“Where’s the fat in the pot?”

   After they obtain the dicuada, the women put the animal fat previously dried or in its natural state in pieces into an iron pot or cauldron or in a copper pan and lead to heat on fire. They use wood stoves as source of heat. Some of them usually leave the tallow or the fat “soaking” (in contact with the dicuada) from one day to another and the fat melts when the mixture is heated.


   The dicuada is gradually in portions to the fat. They use a wooden spoon with a long cable to mix them. After successive additions under heating the soap begins to form. It is ready after some days or weeks depending of the amount involved, the “strongness” of the dicuada and other tasks, as the procedure is interrupted and retaken many times. There are recipes that specify the amounts of fat, ash and dicuada required to make the soap, but these women prefer to guide themselves by the experience, observation and control of the mixture while the soap is being made.

   The mixture of dicuada and fat acquires various aspects until the soap is ready. Initially it is homogenous and has yellow-brown color. With time, heating and addition of dicuada, the color changes to gray, which intensifies to a dark tone until the end of the process resulting in a pastiness gray-brown mass. That indicates the consumption and the transformation of the animal fat as Mrs. Rosa mentioned: “Therein after the fat is over, therein doesn´t have fat. Look (shows the pan in which the soap was being prepared). Where’s the fat in the pot?”.

The mixture that will result on soap

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 The ash soap has a “point” that indicates when it is ready: “If it has not the point then it doesn’t, it doesn´t give. It´s like a candy, you know?” (Mrs. Anésia). The “point” is reached when the saponification reactions end and is noticed by the soap´s characteristic smell, appearance,  detachment from the pan and by the bubbles that release a “white smoke” on heating:

Sebastião: It began to release this white smoke there, look, it´s getting to the point. This is not ready yet. So, if you take it out, if it isn´t at the point, if take it out from here it becomes floppy. So must get it to the point again as it was. It begins to release the white smoke, unstick it from the pan and becomes firm…

   However, before achieving and close to it they control the process by tests in order to regulate the consumption, absence or excess of the ingredientes or their quantities. The tests vary between one woman and another. One of them consists on stirring a little of the mixture within water in a basin to produce foam: the ash soap produces a white foam, which quantity and durability depend on the soap formed.

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   In another test, they put the mixture in water without stirring and observe if there is a butterfat layer on the surface indicating  not consumed fat or excess of it. They put also a little of the mixture in the tongue´s tip to analyze its taste: if spicy indicates the dicuada. While the pungent taste does not disappear, the dicuada is not added to the mixture. Chemists control the chemical reactions through many ways and its usual the use of specific instruments and technological resources, but it is not usual to taste what they are doing.

   To explain the disappearance of the fat from the pot Mrs. Anésia said that “the dicuada can take the fat away”, as it was a mechanical gesture, but Mrs. Aparecida said two times: “is the dicuada that cuts the fat”, “the dicuada is that cuts the fat”. Izabel explained that for her “to cut” means “to transform the fat”. In the reaction, the esters are modified by the hydrolysis reaction in alkaline media, releasing the fatty acids that will react with potassium carbonate and produce soaps. As the substances are transformed by these chemical reactions, so their properties as well. That is why for Mrs. Aparecida “the dicuada is that cuts the fat”.

 Equation of triestearin hydrolysis with the formation of stearic acid and glycerol

Equation of the reaction between stearic acid and potash producing potassium stearate, one of the soaps that is present in the ash soap

   The soaps formed through the reactions correspond to specific salts according to the carboxylic acids that originated them. The glycerol, propane-1,2,3-triol, is also produced in these reactions. Thus, the ash soap comprises a mixture of different salts/soaps, according to the composition of the animal fat and glycerol.

   However, to Mrs. Rosa the ash soap is not formed simply by mixing the ingredients. It is necessary to control their relational quantities: “if the fat stays” or “if it passes”, if it remains or a large amount is added, and “if it’s missing”, if there is not the required amount, the soap “doesn´t value nothing”, has no quality. There is a right amount of fat. She said the same for the ash lye: “if the dicuada passes too”. Mrs. Aparecida and Mrs. Anésia agreed: “Right, the dicuada cannot let it pass either”, must not be added in excess: “if it passes doesn´t grow” but “if it´s missing doesn´t grow either”, it must not be added excess or lacking none of the ingredients: fat or dicuada. There is a proportional relation between the amounts of the ingredients, reactants or substances involved in the ash soap forming reactions. The chemists call it stoichiometry and the women make tests to control each one´s excess or absence.

   Mrs. Rosa reported a case where there was a problem in the amount of one of these materials: “Once the cummer Zé gave me one to see what to do with it there”. A known person asked her to help to decide what to do with a soap that had a problem: “It passed the dicuada, I don´t know what I´m going to do with this soap. I’ll throw it out”. The problem was that the soap had an excess of dicuada. Mrs. Rosa took the soap and examined it: “Then I took it home and looked, looked and looked well to it. I rubbed it in a cloth and it didn´t foam. Black!”. The soap was carefully observed. She tested it washing a piece of cloth and did not observe foam production. She said that it was “black”, suggesting a correspondence between this color and its quality.

   She continued: “I spoke, aaah, wait a little. I had a butter there. Then I put on it. Aaah, therein it became good, I took advantage”. In order to correct the excess of dicuada, Mrs. Rosa added a source of fatty acids, probably mixing it to the soap under heating and control, which consumed the excess of dicuada, of potassium carbonate. However, to Mrs. Aparecida this happened because “It is that therein it weakens the dicuada, right?”.

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