By Francine Holmes
What is it with our new-found obsession with Shea butter, is it really that new?
It’s interesting that in recent years, Shea butter has become the ‘new’ miracle product. You would find it in almost everything. Shea this, added Shea that! But is it really that new?
I remember as a child in Ivory Coast, West Africa, how my mother would literally glob it on my skin before going to school. My memories of Shea butter weren’t that fond but it was the norm for me and my schoolmates. It was typical to see your friends legs or your own for that matter covered in sand that had adhered to the thick layer of butter, at a glance one wouldn’t discount the possibility that it could have been laid on with a trowel: that thick! However, as absurd as it appeared, the ritual continued because it was understood that it was beneficial. Our love affair with the unctuous Shea butter was a product of tradition and pride; you wore it because your mother globbed it on since birth, as did her mother.
Typically Shea was made in the village (as opposed to the city) and for some of us who had family there, you never forget the sight and smell of the laborious production process: a makeshift assembly line of industrious women sorting, toiling and fanning the smoldering cauldrons. At every turn it was a part of your life. It was used to cook with, to rub on your skin, or to polish your going out shoes (really! Africa’s proverbial duct tape). Now even though it’s today’s fad, this wonder plant has been Africa’s best-kept secret for centuries. As Africans, we could always reach for the Shea butter for chapped lips, freshly washed hair, cracked heels, and dry elbows. It was a favorite for pregnant women with stretch marks on their stomachs before the binding (that’s for another blog). You name it.
Back home where Shea is readily available, no one worried about things like shelf life. But here in the U.S., if you’re in the market for some you have to be aware that Shea does expire in about 2-3 years, which diminishes its potency. And believe me you can easily tell when your Shea has gone sour, literally!
I spoke before of my less than loving feelings for Shea while growing up, but now I look back to those days with some nostalgia; and every now and then as I apply that familiar emollient on my skin, I resist the urge to glob it on, take a picture, and post it on Facebook for friends and family who would be in on the joke. So whatever you call it – Shea butter, beurre de Karite, Butyrospermum parkii (that’s a mouthful) – a rose by any other name, for me at least, will always smell like home.