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Sunday, December 02, 2012

Comfort Food

Potions and Philters Dept.: As prescription meds skyrocket in price, let’s go back to the materials from which said meds originally were derived. And why our forbears could claim never to have been ill a day in their lives: They couldn’t bear the thought of having to consume some of this stuff.


MY APPETITE IS USUALLY the last thing to go under illness or stress, but I got hit with a cold-or-flu that felled me and kept me in bed, hungry, and turned my mood ugly. And in no mood to take a chance on a restaurant. I needed convalescence food. Beginning with a few sips of icy ginger ale to cool and unclog my parched throat.

But why ginger ale? Why did every other beverage seem repellent? Before long, I’d move into the hot-tea-with-honey-and-lemon stage, but not for this immediate slaking.

At the turn of the last century, ginger ale had been this country’s favorite soda for 40 years, with another 30 to go before you-know-what toppled it. Its origins are murky, but it seems to have originated in Belfast in the 1840s. “Early ginger ales would not be recognizable to modern palates,” writes Kenneth Previtali in a 1991 “Beverage World” magazine. “The most common sin was the overuse of capsicum (hot red pepper) to achieve the ‘bite’ that the right amount of genuine ginger provided.” Thanks to its sulfur content, ginger itself has a long history as a curative – it was the antidote of choice during the plague years, and still is administered for coughs and colds.

So there was some scientific basis for my mother’s insistence on having a bottle of the stuff handy when I or my siblings took ill. Thanks to the emergence of small-company gourmet blends, we can once again sample what true ginger ale is all about, but I had to content myself with a bottle of Stewart’s blander version.

Why was I ill? “Let a man go home, tired or exhausted, eat a full supper of starchy and vegetable food, occupy his mind intently for a while, go to bed in a warm, close room, and if he doesn’t have a cold in the morning it will be a wonder.” So states the 1887 White House Cook Book, by Hugo Ziemann (steward of the White House) and Mrs. F.L. Gillette. Who thoughtfully add, “A drink of whisky or a glass or two of beer before supper will facilitate matters very much.”

Health was a sterner pursuit in those days, but illness was a picnic. “Dishes for invalids should be served in the daintiest and most attractive way,” the book advises. “A mutton chop, nicely cut, trimmed and broiled, is a dish that is often inviting to an invalid.” Or, if more culinary delicacy is required, “Pudding can be made of prepared barley, or tapioca, well soaked before boiling, with an egg added . . . also various drinks, such as milk punch, wine, whey, apple-toddy, and various other nourishing drinks.”

And what simple advice the old tome administers! “Clothes that have been worn through the day should be changed for fresh or dry ones to sleep in.” Looking through my library of long-ago remedies, I found this passage from one of Booth Tarkington’s 1918-vintage Penrod stories: “Penrod whiffed the powerful odor of the bag, as his mother advanced timidly with it, and suddenly he realized what was intended to be put upon him; he perceived that he was meant not only to smell this smell, thus briefly, once, but to carry it about with him on his breast-bone for an indefinite number of days . . . smelling it uninterruptedly with his own nose and making it his most salient, memorable and discussed characteristic in the nose of the world.” It’s an asafetida bag, containing an herb also known as “devil’s dung,” once suffered as a preventative aromatic. It's still used as a seasoning in some Indian recipes.

No preventative poultices in my house. We waited for the illness to arrive, then did battle. I grew up with dry toast and poached eggs, and my mother may well have found her recipes in the White House Cookbook. Susan’s was a chicken soup household. “Soup” comes from the word “sop,” which describes a slice of bread moistened with some manner of drippings. The earliest evidence of soup dates back about 8,000 years and was brewed from the bones of a hippopotamus, which suggests that there were a lot of guests at that party.

Part of my recovery diet was hot-and-sour soup, which always tastes refreshing on a sore throat. Capsicum is part of the reason – it has a high concentration of vitamin C, among other healthful ingredients, and you can sprinkle red pepper directly into hot tea to enjoy those properties.

While chicken soup long has been proven to be as salubrious as its legend suggests, Asian cookery recognizes the healing qualities of specific ingredients. To combat bronchitis, you combine cooked carrots, apricot kernels, and a porridge or rice. Diabetes calls for mung beans, peas and barley.

Barley also gives us barley water, a dreaded tonic in its day, at least from a child’s perspective – but less noxious than the oils of castor, cod liver, or turpentine, which derived, respectively, from beaver, cod, and pine tree, and enjoyed vogues as curatives. Barley water was the source of the French tisane, which now refers to any potion designed for an invalid. In early America, Shakers had a version called “haying water,” designed to quench the thirst of field workers on hot days. Lemon balm, mint leaves, sugar syrup and lemon juice were mixed into a pitcher of homemade ginger ale.

As I rose from my sickbed, I nibbled a graham cracker and was reminded of Rev. Sylvester Graham, an early 19th-century advocate of whole grain breads, fresh fruits and vegetables. Trouble was, he didn’t stop there: He sought the moral salvation of the world through cold showers and hard mattresses and complete avoidance of the evils of self abuse. Yet, nutritionally, he was on the right track – and a lot of those old remedies are coming back to us with sound underpinnings of research to back them up.

Those weeks when Liz Taylor or Jesus isn’t on the tabloid covers at the checkout aisle, they scream about the efficacy of garlic and olive oil. Garlic is now known as a fierce anticoagulant, good for hypertension and for lowering cholesterol; olive oil is monounsaturated, and doesn’t raise the blood cholesterol level.

My first true meal, as the sore throat recedes, will be a simple pasta dish with plenty of garlic. A little red pepper to enhance the flavor. A cup of chicken soup. And still more ginger ale.

Metroland Magazine, 11 March 1999

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