Thursday, October 28, 2010

Another Let it Bee emollient

I am still working on the formula for the perfect cream to be called Angadrisma’s Emollient, though not for lack of trying.
Why is this so challenging? For starters, Saint Angadrisma (695 AD) was so desperate to not get married (not to a mortal man that is; she wanted to be a Bride of Christ) that she implored God to make her too physically repulsive to appeal to any man. God complied and gave her leprosy.
Then she joined the nunnery, and miraculously, her leprosy was cured and she was more beautiful than ever. But safely enhabited and wimpled.

In homage to some of the more popular treatments for leprosy in the Dark Ages, Angadrisma’s Emollient might include bee venom*, arsenic or pulverized scorpions. If that repels you, consider how benign those cures seem when compared to castration and bathing in the blood of virgins, also very popular treatments.

*Given that I have been trying for days to induce one of our bees to sting my arthritic fingers, and failing miserably, collection of said venom could prove difficult. As I explained to my daughter, I put several bees in a jar and annoyed them as much as possible to get them to sting me. She was surprised at this failure, having spent a good part of her childhood admiring my ability to annoy my children.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Your beeswax, my beeswax

It’s the age-old question: what do we do with all that beeswax?
All summer long the bees have collected nectar and stored it inside their honeycomb and fanned the nectar until it achieved the perfect consistency. All summer long they sealed the honeycomb with newly masticated wax, the purest wax of all, which we call capping wax.

Then we came along and sliced off the capping wax and inserted the honey frames into the extractor and spun it around until centrifugal force threw out the stored honey. We bottled the honey and used it to sweeten our tea, coffee, ice cream, pancakes, acorn squash, salad dressing, ham glaze, gingerbread and fish pudding.

And what about the wax?

If you were a monk – even if you are a monk – you made candles. Monks appreciated that the wax burning so splendidly in their splendid cathedrals and intimate chapels was made solely by virgins. No queens and no drones helped in creating that wax.

If you lived in the 19th century and had smallpox scars you used beeswax to fill in the pits, and then stayed away from fires that would melt away your face.

If you are Roxanne Quimby you take Burt’s leftover wax and start concocting every kind of personal care product from pregnant belly moisturizer to toothpastes, and then you sell Burt’s Bees to Clorox for huge sums of money* and buy up as much land as you can in the state of Maine in order to preserve it.

If you are Let it Bee Honey, that is me, you stand at the stove and discover the wonders of chemistry. Emulsification can be fun.
Following various recipes and then experimenting, I’ve been making creams and lotions and balms. It is not clear what differentiates a cream from a lotion from a balm; the truth is that I apply the labels somewhat arbitrarily.
Then, of course, I had to name the creams and lotions and balms. Early one morning in the semi-darkness before the Palisades turn pink - when I do my best thinking - I had an inspiration: I would name every batch for a different female saint.
I have been enamored with medieval names for a long time now, and having neglected to call either of my children Ethelreda or Fulgentius, I could now name creams to my hearts content. I could not wait to tell CSB of this stroke of marketing genius.
His enthusiasm was flatter than old ginger ale. Naming beauty products for long dead female saints, especially blind or headless ones, struck him as a very bad idea.
So we compromised: I didn’t put Saint in front of their names.

My first success (by which I mean, it emulsified properly, did not separate, smells delicious and soothes) was Walburga’s Face Cream. After a holy life, Saint Walburga died in 777 or 779. Her body was interred in a rocky niche in Eichstätt and after a while it began to ooze sweet smelling therapeutic oil. Let it Bee’s Walburga’s Face Cream is made with Vitamin E and essence of honeysuckle.

Mechtilde‘s Myrrh Balm is named for Mechtilde of Magdeburg a medieval mystic and the author of The Flowing Light of the Godhead. Her vivid images of Hell may have influenced Dante’s Inferno, but we can’t be sure. My dear friend Gill brought me the myrrh extract from Italy; I like to think this balm is especially suited to the Christmas season.

Cunnegunda was married to Henry II of Bavaria; when envious gossips falsely accused her of adultery, she proved her innocence by walking unscathed over burning coals. Crème de Cunnegonda had hints of smoky resin.

Ulphia (of Super Strong Hand Cream, version #1) lived in Amiens in the 8th century. She built herself a hermitage for prayer in the middle of a swamp, and then when the croaking of the frogs kept her awake at nights, she silenced them. To this day, the frogs of Amiens are very quiet.

Tecla is said to be the first female Christian martyr. She is also said to be entirely fictional. Her face cream is made with trace bits of propolis, a remarkable resinous mixture gathered by the bees and used to seal up the hive. When suspended in alcohol or mixed with honey it is effective against sore throats, burns, dental plaque and tumors.

Gwenfredi is Welsh for Winifred who was decapitated by a rejected suitor. Her Uncle Bueno (also a saint) reattached her head so that Gwenfredi could become a nun, and later, a patron saint of payroll clerks. For obvious reasons, her name graces the newest version of our Super Strong Hand Cream, made with lanolin and extolled by sculptors and welders.

Poor Odilia of Alsace was born blind and her disappointed parents gave her away to a peasant family. Then at the age of 12 she entered the convent and her sight was miraculously restored by the touch of Saint Erhard. I would never claim that Odilia of Alsace Eye Cream will restore your vision, but pure beeswax and essence of jasmine will soothe your tired eyelids.

*$925,000,000 which is so close to a billion we could just say: a billion.

**Cream photographs by Colin Cooke. (gratitude)

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Literature and Chickens

In a letter to James Thurber, one of the funniest men ever to put pen to paper, E.B. White, no slouch himself, wrote: “I don't know which is more discouraging, literature or chickens.” I would concur with his confusion.
If you want to read that sentence again, you can walk along 41st Street between Madison and Fifth Avenue, a block known as Library Way, and look down. There are many other pertinent and pithy quotes embedded in the sidewalk, but you can understand why this one jumped out at me, and clucked.
It seems we embarked on this chicken venture in complete ignorance. I read The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald, about adventures on a chicken farm in Washington state in the 1930’s; and we wandered through the poultry tents at county fairs coveting the silkies, and thought we were ready. Or I did.
Then Annie F. gave us 25 eggs and the Hoffman boys incubated them. Fifteen hatched and if you’ve been reading for a while, you already know how many were roosters. So we ordered 15 more hens, guaranteed to have ovaries.
CSB built a beautiful chicken house (only slightly unfinished and still in need of the electrician) and we bought a copy of Chickens for Dummies. I also bought a Field Guide to chicken breeds so I could wonder what breeds we have. Which is not as simple as it sounds. A crest and a beard may be the defining characteristics of a Crevecouer, but so are leaden blue toes and Bump’s toes are more of a slate blue. Then there is the matter of Mamacita’s weird comb.
I mention Bump and Mamacita because as far as I can tell, those are the only two laying hens we have thus far. I have seen them both, at various times, brooding in the roosting boxes, but I have not seen them actually lay the eggs.
In the law I think this would be referred to as circumstantial evidence.

In addition to the Decapitation of Saints Cosmas and Damien, and the Naval papers of the Quasi War between France and the US that I pass by en route to the powder room, one of the great benefits of having an office is that I am not tempted to visit the chicken house every hour to see if any more eggs have been laid. This is what I did all last weekend, and I am sad to report that my eagerness did not seem to enhance egg formation.
As for which is more discouraging, literature or chickens, they are neck and neck, wattle to wattle, beak to beak.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Whither procrastination?

I know I promised piping and vibrating, tooting and quacking, but they will have to wait. Procrastinating is something a honeybee would never do; she would never even consider it. If a honeybee needs to communicate with the queen, she doesn’t wait until the right time, she heads straight for the queen, presses her body against her and vibrates. If a virgin queen bee needs to express her intention to mortally sting any other contenders for queen bee status in the hive, she does not hesitate, her very life is at stake; she will emit that high-pitched piping sound – A-flat or G-sharp - called quacking. This is to be distinguished from tooting, which is the sound made by mated queen bees, usually soon after they are newly released into a hive.

But I am not a honeybee and procrastination seems to be in my DNA. Or maybe not. For all their myriad weirdness and quirkiness and idiosyncrasies the Aged P’s don’t seem to procrastinate. (I will not use the word FLAW since I know they will read this and never let it be said that I recognize any actual flaws in the parental units.),
So how did I come by this trait? And whom can I blame?

Instead of delving into piping and tooting, I set up my new office here at Purchase, because there are few things I enjoy more than fondling what I still think of as school supplies. And it is a well-known fact that any writer worth her pen nibs can spend all the available time sharpening pencils and labeling folders and aligning pads on the desk at right angles, and in this way avoid the dreaded task of actually writing something. Blank walls also beckon. Today for instance I tacked a poster of Fra Angelico’s The Decapitation of Saints Cosmas and Damian onto the wall. I’ve had this poster for at least five years; I know this because the dates of the Far Angelico exhibit at the Met are printed right there: 2005-2006. I bought the poster not entirely because I morbidly enjoy paintings of handsome young men splayed on the ground as their heads depart their bodies, spilling out their life’s blood and staining the ground red. I bought it because I found it so appealing that the saints in question had intact halos even as they were being beheaded, and then the removed heads rolled away with their golden halos attached and perfectly positioned. I should also mention that I have always been fond of the twins, Cosmas and Damian, third century doctors who performed the first – perhaps only – transplant of a leg. The good leg belonged to a just deceased Ethiopian, and they attached it to the stub of a patient who had lost his own leg. The resulting bi-colored limb was a popular subject for painters. You may find it equally miraculous that the skulls of Cosmas and Damian reside in both Munich and Madrid.
Also adorning my new office are a collection of feathers, large black and white feathers from the gulls of Georgian Bay, and smaller striped feathers from the Silver-laced Wyandottes of our chicken coop.

I would have done all this sooner, the thumbtacks and the filing, but – on another level of procrastination – this morning we were packing up jars of honey for Let it Bee’s first foray into high-end marketing: a selection of five honeys (early and late Manhattan, Hastings, Rye and Bedford), two of our own lip balms and one hand cream, crafted by your truly. CSB made elegant wooden boxes and the honeys and balms are nestled in the finest wood shavings you can buy. Not unlike the wood shavings that cover the floor and line the nesting boxes of our very pampered chickens.