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On Cooking, Soap Making, and Living off the Grid

Errol DavisComment

If you can cook, you can make soap! Or more precisely, if you can follow a recipe you can make soap. Maybe the better comparison is with baking. Some of my most successful attempts at bread and pizza dough involved measuring flour, yeast, and salt to the nearest gram on a trusty kitchen scale. But soap also has a lot in common with good old fashioned cooking. You mix stuff. You heat stuff. You mix some more stuff. Then you mix all of the other stuff you previously mixed, and if you do it right, it smells good. (Also, a fair amount of drink might be involved in cooking, baking, and/or soapmaking.)

Back in the days of the legendary Capp Street House, cooking was a skill we pretty much learned by accident. Adam and I were both gifted the Great Funemployment of the 2008 Recession. We had a lot of time on our hands and not a lot of cash. One way to maximize potential beer money was making dinner on-the-cheap.

On a more philosophical note, I was trying to publish a book, and Adam was trying to land a job as a UI designer, both of which were large, long-term goals. And even if we put in a lot of effort, success was still uncertain. On the other hand, roasting chicken quarters and russet potatoes or whipping up a loaf of soap were relatively small tasks that could be broken up into 20-minute chunks of work. With instant results. 

If you want to live in a cabin and grow your own food or put together a small-scale manufacturing operation, cooking is a great way to start. I know everyone reading this will achieve rapid wealth and independence, so the money-saving advice is moot, but I'm also presuming you're saving up to build an earth ship. You can't order from Grubhub if you don't have an address! (Edit, 11/9/18: Grubhub? Holy crap, that was a long time ago!)

A lot of people fantasize about starting a small farm, but farms are expensive, and a lot of work! Maybe start with a really basic skill that makes your food supply less expensive and less carbon intensive. Cooking! Then maybe sprouting your own legumes, or growing micro greens. Or, a DIY mushroom growing kit. If the project goes no further than that, it still brings you some small benefit.

Digital entrepreneurs talk about making projects that are scalable. That is, projects that you can easily grow if the initial efforts turn out profitable. But the first part of the equation is starting small. In cooking, this means making a small batch of a new dish to start with, because if you don’t like it (or if you screw it up!), you don’t have a week’s worth of bad dinners to eat. When we started making soap we decided to make Christmas presents first. Then see if we could get one wholesale account. Then ten. Habits and skills can be thought of in terms of whether they are scalable. Confidence is scalable.

Looking at it a different way, a nice meal prepared with your own hands is a great end in itself, but it might also prove to be the quintessential gateway addiction. If you're not careful you might soon find yourself gathering acorns to mash into acorn flour or squashing 20 lbs of plums into a re-purposed olive oil drum to ferment over the summer for some incredible  late-fall plum wine. I may even see you at the farmers market behind a booth some day soon.