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The age-old magic of baking soda

Earlier this week, my husband and I were traveling home from a cross-country visit to our 20-something granddaughter and the young man with whom she’s in a relationship.

It had been a truly pleasant experience, but it was a long flight home, with a lot of delays. We sat awaiting our third takeoff of the day when my husband turned to me and asked, “So, what are you writing about this week?”

He was referring to the column I have written every week for more than a decade — the column that was due to my editor in a few hours — the one I had totally forgotten about writing.

Trying to be nonchalant, I responded by saying I was writing about “baking soda and the science of happiness.” I’m not sure why I said that, it was probably tied to the book I’d been reading on the plane, “Britt-Marie Was Here: A Novel” by Fredrick Backman. If you have the opportunity to read that book, grab it. It’s a quirky and incredibly engaging narrative about a 60-something woman who hates messes; it contains multiple references to baking soda and its many benefits.

I grew up with baking soda. My siblings and I brushed our teeth with it and there was always a wide-open box in the refrigerator to absorb odors. If anyone in the family felt achy, my mother would fill the tub with steamy-hot water, dump in a box of the velvety white substance and order us to soak.

Somewhat ironically, but maybe not, the magazine I was reading during our recent airplane trek, “Real Simple: Life Made Easier,” also profiled baking soda in a one-page summary that suggested it was “not just for cookies or freshening the fridge” and strongly positioned it as having unexpected applications well beyond that of food enhancer and cleaning agent.

I had not anticipated baking soda as the magic that gave baked goods such as pretzels their golden color and fried chicken wings a crackly crispness. I didn’t realize it wasn’t tomato juice that neutralized the skunk odor on your dog after a wandering encounter, it was, yup, baking soda. The recipe follows: One quart of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide, half a cup of baking soda and two tablespoons of Dawn dish soap. May you never need to use it.

I already knew that adding a bit more baking soda to my long-held recipe for chocolate chip cookies made them measurably better. And I was aware that sprinkling baking soda on tomato plants made the soil less acidic and the tomatoes sweeter. I also realized I didn’t do that this year, which might explain the small, rather tasteless tomatoes we harvested.

As I think about this topic, I’m amazed I have not written about it long ago. It seems to have no limits. Baking soda will freshen your breath, exfoliate your skin, unclog a drain and deter ants.

There’s apparently some application of baking soda and salt water in earthquake recovery, but that needs more research, so I will save that for another week.

— Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor. Reach her at Sharon@agefriendlyinnovators.org.