The brush-off

It was just a couple weeks ago that I made a big hairy deal about the fact that the only part of self-sufficiency that interests me is the food. No knitting, no soap-making, no finish carpentry.

Today, I’m using home-made toothpaste.

There is a food connection, though, in the form of wintergreen. I’ve had some leaves steeping since last winter, and we’ve tried to use it in food but, as a flavoring, it has a serious drawback: it makes everything taste like toothpaste. So, for almost a year now, we’ve been wondering what to do with these two little jars of toothpaste flavoring. Kevin was the first to see it.

He started browsing the Internet for toothpaste recipes

Anyone who’s ever browsed the Internet for a recipe has to wonder why anyone’s worried about those explosive-making sites. Internet recipes, particularly from crackpot sources, are notoriously unreliable, and the proto-terrorist who reads online that he can make a bomb out of anchovies and deodorant is unlikely to get very far.

If you’re looking for a recipe for something straightforward – zucchini bread, say – you’ll probably do pretty well. But once you leave the well-trodden path and start looking for things like mortar, or dishwashing detergent, or deep-tissue massage oil, it gets a lot dicier.

Toothpaste recipes run the gamut, but most are some permutation of the same six ingredients: baking soda, hydrogen peroxide, glycerin, salt, non-sugar sweetener, and flavoring. The only one of those we didn’t have in the house was glycerin, so we picked up a bottle at the local drugstore and Kevin went to work.

A little of this, a little of that, a taste, and a little more of the other thing. Mix it up with an absurdly tiny whisk that was intended to be decorative, and it was ready for its inaugural brush.

Kevin took the bowl into the bathroom and dipped his toothbrush in. He scooped up a daring grape-sized globule and started to brush. I watched carefully for his reaction. Nothing.

To understand what “nothing” means in this context, you have to understand my husband. He’s as tough as they come. He’s capable of withstanding pain and hardship – physical or emotional – that would have me running for the hills. The day he put a nail through his index finger with a nail gun while putting together a raised bed for our friend Linda he barely flinched. Then he pretended it was only a scratch, partly because he didn’t want Linda to feel bad and partly because he felt stupid for exercising insufficient care with a dangerous tool.

As he tested his toothpaste, he certainly would have nodded and smiled, or given the thumbs up, if he had liked the taste. But, if he hadn’t, nothing on god’s green earth would have induced him to make a face and spit it out, or even grimace in displeasure.

“How was it?” I asked, after he’d rinsed.

“It was OK,” he said. “A little too salty, but OK. You should try it.” He proffered the bowl to me.

I dipped my toothbrush in, and took a less daring, pea-sized globule. I started to brush.

Without a doubt, this was far and away the worst toothpaste I’d ever tried. The worst I’d ever heard of! It was nasty and salty and gritty and absolutely not something you wanted in your mouth. I brushed long enough to be able to say I did it, and then spat and rinsed. And rinsed some more.

Kevin’s going to tweak the recipe. Meanwhile, I’m sticking with Tom’s of Maine (fennel flavor).

This experience has reinforced my determination that, when it comes to self-sufficiency, I’m sticking to the edible. And I don’t think it’s just me and my priorities; it has to do with the nature of food itself. Food is fragile and perishable, and handling it, transporting it, and processing it in a factory somewhere is unlikely to do it any good.

The same can’t be said of soap, or furniture, or clothing. People with industrial-strength tools, and vast experience, and economies of scale, are invariably going to turn out better versions of those items than I can make myself. There are lots of things that factories do better than people. Sure, a proficient knitter can turn out beautiful things, but there are a lot of misbegotten socks between here and proficiency, and even the best knitter can’t knit me a new pair of Wellingtons.

Tom’s of Maine makes better toothpaste than I ever will, but I make better chili than Hormel ever can.

We won’t discuss my root beer.

14 people are having a conversation about “The brush-off

  1. Socks? What aspiring knitter starts with socks? No, my dear. If it’s knitting proficiency you’re after, you begin with scarves. Baby blankets. Maybe an afghan. Flat things, nothing in the round. I’ve churned out my share of scarves, and while I wouldn’t call them paragons of beauty, they weren’t misbegotten either. Not that I’m pushing knitting. Gawd knows I’m better at starting a knitting project than finishing one. All I’m saying is, you might be protesting just a tad much here, Tamar. This self-sufficiency thing is going to creep up on you. Just watch…

  2. beachnitpicker says:

    The thing is, stuff like soap and toothpaste really profits from being processed through giant emulsifiers. Food, not so much.

  3. Kevin F. (the spouse for those who did not realize it) says:

    My grandmother used to say about the history of Irish literature… “the English forced their language on us…We showed them how to use it.” I guess the moral of this story may be, Be careful what you make in the name of self-sufficiency your husband may find a way for you to use them.

  4. Hilarious, honest, a lesson for those of us who think we can make anything better ourselves. I’ve never tried to make toothpaste, and now officially never will.

    Monica (we’ll always have Albuquerque)

  5. Nothing is a failure, it’s just finding its real purpose. Is it a toothpaste? No. Is it a spackling compound that also makes the room smell fresh and clean? Possibly…

    Knitting isn’t about producing sock, blankets or ill fitting sweaters that chafe. It’s purely processual, a cheap form of therapy based on the soothing effects of repetetive motion. It’s “Mental self-sufficiency” with the added benefits that the lanolin softens calloused skin better than Bag Balm. That’s my 2 cents anyway.

  6. Kate — I harbor an intractable fear that you’re right about self-sufficiency creep. I had a moment of panic when I found out that friends of ours have sheep, and the wool is going begging. I almost volunteered to take it, but stopped myself just in time. It is indeed a slippery slope.

    BNP — That’s pretty much it. It’s all about emulsifying, or not.

    Husband mine — Does this mean I have to hide the wintergreen?

    Monica — I’m glad someone can learn from my example!

    Jen — Maybe nothing YOU do is a failure. There’s just no other name for some of the things I do. But there’s something in the spackling compound idea …
    As for knitting, I’ve got some friends with sheep, if you’re interested.

  7. When I was a wee little lass there was a curly-haired man who took a room next door, and it was to the great delight of the neighborhood children to learn that he washed his hair with and egg and vinegar. It was easy to learn because he showered outside with a hose. His hair shone.
    We’ve all enjoyed brushing teeth with just baking soda and warm water – some do a mild peroxide rinse. Maybe you should use the wintergreen to make a mouthwash. We made one with cloves that took forever to get strong enough, but it was a huge hit. I am of the opinion that many things are better made by hand.

  8. Just use baking soda for your teeth and make medicinal wintergreen tea like the Mohawks and Ojibwas used to do.

  9. Cape Cod Rose says:

    I’m with Jen. Knitting, crafting, and creating of any kind can have many positive benefits.
    Remember, it’s a package deal…. mind body and soul!
    Just like the Rhodies in your yard, just cause you can eat them, doesn’t mean you should till them under.

  10. Kevin F. (the spouse for those who did not realize it) says:

    she did not say taught, she said showed. What is meant by the slight is that the Irish used it against them not that they taught them grammar!

  11. Beth — I like the mouthwash idea, and I even see the appeal of making things by hand. It’s just that, sometimes, those hand-made products are inferior, satisfaction from having made them aside.

    CCR — I think most people who do these kinds of things are in your mind-body-soul camp. I’m in the stomach camp, next door.

  12. Making toothpaste brings back fond memories of my friend and ex-neighbor Marge. See “thrift” in the dictionary for a definition of Marge. She was convinced that WE (she always included me in her projects) could do anything more cheaply. We tried upolstery and decided it would only be successful with an electric staple gun and a strong, willing husband. We tried our own scrubbing powder — a major mistake. Marge wanted to try soap but I drew the line at lye and ashes.

    My daughter has never let me forget the time I covered some nicks in our wood furniture with shoe polish. It was quite successful.

    As for the toothpaste, my son assures me that it is a very good spackle. None of his many landlords ever discovered that he had filled the holes in the walls with toothpaste.

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