The original name of this blog, Waterchili, came from the frozen green chilis we keep on ice to add to our cooking. To keep with the transported-tropical-produce theme, let me note how a jar of coconut oil in our kitchen serves as a sharply accurate marker for the seasons. I am surprised that the appropriate technology people haven’t made an actual oil thermometer–but perhaps they don’t need to. People who keep jars or bottles or cans of coconut oil in their house as a regular thing would notice on their own how attuned it is to the temperature.
Even up here in the North of the Northern USA, our household uses coconut oil as a hair and head conditioner (though some people cook with it too) the way that traditional South Asians do. You get it into a liquid state and rub it through your scalp and thirsty remnants of a mane before you bathe. Shampoo and hot water wash out the excess, leaving your hair soft and your scalp more soothed than it might be otherwise. Never mind that for a while my provocatively original 13 year old was applying it to her dripping locks AFTER taking a shower–one of the several notable instances of members of my extended family applying printed advice in unprecedented and impractical ways. For South Asians, hair oil also has all kinds of mental health connotations, and is supposed to help preserve your hair as you age. Coconut oil is mixed into fancier hair condiments in South Asia–ones with fragrance and color and poetic names–which will register the cooling of the season with their own uncooperative partial solidification, but these patent mixtures do not (perhaps deliberately) have the spot-on temperature honesty of pure coconut oil. Around here, we need to melt out the little bit we use each time; that is why we keep it in the kitchen. Besides, my nervous sandwich-generation imagination can too easily see the glass jar slipping from young or elderly hands and smashing to bits on the hard tile floor of the bathroom; shards of glass lined with white fat just wouldn’t have the charm of the broken coconut fragments, white fruit lining the hairy and hard brown shell pieces, that were childhood treats on our West Bengal veranda.
This little story of the coconut oil thermometer really began one morning in June, when we noticed a jar of straw-yellow liquid on the kitchen counter. Around our devil’s workshop of a house, I keep everything from colored glass bangles to dried chrysanthemum flowers in old spaghetti sauce jars. These jars are so handy, in their wide-mouthed, measured-capacity ways. Nevertheless, I, who can sniff the difference between two year old ground cumin and coriander–when to most other people both resemble aged sawdust– jumped in slight alarm at the pale translucency in the clean jar and asked my husband What’s that? Leftover wine? Kerosene? Less pleasant substances had also streaked through my mind just then. He didn’t know either, but after our tea and coffee we finally realized that the intractable white solid that we occasionally dug at, and had to microwave or heat in a saucepan to thaw during most of the year, had liquefied completely overnight due to the short and furious Maine summer finally arriving at our typically un-air-conditioned house.
All summer my daughter (the hair-aficionado, or -nada) and I poured spoonfuls on our head directly from the jar, reveling in the ease of application after the jabbing and scraping that just about made us give up the stuff in colder months. Friends as we are with the people who cut our hair, we could only get them to nod sympathetically, as if at two permanently confused and inarticulate people, when we described our own hot-oil treatment to them while they worked on our respectively salt-and-pepper and richly auburn-brown heads.
Suddenly, two days ago, the first cool breeze of September blew back to front through our cluttered house, and the next morning part of the coconut oil was white again. I said, We could use this as a thermometer. Panting in the car on the way home from work in late afternoon Portland traffic, I could not imagine my kitchen as a cool place, but I guess it had been all day: this afternoon even more of it was white and solid, leaving just a sneaky smile of liquid yellowish oil in the middle layer. Not just a thermometer–this jar could serve as a calendar too! I called my spouse and he said It’s supposed to go up into the 80’s again; let’s see what it’s going to do.
If the stuff melts, which it might not for a brief quirk of weather, I’ll get my paint-splattered shorts out again (the pair that got left on the deck railing for a week one summer and was thus three shades lighter on the outside than inside) and go for a walk around the neighborhood in my flip flops, denying the inevitable even as my bag of schoolwork to grade gets heavier by the day. The coconut fat did partially become oil again, but only on one side of the jar, as if to keep its slippery feet firmly planted in seasonal reality.
I am finally posting this on an early October day when sweaters have begun to come out of their shady summer hiding places and it is out of the question for even the teenager to go out in flip flops. In fact, gathering cold-season supplies from various malls this weekend, we noticed a bizarre wall hanging on sale: painted tin flip flops nailed to a rectangular panel, an object that I’m willing to bet no full-time tropical person would actually decorate their wall with. Meanwhile, our coconut oil pet is sitting tight in its jar, creamy white and stubborn. The heat coming on in the house might make it manageable for cosmetological purposes, but liquid oil? It won’t be that until the awe-inspiring movements of the solar system bring us around to June again.