Grandma's – Lye Soap


This is just a really good solid bar of soap. A rough-hewn rectangle with sharp edges—and it's not a uniform color—partly discolored because I've had it sitting around awhile before using it. I bought it at the hardware store!—which seems appropriate, somehow. Like a working-person's, no-nonsense soap. When you get it out of the packaging it's pretty rustic, but it gets soft (I mean usable, pleasant) really fast, and it's nicely lathery and heavy duty—a good, solid, hearty soap. It has virtually no fragrance—definitely no added fragrance—so what you're getting is purely the smell of the very few ingredients: food grade lard, water, sodium hydroxide (lye), with retained glycerin. There is a smell from this mixture, but it's pretty subtle, and actually I like it a lot. Evocative yet basic.

But not so fast... what is lye? It's a chemical compound, aka NaOH—that's its name—and doesn't mean “Non-alcoholic Ohio.” You've heard of lye—it's what Mickey Rourke put in the godfather's espresso in the unlikely ending of The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984). It's some serious poison, more caustic than the rich and powerful, and used to clean drains. Mixed lovingly with other stuff, it can end up as gentle, loving soap. I guess that's why they call it alchemy. But what is lard? As you know, it's fat from a pig. In order to get the lard from a pig, you have to kill it, whether or not the pig did anything wrong, and compared to humans, pigs are pretty innocent. Also, smart. Depending on how you feel about killing and/or eating pigs, you may not want to wash with them either. Okay, you thought Grandma's was going to be simple, but it's ended up being as convoluted as that movie Fight Club (1999). Isn't everything in life like that?

Soap Review No. 43