True confession: I don’t like to cook.
The fact is, I’m not very good at it. Cooking well requires precision. And patience. And following instructions. None of these things are in my list of positive traits. Just ask my spouse. I’m much better at getting the gist of something and then barreling through with determination and luck.
So when I read the instructions for making a homemade salve, alarm bells went off. This looks an awful lot like cooking, I thought.
I decided to put on my big girl apron and give it a go.
After researching beeswax options and ordering pellets and tins, I was ready. Except I don’t have a double boiler. I understood the need for one. After all, Like Water for Chocolate was my first non-English language film. But as someone who does not adventure in the kitchen, I had never had the need for such a fancy set up. Fortunately, my sister-in-law, who does enjoy cooking and considers herself a kitchen witch, had the same problem. This not only resolved my sudden imposter syndrome panic (what kind of herbalist doesn’t have a double boiler???) but she also sent me a photo that showed me what to do: improvise. After all, Martha Ballard probably didn’t always have exactly the right tool on hand either. So improvise, I did. Already I was feeling better about this cooking-like thing.
This started me thinking about the tools and supplies that Ballard and other herbalists of the past would have had on hand. Among the things I had that they did not is a lovely gas range with knobs that easily adjusted the flame and heat. I also had a sink with readily available water and lots of natural and artificial light in my kitchen. Most herbalists of the past would have boiled and bubbled under far less luxurious conditions. Large hearths dominated 18th century kitchens. More than a simple fireplace, colonial hearths could be large enough to stand in and tend to multiple fires at once. Hearths were used sometimes simultaneously for baking, grilling, roasting, and boiling. Making a salve would be done alongside daily cooking.
But before they could start the water boiling, they needed to gather their ingredients. I had infused store bought oil with herbs harvested from my own garden. All of the other ingredients arrived on my doorstep courtesy of Amazon Prime. Colonial era herbalists would have worked with ingredients and tools they acquired through a variety of means — wildcrafting, bartering, homecrafting, and purchase. I was especially curious as to how they got the beeswax. In the 18th century, beeswax had a lot of potential uses — furniture polish, shoe polish, cosmetics, candles, and more. The Newport Historical Society has even found a recipe for chapstick that called for beeswax! The tools and methods I used may have differed greatly from my predecessors, but the ingredients seemed remarkably consistent.
By the time I had thought through all of this, the water was boiling. I melted my carefully weighed pellets of beeswax and then slowly stirred in the other ingredients. It all sort of oozed together, and I carefully poured it into the tins. I felt as though I’d just won the technical challenge on the Great British Baking Show.
My first salve would soothe bites and stings. The second was for blemishes. And the third would help with dry skin. (I promise to share the recipes and talk about the herbal ingredients in other posts!) Already I can see that I learn something new each time. For example, I added a few drops of an essential oil for fragrance in the skin soother, but I didn’t do so with the blemish or dry skin salves. The skin soother is noticeably…oilier. It spreads more easily, covers more skin surface, and smells nice. Probably this was forewarned in a book somewhere, but since I tend to skim the detailed instructions, I missed it. Honestly, I like feeling as though I discovered this myself. It makes me feel creative, and innovative, and inventive, and sciency.
Not at all bad for a history professor.