Thursday, February 23, 2012

22 February “Ash: Coal & Wood, Gas Prices Then & Now, and Economical Soup Recipes”

 couplecuttingwood In my last post someone asked about the use of ash. As someone answered, correctly, these can be used for garden as well as soap. Though the type of ash is rather important as well. Wood ash has many uses and is quite safe while its cousin, coal ash, must be handled more seriously.

To begin with, ash was the main ingredient in soap. It is simply fat and a caustic chemical, such as lye. This type of lye can be derived from ash. Adding salt to this easy mixture of melted fat and ash adds varying degrees of hardness. Thus, a ‘soft soap’ used for SO many household chores, would have no salt and would appear as a brownish heavy but pliable ointment. This would be stared in jars or crocks and would simply be added to hot water and whisked to create suds for dishes. This same soft soap was used in many ways, including being mixed with sand and more ash to make a silver and copper polish. Soft soap was also used in the garden being added to water with copper alloys to make an early form of bug repellent.

How one got the lye water from the ash was to place in a barrel with drilled holes in the bottom, a layer of straw. Then wood ash is placed on top of straw. Boiling water is poured over the ash and through the straw and collected in a container under the barrel which is propped up on something. This liquid was passed through several times. The test of the strength of the lye water was to either see if a feather would dissolve in it or if an egg in its shell would float upon the lye water.

Here are some good uses for wood ash:

1. De-skunk pets. A handful rubbed on Fido's coat neutralizes the lingering odor.

2. Hide stains on paving. This Old House technical editor Mark Powers absorbs wet paint spatters on cement by sprinkling ash directly on the spot; it blends in with a scuff of his boot,

3. Enrich compost. Before the organic compound get applied to soil, enhance its nutrients by sprinkling in a few ashes, says the host of radio's You Bet Your Garden, Mike McGrath. Adding too much, though, ruins the mix.

4. Block garden pests. Spread evenly around garden beds, ash repels slugs and snails.

5. Melt ice. TOH building editor Tom Baker finds it adds traction and de-ices without hurting soil or concrete underneath.

6. Control pond algae. One tablespoon per 1,000 gallons adds enough potassiumm to strengthen other aquatic plants that compete with algae, slowing its growth,

7. Pump up tomatoes. For the calcium-loving plants, McGrath places 1/4 cup right in the hole when planting,

8. Clean glass fireplace doors. A damp sponge dipped in the dust scrubs away sooty residue.

9. Make soap. Soaking ashes in water makes lye, which can be mixed with animal fat and then boiled to produce soap. Salt makes it harden as it cools.

10. Shine silver. A paste of ash and water makes a dandy nontoxic metal polisher.


Coal ash, however, is a much different animal. It is not as safe to put on gardens and certainly not used in making soap. It can be much more dangerous, as coal is burnt the chemical changes are vastly different to that of simple wood. I was surprised to read in a modern article that stated,

“the waste produced by coal plants is actually more radioactive than that generated by their nuclear counterparts. In fact, the fly ash emitted by a power plant—a by-product from burning coal for electricity—carries into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy.”

Now, I don’t know if this is true or not. I have come to question any modern notions in publications, because of the glaring differences I have found by simply looking at points from the past to the present. The above was stated in a Scientific American article.

I was very surprised to see how much we use coal ash today! This seems to be a major element in our large agriculture. We create large amounts of fly ash, as our electrical power plants burn coal to make electricity. We often have this view of Victorian cities filthy with coal smoke, as if it is a quaint idea that now longer occurs. When, in fact, we burn much more coal today than the Victorians ever did. Though we are not heating our homes with coal in grates and cooking our food, the electricity we use is more often than not, created by burning of coal. The left over ash, fly ash, is used to amend soil. This can be good if the levels do not get too high. But, that is where I get worried.

“Currently the U.S. produces 130 million tons of coal combustion waste every year. In another 10 years it will be 150 million".”

That is a lot of dust and studies showing large amounts used on crops leave elements such as arsenic and titanium. Now, in the old days, you would have simply had your ash, wood and coal, taken away. Or, if you were a gardener and had a small plot, you would have mixed your coal ash with your other organic matter in the garden compost heap and used it in your garden. This, however, was probably not in the same quantities as on a commercial scale.

What is right? What is good or bad? I increasingly find I cannot tell by any media or study. This makes me want more and more to have more control over my own food production, but this is not viable for all things or all people. So, I will most likely happily use wood ash, but were I to get coal ash, be more leery. Of course ash from Charcoal is as safe as wood, as it is made from wood itself.

Hubby and I made the decision to go down to one car when we were still living in 1955. This decision has become increasingly seen as a good one, as I am surprised at fuel prices thus far this year. I use our car once a week for my marketing and any trips to the post and bank. During the warmer months I use my bike even more. When I had to stop at the gas station the other day I was shocked at the prices just from the previous week. This, of course, made me want to look more closely at gas prices in the 20’s and 30’s.

30sgasstaionHere is the price, per year, of a gallon of gas in the U.S. It is interesting to note that gas actually went down, at first, in the beginning of the Depression. This seemed an odd coincidence to the hike we had from 2006-2008 then the decrease from $4 back down to $2 in 2009. Now, however, we can see this year already the price is quickly raising. (I have put the adjusted rate for inflation to what that same amount would cost us today in 2012 dollars) I preciously used an inflation calculator that only went to 2010. I have now found one that goes to this year. I was surprised that the .18 cents for 1933 in my 2010 calculator gave me the price:$ 3.02 while two years later the same actual amount was already $3.14. This has me really looking at the inflation of our dollar.

1920...30 cents  (3.40)
1929...21 cents   (2.78)
1933...18                (3.14)

Price to date, in my own state of Massachusetts, has increased. This chart shows the increase in gas price JUST in the month of January.

This chart shows the price over six years: One can see the spike after the ‘Crash’ of 2008. We are, however, riding close to those highs now.

These sort of facts make me worry about what is ‘said’ today. That we are “doing better”. I am not sure on what that “better” is based. I know food prices continue to rise, even since Jan of this year.

Again, one cannot help but draw comparisons or try to consider the Depression with today. For some reason, some people become angry when you try to correlate the two. I am not sure why that is, as long as one is not some how saying the suffering of those in the Depression is meaningless. To me, ignoring what happened in the facts and stats is, in a way, not honoring those that went through it. They certainly would not want others to suffer as they had and to have the benefit of their going through it already gives one a sort of crystal ball. We can see what lead to and how they dealt with the hard times to better understand and prepare now. Their suffering and hardship was not a lost cause if we take the time to view and study what was happening then.

As I said, the gas prices were lower in the early Depression than the 1920’s, but then they began to rise again. This is as we have seen over the past six years. While it is true we have many Government funded programs not even begun in the Depression to help people today, not all of us are able to take advantage of it. For me, as I am sure for many of you, I receive no direct Government aid, so the increases at the pump and the market affect me greatly. If hubby were to lose his job, we would have the option, I suppose, of unemployment, but that only lasts so long.

Those who have lost their jobs and find nothing to replace it, when their unemployment runs out, what shall they do? Will they continue to fall deeper into the Welfare system, or will they not qualify in the same way as others? If they do, then as those recipients increase, how will we afford those costs as well as increasing needs of Medicare, Medicaid of the retiring Baby Boomers? I don’t honestly know and I am truly worried.

These statistics show that in the past few years the number of people on some form of government assistance has increased.

“More than one in three Americans lived in households that received Medicaid, food stamps or other means-based government assistance in mid-2010”

I think as much as we can study the various affects and causes of that Depression will help us to better understand how and what might be coming our way. As I have said, however, we have many more costs on the average middle class family that even those in the Depression did not have to deal with. And, apparently, the cost of gas is now another aspect we will continue to face that is greater than those had to face in the 1930’s. And they did not rely on cars in the amount that we do today. The cities and highways of our current world, created since post WWII to really only be navigated by cars, had yet to exist. The amount of money spent on things like electricity and electronics today cannot even be compared with the 1930’s. So, as our prices increase with so much more money needed to survive today with various costs, taxes, insurances, how do we stand?

On that note, then I shall close today with a happier note of the kitchen. One can always try and console oneself with the hardship of bad times by increasing their skills for self preservation. The more we can understand and learn about our world the better and then we must balance that with skill, I think. Cooking, obviously, is one of the most important. We must eat and we must be ready to create more with less.

These soups in my 1933 magazine are rather hearty but really quite inexpensive to create. We all know that a heel of bread and warm soup can do wonders for an empty tummy. And when we make it ourselves we can be a little more certain what is going into it.

This first recipe makes me think of the children’s book, “Stone Soup” where soup can be made from a stone. You just need some veg and other things and it will be tasty.


I think this corn chowder would be interesting to try with some other canned veg, even things like beets, or Green beans or combinations there of. Also, as one learns to can their own vegetables, this type of soup becomes even more pleasurable to make, I am sure.cornchowder beefsoup I like the idea of using preserved fruit, such as raisins, in a soup recipe. They would reconstitute and add a nice sweet bite. Surely such a sugary treat would be welcomed when food is becoming more dear.

When you are too busy for homemade bread or if simply yeast is too dear, what a simple bread solution. These could also be fun to serve floating in a soup, like the croutons in French Onion. You could also spice this recipe either savory or sweet. A simple addition of chives or dill and cheese would make them company ready. Or one money, as a treat, rolled in cinnamon and sugar to accompany breakfast. It uses very few ingredients.


I think the more we begin to think about our food as simple items to throw together (if one is worried about cooking skill or time to prepare it) we can begin to move towards simple cost effective ingredients and less pre-packaged, pre-made foods that are more expensive, take more energy to store, create more waste we Can’t use (like our lovely organic garbage and wood ash!) and are not as tasty or healthy. Little moves in this direction will prepare us all for harder times. And when the good times increase we will still have the skill and then can increase our repertoire of dishes with more expensive ingredients as the economy improves. From every aspect, it is simply win win.

Happy Homemaking.

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