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The Soap Opera

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Photograph by Farika

Ancient practice and modern sensibilities converge at Rainbow Groceries

By Dara Colwell

Few will argue that as civilization has advanced, so has bathing. From the Babylonian practice of mixing boiled fats with ashes to create a rough unguent to the famous Roman baths, the recipe for personal cleanliness has always been soap. The ancient substance--the residue of animal sacrifice: rain-mixed tallow, wood ashes and clay soil--got its name from Italy's Mount Sapo, but it wasn't until the 19th century that soap became a widely used home necessity.

Like salt and sugar, soap was transformed from an expensive luxury monopolized by the well-to-do to an everyday household item. Made at home from the boiled drippings of leftover scraps of fat from meat, soap was an unscented slab that had the tendency to redden hands. As the recipe improved and manufacturers discovered how to make a synthetic, deodorant-based soap, the practice was abandoned, and housewives groaned a sigh of relief--now they could just pop down to the corner store for a bar. And for modern lard-fearing vegetarians like me, the discovery was a godsend.

At Rainbow Groceries, there are hundreds of sweet-smelling soaps, from handmade hempseed-oil bars to lavender, oatmeal and translucent honey slabs that resemble hardened cheese. Located next to an aisle lined with bathing accouterments--cleansing mitts, loofah scrub sticks and body brushes--the soaps at Rainbow offer a range of possibly every delicious smell you would ever want to cover your body. There are lemongrass, ylang-ylang and patchouli aromatherapy herbal soaps (ranging from $2.35 to $6 per bar); huge bars of vanilla, musk and honeysuckle soap ($12.35); Indian ayurvedic soap ($1.15); and goat-milk soaps in flavors such as sandalwood, peppermint and tangerine ($3.50 per bar).

For men who may gravitate toward straightforward, un-girlie-smelling soap, the hempseed ones smell like burlap and won't get you in trouble with your girlfriend.

If you ever wanted to soak in a hot bath to combat a San Franciscan summer, Rainbow's selection of soap will help you stay in the tub until your fingers wrinkle like prunes. And you'll smell gorgeous to boot .

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From the August 16, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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