I have always been in love with New York. It reminds me of my original home city of Lagos, the most populated city in Africa, brimming with over 20 million people, always on the move, hustling for something. Energetic people of all ages, doing something. I lived in New York many years ago, when I was a student at Columbia University, another beehive of brimming talent and restless creativity. I am always inspired when in Columbia. It is one reason I am back here, after graduating with my law degree in Washington, DC.
Everything started off well. In one day, I learned I had secured a fellowship that will fund my research and writing in an area I have always demonstrated passion for—the study of the Holocaust. On that same day, I received confirmation that I had been approved for an apartment in Manhattan and signed my lease. In my first stay in New York, many years ago, I had lived in Midtown Manhattan. I liked the fact that everything I needed was within walking distance, given my metropolitan lifestyle. My new place was somewhere around the Columbia University campus. Perfect.
However, I still would not be able to move in until after a week. Consequently, I got a place through the ever convenient cosmopolitan and ubiquitous service, Airbnb. It was in Harlem, right next to Columbia University. In fact, Columbia University has spilled into Harlem, and owns several choice properties it has developed in the historical culture hub undergoing gentrification. This was my chance to experience the rich historic culture of Harlem—a mecca of American cosmopolitan arts, Black literati and music.
I know this, since I took a course, Harlem Renaissance, at Columbia University years ago. Harlem is known to be a Black neighborhood in popular culture. This is a misnomer as it is thoroughly diverse and cosmopolitan. That word again. In fact, if you want to see the meaning of the word cosmopolitan, then visit Harlem. Harlem, once a Dutch settlement, was originally developed elaborately and funded for whites to inhabit. However, a recession, and then the Depression left the developed new homes and buildings empty and available for Blacks coming from the Jim Crow south to move in.
The influx of African Americans in the post-Depression era sparked off a cultural movement, fusion and renaissance in Black entertainment, known as the Harlem Renaissance, which attracted cosmopolitan whites in the metropolis en masse, to drink in and mingle in Black culture. Harlem became the culture mecca of America.
I arrived at the ornate brownstone on 134th and noticed a tray elaborately laid out to the left of the main door of the apartment, where I was being hosted. The tray was set on a bench and several bars of what appeared to be homemade soaps, were on display in a rectangular format. The bars of soap ranged in color and texture, from coffee to vanilla. My host (hostess?) was a 68-year-old gray-headed woman of medium build, about five feet, two inches tall, with a cherubic face and a fixed pleasant smile. She was courteous and circumspect in demeanor. Her voice was soft and gentle as a steady stream. I noticed her skin glowed without a wrinkle or spot on her face. She was light skinned with African ancestry and she informed me she was originally from the Dominican Republic. She was constantly cleaning—virtually every two hours—meaning the apartment was extremely clean. Germaphobe me, loved this. After I had settled into my ambient room, I would ask Mama Margarita if she made those soaps. She confirmed that she did and offered me a fresh new bar to try out for my shower. I chose one of the coffee colored ones.
I was used to using natural herbal soaps from Nigeria, such as Black soap, sold in markets in Lagos and in American stores, but which are homemade products, using traditional recipes. The coffee colored bar I chose, cleaned well, when I took a bath. It lathered richly and washed off the skin thoroughly without residue. It was scentless and my skin felt silky without a hint of tautness, when I was done. Traditional homemade soaps, I have found have a tendency to leave the skin feeling leathery, chaffed, smarting, scratched, sore, scarred and sometimes bruised. However, after bathing with Mama Margarita’s homemade coffee bar of soap, my skin felt supple and soft to the touch. There was no burning or chafing sensation and no tightness.
In fact, I felt clean the entire day and while it left no scent, remarkably everything was thoroughly clean with just minimal application of soap and water. I still felt clean and fresh the next day, when I woke up with just the prior day’s wash. I asked Mama Margarita for her recipe, and I got an enthusiastic response from her: she would not only share her recipe, but offered a demonstration, to guide me through making the soap myself.
“Whenever you’re ready, I will show you how to make the soap yourself”, said Margarita, my host.
Observing my look, silence and wait for more, as we would typically do, when signaling for the check without directly asking or waving for it, Margarita added:
“I never charge anybody to teach them. I taught for 20 years and now I am retired. I like to teach and I teach for free. I like to share knowledge,” said my benevolent host, Mama Margarita.
I learned more about my generous host. She had lived in the United States in New York for over 40 years. She had taught special needs and immigrant kids but was now retired and every year she spent 6 months back home, in the Dominican Republic where she loved and still longed for, and 6 months in the US, to be with her kids. Over the course of my stay, two of her American born sons who looked like carbon copies of each other, although they were separated by two years, visited her and we exchanged contact information. I learned the older son was a graduate of my alma mater, Columbia University and was a high school Biology teacher. After earning two master’s degrees in STEM, and spending years in labs and doing research on HIV/AIDS, he felt a need to give back and mentor indigent and immigrant kids to engender a pathway for them, through education.
His younger brother was a politician and was running for a seat in the state assembly. Margarita had done well with her family. Hers was the quintessential immigrant story we do not hear enough of. Despite the fact that America has been good to her and her sons, economically and professionally, Mama Margarita confided that she missed the intimacy and amiability of home. She said, even though the buildings and apartments were tightly clustered together in New York, neighbors remained so distant and impersonal.
“The most shocking for me is”, confided Margarita, “Dominican neighbors do not greet other Dominicans here.”
“In Dominica, everyone greets you in the morning. Everyone is so friendly back home. And even though people have no money, they share what they have with you and welcome you into their homes and offer you food to eat”, my host recounted nostalgically of her home.
“You should visit Dominica. Let me know when you are coming, I have a house I rent out there.”
Margarita informed me of how she felt Dominicans regretfully changed from their generous nature, after adapting to what she considers a self-centered American lifestyle. She once had a neighbor from the Dominican Republic, who had noticed that Margarita made her own soap and body lotions. Realizing the skill would save her money, the Dominican neighbor asked if Margarita could teach her. Margarita, always willing to share her knowledge and be useful, consented and taught her free of charge. She learned that her neighbor who had learned the skill of soap making from her had started a cottage industry selling the soaps she made at home. My host emphasizes self-reliance and was glad to see that her immigrant neighbor in addition to her new soap making business, baked cakes for parties. Delighted for her and eager to learn a new skill herself, my host asked her one-time student to teach her how to bake cakes.
However, her Dominican neighbor, once eager to learn soapmaking from Margarita was reluctant to impart her own knowledge as she evaded her countrywoman with excuses and subterfuge on every occasion, she was asked to share her skill.
“It takes so much time, I’m afraid.”
“You won’t have the time to learn.”
“It is not easy, and the ingredients are so expensive. I don’t even have the time to teach you, you know I am never at home.”
“It won’t be useful to you”…her neighbor went on, always ready with an excuse to avoid teaching Margarita.
Margarita gave it up. She realized her neighbor had no desire to teach her and probably only saw a competitor and future rival in her, and not a friend and ally.
However, the previous exploitation she suffered from her countrywoman and the negative experience did not dissuade her from remaining generous and willing to share her knowledge with the world for free. In fact, Margarita reminded me every day:
“What are you doing today? Do you have time to learn to make soap?”
Finally, on my last day I popped my head out of my room and asked her as she watched TV in the living room.
“Mama Margarita are you free today to teach me?”
“Of course, I am”, Margarita beamed back at me, springing to her feet as she turned off the television. Within the twinkle of an eye, she had set up a table and laid out a freshly laundered clean green tablecloth on which she displayed all the ingredients and utensils she would use to teach me the art of soapmaking.
Mama Margarita had been making soap for over 30 years and was very efficient and methodical at it. She knew what she was doing and easily transmitted that confidence of knowing to me. The whole process from start to finish would take less than two hours. The ingredients, supplies and utensils she used to teach me were all hers. She did not ask anything of me, but to pay attention and follow her instructions. She had several books she would show me that taught the art of soapmaking. She hand-wrote recipes and procedures that could save me about 40 dollars a month—for soapmaking, lotions, how to make facial masks, etc. The cost of a quality bar of soap from her ingredients and methods could come to roughly just a few cents.
“New York is so expensive amigo. Every opportunity you can save money counts. It will add up in 40 years,” counseled Mama Margarita.
As Mama Margarita shared her knowledge with me, I in turn gladly share what she taught me here. Find the useful art of soapmaking which I was taught in the following section captioned The steps to soapmaking.
The steps to soapmaking
- Organize all your utensils and ingredients and spread them out in an area where they are easily accessible. The soaps harden quickly, so one must work efficiently and quickly. You will need: a stainless-steel box grater to shred the bar base with. The bar base was already prepared by Margarita, and it is made by mixing lye (sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide or using a drain opener product) with olive oil or canola oil. Borax or sodium tetraborate; salt; sugar; ground coffee; coconut oil; plastic bowl which can be rectangular in shape to serve as the mold or matrix; large pot filled with boiling water, and a second smaller pot, sitting in the boiling water with the shredded base and mixture in it—a process Margarita calls double heating. Baking soda. Several bowls for mixing and a ladle to mix the finished solution before it hardens.
- After creating the soap base from an admixture of lye and olive oil (Margarita had prepared several bars of soap base which she stores. You can also purchase basic bars in stores), then shred about 15 ounces into a bowl; add 1 teaspoon of Borax; 1 teaspoon of baking soda; 1 teaspoon of sugar; 1 teaspoon of salt. Mix thoroughly. Prepare 7.5 ounces of black coffee (notice exactly half the amount of the base.) Heat up a large pot of water on the stove and place the mixture in a smaller cooking pot which will boil in/over the hot water on the stove. Pour the 7.5 ounces of hot black coffee into the mixture and spread it around it. Do NOT stir, mix or agitate the mixture. Compress towards the base of the pot with the mixture, but do not stir, mix or agitate the solution and mixture. Cover the heating mixture with paper towel and then place a lid over it. See the photos.
- Allow the mixture to heat up for an aggregate of 1 hour, and then remove.
- Prepare the plastic mold using a teaspoon of coconut oil and rubbing it into the plastic and greasing it. Mix 1 teaspoon of coconut oil and 1 teaspoon of ground dry coffee into a container and stir quickly and after the 1 hour of heating, pour and quickly mix it into the heated solution once. This will help make the soap granular in texture and provide appropriate viscosity. Now pour into the plastic mold to harden and provide shape.
- Air the soap in the mold and once it dries up and hardens overnight, remove it from the mold and dry out for 4 weeks so your soap maintains consistency, compactness and solid form when washing and does not simply dissolve. Turn the sides, upside down, alternating the part seated on the ground as it airs and dries.
- Various blends, versions or soaps can be made, by altering the ingredients or adding what you need. You can add orange juice, lemon, tea, milk as liquids instead of coffee. If you add scented oils, then do not use coconut oil. Good luck saving and/or making money!
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