Monday, July 30, 2007

Wash Day on the Bayou

This is Part Two in a trilogy. Part One is "Red Beans and Rice, Old Time Creole Style: A Story and a Recipe", posted on July 26, 2007. Part Three is "PureCajunSunshine's Red Beans and Rice Recipe", posted August 4, 2007.

Early in the morning, before most of the birds were fully awake, Mamere would already have the fires blazing under two huge black kettles of water that were set up outside. Those who lived near the bayous usually set up their wash day contraptions near the water's edge, to make the job of hauling water easier. The large kettles were set up on bricks over the fire. One kettle was filled about two thirds full of water, and was designated for washing and boiling sheets first, then a succession of clothes. Another kettle was filled with clear water to be heated and used to fill smaller wash tubs. A long poke stick or two, a few cakes of lye soap (or store-bought Octagon soap), some wooden benches, wash tubs, and a washboard were set up. The addition of a wooden deck was always nice because it helped to keep the place from turning into a messy mud-wallow after countless Mondays of laundry.

Mamere's washboard was a beautiful old one. Its gleaming hills and valleys were carved from a single heavy block of cypress by her grandfather's hand. The newer metal washboards became the minou's meow back in the 1850's, when the new-fangled inventions made their first appearance in the stores. But Mamere stubbornly clung to the old family washboard. Mais, cher! The old ways are good.

While water heated in the kettles outside, Mamere would hurry back into the kitchen to prepare the morning meal and to get the tradtional Monday's Red Beans and Rice started. After the breakfast dishes were cleaned and put away, the pot of beans was given a final stirring, and was moved to the back of the stove. There, it would gently simmer for the next several hours while Mamere washed clothes.

Although the same basic steps were always followed, Mamere, like countless other women of the day, had her own way of doing laundry. She would pour hot water into four wash tubs that were arranged on the benches. Two of the tubs were reserved for rinsing only. A third tub was filled two thirds full with hot water and enough soap flakes to make a mild soapy brew. Soap flakes were made by shaving off thin slivers from a bar of homemade lye soap or store bought Octagon bar soap (Ivory soap can be used this way, too). Enough soap was added to the big kettle that was filled two thirds full of boiling hot water, to make a very strong soapy brew. A fourth tub of water on the bench included liquid starch that she made from potatoes. In later years, she admitted that powdered store bought Faultless Starch from a box worked almost as well as her potato starch. Imagine that.

Into the strong soapy brew in the big pot over the fire, went the big stuff like bed sheets. The sheets were stirred and poked with the long poke stick until Mamere was satisfied they were clean. With a deft sweeping motion of her poke stick, Mamere would lift the sheets out of the pot and plop them onto a bench to drain and cool a bit before wringing, rinsing, and wringing them again. After the sheets were hung on the clothes line, then the dark colored pants, shirts and dresses were washed in the same hot soapy water. They were stirred and poked in the same manner as the sheets. Lastly, after the previous batch of clothing was removed from the pot, the grubbier work clothes were thrown in, and given a real good workout with the poke stick.

If it was a warm breezy day, Mamere didn't have to wring the water out of the clothes as much. Drip dry is nice. On very humid or freezing cold days, she would wring out as much water out as possible, so that the clothes dried better. There was a trick to wringing bed sheets and other heavy items by twisting them with the poke stick, but she used to wring just about everything else by hand. Later, after she bought a hand-cranked wringer, she wondered how in the world she managed to do laundry without it.

The lighter weight whites and very light colored items such as shirts, pants, dresses and underwear went into the washtub on the bench with the mild soapy mixture.
After the clothes soaked for a few minutes, the whites were scrubbed on a wooden washboard that was set up inside the tub. It went something like this: rub and plunge, rub and plunge. One area at a time, each article of clothing was rubbed on the washboard, then plunged into the soapy water...rub and plunge, rub and plunge... Often she hummed or sang a catchy tune in time with the action. It looked like a right good time to all the little girls, who wanted so badly to hurry up and grow big enough to help. Duh huh. Little did they know...

After much rinsing, wringing and singing, the cleaned shirts, pants and dresses were dipped into the starch pan, and wrung out a final time. In the days after Mrs. Stewart's Liquid Bluing was invented, a small amount was often added to the final rinse water for making whites look brighter and whiter. Mrs. Stewart's familiar blue bottle can still be found on store shelves to this day, near the laundry detergents.

True to South Louisiana tradition, nothing is ever wasted. At the end of the washday, the pot of hot soapy water was poured on unwanted weeds in the driveway and walkways. This worked fine and dandy as a weed killer, or it could be used to scrub the porch. The rinse water from the washtubs was poured into the flower beds.

By the time the last of the clothing was dried and taken off the line, the Red Beans and Rice that simmered all day had reached the peak of goodness and was ready to enjoy! To many in South Louisiana, it is a delicious comfort food that evokes fond memories of our mothers and grandmothers from a time gone by.

(Coming soon...two of my favorite Red Beans and Rice recipes. One recipe takes less than two hours to cook; the other one takes less than thirty minutes, and tastes almost as good as Mamere's beans that cooked all day.)

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