, and you don’t want wax down your pipes. Rub with lots of baking soda, which will pick up the grease, and dump the baking soda clumps in the trash. Lots of soap and boiling hot water rinses help with the rest of the residue.

    I don’t know if this is TMI, but this is the first stage of my clean-up process: I always plan to shower right after I make this, so I can take my lotion-covered cups and spoons into the bathroom and scrape out every last bit of lotion and slather myself from head to toe. Waste not, want not!

    A safety note:

    This recipe contains no preservatives. Any time you mix oil and water together, you run the risk of bacteria moving in and setting up house. I make this moisturizer because I want a simple product with no fishy ingredients, so I don’t want to add preservatives. I’ve never had any problems at all after years of heavy use of this recipe, nor have my friends or teachers who use it, as well, but technically it’s “unsafe” because it does not have preservatives in it. But you know, driving a car is very unsafe, but I still do it.vWith the lotion, I’ve decided the risk is very low compared to the rewards.

    This is my choice–your choice may be different. If you want to use preservatives, Google will lead you to preservatives sold for home crafters. Alternatively, you could look into making skin care products with no water in them, like body butters.

    All that said, you can minimize risk through a few simple precautions:

    First, prepare the lotion in a clean environment, with clean tools and clean hands. If you have a dishwasher, send all your jars and tools through the sterilize cycle. Wipe down your counter with the strongest disinfectant you are willing to use, be that bleach, alcohol or vinegar, before you start working.

    Second, the best way to keep the moisturizer clean is to use it fast, to stay ahead of bacterial growth. I go through a batch a month or less, because I use it all over my body. Think of it as a perishable food product, like a tub of hummus. This might seem strange at first, because we’re used to cosmetics which seem to have an unlimited shelf life. Not so with this cream. Use it up or throw it out within a month.

    Third, keep it clean. Each time you reach into your lotion jar, you leave some bacteria behind to breed. If you keep all of your lotion in one jar, all of your lotion is available for contamination. This is why I recommend splitting the batch into a few jars, and only using one a time, leaving the others pristine. And of course, wash your hands before you reach in there-or even use a little spoon if you want to get all Howard Hughes-y.

    Fourth, those extra jars should be kept in the fridge until you need them. The cream doesn’t spread well when chilled, but will be fine again as soon as it warms up.

    Finally, use common sense. It is not a sterile product. Don’t put it on sores or wounds.

    Rosemary essential oil has good antibacterial properties, so if you like you can add some –it can’t hurt, but I wouldn’t rely on it alone, I’d still follow the above advice. Vitamin E oil is often mentioned as a preservative, but it is actually good for keeping oil from going rancid, not for inhibiting bacteria.

    Note that changing this recipe so that you replace the water with novel liquids–such as green tea or aloe–will make a product spoil even more quickly. I do not recommend it. If you insist on trying this, use it fast–as in, over a home spa weekend–and keep it in the fridge.

    Whenever you use a homemade product, use your nose and your other senses. If the cream goes off you might notice a change in odor, texture or color.

    Problems:

    As I’ve already mentioned, the water doesn’t always incorporate well. The very best batches absorb the full cup of water and come together nicely and stay together. What makes them work seems to be a magical combination of temperature, timing and the blessings of the lotion fairies.

    You may find a little water sitting in the jar now and then. This is not unusual, certainly not a sign of failure. Just pour it off.

    In the not so good batches the amount of water that appears is epic as it comes unbound from the oil day by day. Just pour it off. The texture will be off, but the stuff still works, and is fine to use. It’s just not as nice. Try again. You’ll get the hang of it.

    Notes on ingredients:

    Olive oil:  There’s a lot of debate about what kind of olive oil to use. Some people wouldn’t hear of using anything but the best organic extra virgin olive oil in any body product. I don’t think it’s all that bad to use a lesser olive oil. More processed olive oil doesn’t smell as much like olive oil, which has its advantages. It’s up to you, really.

    What I do like to do is use olive oil which I’ve infused with herbs, especially Calendula, which helps heal the skin

    Beeswax: I use the beeswax pastilles sold by Mountain Rose Herbs. Yes, it’s a pain to have to mail order them, but it’s so worth it.  A 1 lb bag will make 30 batches of lotion. I use it to make salves and lip balm, too. It’s very handy.

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    Today is American Censorship Day


    PROTECT IP Act Breaks The Internet from Fight for the Future on Vimeo.

    This sort of advocacy is unusual for this blog, but we believe a free Internet is essential for both cultural innovation and democracy. Sure, the Internet is mostly made of porn and kittens, but we like it as it is. What we don’t want to see is it being unduly controlled by either the government or corporate interests, so we’re participating in American Censorship Day by offering up this information to our readers.

    Today, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is headed to the House Judiciary Committee. The purported purpose of this bill, and its counterpart in the Senate, is to stop infringement on copyrighted material, but the scope of the proposed law is way too broad and vague, and if you spin out the implications, downright scary. It has has the power to censor the Internet. It can blacklist or bankrupt sites on whisper-thin grounds, it will impede small businesses and new start-ups, and even punish individuals with jail time for infringing copyright in smalls ways, like, for instance, posting a family video in which copyrighted music is playing in the background.

    This bill is likely to pass, and it will happen soon.

    It’s hard to summarize all the nasty pointy prongs of this legislation in a few words. The video above does an brief overview–be sure to watch to the end for last second updates. Our smart friends at the EFF, who are helping us with the whole Urban Homestead trademark thing, have written several cogent, lawyerly pieces about this legislation:

    Disastrous IP Legislation Back and It’s Worse than Ever 

    SOPA: Hollywood Finally Gets a Chance to Break the Internet

    American Censorship Wednesday

    Today there is a call for mass action. You may have noticed some of your favorite sites have blacked themselves out in protest.

    If you’d like to take action, the EFF has provided a page that helps you shoot a pithy email to your own congresspeople. It only takes a couple of seconds and feels really good: