With goats; help, soaps transcend the ordinary

By STEPHANIE EARLS , Staff writer
First published: Monday, May 8, 2006 Albany Times Union

Let us sing a short song of soap. Soap is, well ... soapy. And slippery. It tastes gross, but it helps make things un-gross. "Things" being people, lots of the time.

So assuming your run-of-the-mill, Ivory-Spring-esque, hotel-swiped soaps conform in these basic areas, what qualities can set a soap apart?

First of all, there's smell.

The gardener's collection -- including three soaps and a handful of interesting body products -- from Alabu, the Mechanicville-based soap company, smelled really good. In fact, it smelled transcendent. It smelled so good I didn't want to actually use it, which was maybe a little counterproductive. (I did, of course, use it, but we'll get to that later).

What else can make a soap special?

That's right: A back story. Exoticism and mystique -- like, being hand-formed by Druid priests from the milk of wild wapiti.

So Alabu's not quite there, but it does have nostalgia on its side.

"I guess I was just one of those kids who always thought I was born a century too late," writes Maryclaire Mayes on the company's Web site at http://www.alabu.com. Mayes, who founded the company with her husband in 2000, recounts childhood visits from her uncle, bearing "a big box of his homemade soap, all neatly wrapped up in brown grocery bag paper and tied with cotton string."

The soap stank, but the scent -- metaphorically speaking -- stuck with Mayes.

"From there," she writes, "I developed an interest in keeping life simple and trying to avoid unnecessary chemicals."

Years later, a soap-making project she took on to enlighten her home-schooled children rekindled her interest. Mayes soon found that the homemade soap -- made from the milk of the family's goats -- didn't leave her skin dry and flaky like commercial soaps did.

Which brings us to "soap selling point" No. 3, the Big Question: Does it make you feel pretty, apres dirt?

I'd gotten the gardener's gift basket -- lemon scrub hand soap bar, shea butter lotion stick, "Purely Herbal" and lilac guest bars, lip balm, and "Stress Relief Bath Blast," arranged attractively in a small straw basket -- on a lark. I needed a good reason to garden. Instead of digging up a few dead azaleas, though, I wound up helping prepare and float a concrete slab, which is sort of like gardening in that there were about a million things I would have rather been doing. The end product, too, was similar: extremely gnarly hands.

The lemon scrub soap, made with cornmeal for "extra scrubbing power," performed as billed -- cleaned the crispy mortar and skin-withering dust from my hands, left them smelling nice and feeling soft. Plus, it felt good knowing I was providing jobs for all of Mayes' hard-working goats.

I followed up with a few swipes of the shea butter stick, though I'm not sure I was using it right. The tube seems too small for general moisturizing, and too big for lip balm, and, though it does include an "FDA required" warning that it "has not been commercially tested for safety," it lacks usage suggestions. A small point, though. I'm not sure what the baby guest soaps and the anti-stress bath salts have to do with gardening, unless it's for the party and the long, long soak you take to celebrate the fact that you're finished.

What: Gardener's gift basket from Alabu Inc.

Verdict: A hit.

Cost: $21.75, plus shipping and tax.

Where to get it: Alabu offers limited shopping hours -- 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday, or by appointment -- at its home-based store at 30 Graves Road in Mechanicville. Items are also available through the company's Web site at http://www.alabu.com or by phone at (518) 665-0411 or toll free at (888) 509-7627.