Volume I, No. 3, Spring 1974
Before supermarkets and even before the local country store, Ozark people had to depend on their own ingenuity and devices to provide the necessities and luxuries they had. This was true even of chemicals like lye needed in making soap. Later concentrated lye in cans was available cheaply at the country stores, but before that people made their own in ash hoppers. As wood ashes were taken from the fireplace, cook stove or heating stoves they would be dumped outside into the ash hopper. Then when it rained, water would trickle through the ashes leaching out the alkaline salts (sodium hydroxide), commonly known as lye.
The ash hoppers were made of wood. A frame of poles or 2 x 4's anchored into the ground held the V-shaped bin of 1 x 6's or 1 x 8's. The bin was made wide at the top for ease in dumping in ashes and to have a larger area to catch the rain. The bin, slanting down from back to front, narrowed to a very small opening or point at the bottom (see diagram). All along the bottom of the bin would be a trough to catch the lye water which would run down to the low end and be caught in an iron, stone, granite or wooden container.
The trough was sometimes a split log, hallowed out, or one made of sawed oak lumber. The bucket to catch the lye had to be covered for safety. If an old hen would get into it, the lye would take off all her feathers. The bucket would be emptied often into a bigger covered barrel kept in the smoke house or shed out of danger of small children. When lye was needed, it was dipped out with a granite or stone cup.
The amount of lye that the rain made usually provided a sufficient amount of lye for daily use. However, in the spring or when a large amount of lye was needed, like before making soap or butchering, people would pour water into the ash hopper. Myrtle Hough said they used to do this by forming a bucket brigade from the spring.
Lye can be made quickly by putting about one gallon of ashes in a cloth, tying the top and putting in a granite pan with two gallons of water. Set the pan on the heating stove to keep warm overnight.
The lye made in the ash hopper had several uses:
Lye is used in making soap.
Hominy needs lye to loosen the husks on corn.
A little lye put in scalding water when butchering hogs will cause the hair to come off, leaving the skin smooth and white.
A cup of liquid lye poured on bare floors followed by scrubbing with a scrub broom made clean floors.
Ashes, usually considered a waste product, had uses other than making lye. Following are a few:
Ashes sprinkled around plants on the ground will keep almost any kind of insect away.
Sprinkled around your fruit trees, ashes will keep bore worms from bothering them.
Throw some ashes in the scalding barrel before adding water to help loosen the hair in butchering hogs.
A handful of ashes in a rag can scour silver or metal pans like a scouring pad.If you want to rid your chickens of mites or lice, sprinkle ashes in the hen's nest. Also if you put ashes on the ground, chickens will roll in them to rid themselves of the pests.Hogs will eat enough ashes to worm themselves if there is a pile handy for them.
If you throw some ashes on ice or snow, there is not so much danger of falling.
The ash hopper served as a very useful piece of equipment, but due to the production of
concentrated lye and its convenience, the ash hopper is not used any more. However, Myrtle said
that she had trouble finding any concentrated lye in the stores. She had to go to a country village
store where there were some cans left on the shelves. If that is commonly true, who knows,
perhaps the ash hopper will have a come-back.
by Verna Lucas
Hominy is a simple country dish made from dried corn, water and a little lye. Hominy probably originated to give variety to a diet depending greatly on corn. The lye was made from ashes and water and the corn was dried. With ingredients at hand it could be made whenever needed because the dried corn would not spoil. Either yellow or white corn can be used, though white corn was usually preferred because it made such a pretty white fluffy product. The method and steps have not changed too much over the years, but due to fewer wood-burning stoves and ash hoppers, canned concentrated lye is usually used now instead of liquid lye.
On the Hough farm one rainy day we helped Elvie and Myrtle and their friend Annie Fike make hominy the same way their parents and grandparents did.
First shell the corn by rubbing the cobs together so that the kernels come off. Then wash the corn to remove parts of the cob and silks. Next put it into an iron kettle or other suitable container with enough lye water to cover it. They used two tablespoons of concentrated lye to a quart of corn. The lye is used to loosen the husk and the black tip or heart on the corn. Repeated cooking makes the hard corn sort enough to eat. Build a fire under the kettle and cook it until the husk is loosened, about twenty to twenty-five minutes. Then wash the corn in hot water to remove the skins and the lye. The lye will cause white corn to turn yellow, but after three or four washings and boilings, it will return to its natural color. After washing, put the corn in clean water and boil again about twenty minutes and wash again. This washing and boiling in fresh water is repeated until the corn is tender enough to be eaten and the husks and black hearts are removed.
Season with salt and pepper and serve.
The ladies both told us that hominy must be pressure cooked if it is to be canned to keep it from spoiling in the jars. Quart jars should be pressured at 10 pounds for twenty minutes. Hominy may also be frozen, or it can be cooked fresh as needed.
In the cooking process hominy swells. One gallon of dried corn will make two gallons of hominy.
Hominy is another variation for preparing corn like grits or cornmeal. It has all the nourishment of regular corn and is often used as a staple in the diet. Old-fashioned homemade hominy is just another part of the good home cooking of the Ozarks.
by Terry Brandt
"Cleanliness is next to godliness'' is what I have always heard and is what the Ozark people believe. This is shown in the tradition of soap making. The homemade soap had many uses. Annie Fike, a neighbor of the Houghs who helped us, said, "That's all we had, a wash board and a bucket of lye soap. We could get things clean with it but it took lots of backbone." This soap was used for washing dishes, bathing and washing clothes.
There are several variations of soap. One of these is soft soap. Soft soap was made like hard soap, but it was taken off the fire before it reached the stringly or jelly-like state. Stored in buckets, housewives would dip out what they heeded and used it much like modern day liquid detergent on dishes and clothes. To be extra elegant sometimes women added coloring or perfume before pouring out the soap to cool.
To make about nine pounds of lye soap you need:
lye - 1 can
water - 2 1/2 pints
ash lye - 2 pints
fat - about 6 pounds
pan wooden spoon or paddle
stove or outside fire
You can use either wood ash lye or concentrated lye. If you use wood ash lye, the lye is already deluted with the water, but it will need to be strong enough to eat up the fat. If strong enough, about a quart of ash lye for six pounds of fat would probably be enough. Concentrated lye comes in cans.
The fat can be suet, cooking grease or lard. It should be clean or free of meat to have nicer soap.
Myrtle used white suet which made beautiful white soap.
The cooking container should be iron or granite and plenty big enough to hold the soap mixture even when boiling. Use a wooden paddle or large spoon to stir.
Lye soap can be made on a stove inside or traditionally over a fire outside using an iron kettle. Lye is very strong and dangerous, so use care in preparing the soap.
The first step in making lye soap is combining the lye and water. Mix well to dissolve the lye. Be careful not to get over the kettle or breathe the fumes. After combining, bring this mixture to a boil before adding the grease. Stir this mixture as it cooks so it will not boil over. However, allow it to boil enough so the lye will eat the grease.
To test to see if it has cooked enough, let the soap mixture drip off the spoon. If it is done, it will string or bead up like jelly. When done, pour it into a container and let cool. Before completely hard, cut into squares.
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.