I always feel badly this time of year because people are messaging me left-and-right asking what to do for their sick family members. While I have tried to do my best to address that in various blog posts over the years, what I really feel like saying to them is “I wish you had asked me this six months ago” because so much of what I do to keep my family kids healthy during the cold and flu season involves preventative measures that just don’t work when you start in January.
The most effective way to achieve wellness is by incorporating herbs and plants in your daily self-care regimen rather than trying to use them as substitutes for OTC or prescription synthetics medicines.
You have to think pro-actively.Let’s face it, while they have undoubtedly saved many lives, antibiotics have made us a little complacent. We know that we don’t “have” to be preventative because the pills are always there to fall back on. Unfortunately, we have done that too much and now are facing a new breed of pathogens that are resistant to our antibiotics. So maybe it is time to start talking about prevention more seriously.
Whenever I think of self-care I think back to days when domestic medicine was the common practice. In the days before antibiotics, prevention was a matter of life-and-death. The cookbooks, domestic manuals and receipt books of the past make that clear. There were a few common themes in these sources that I would like to introduce in this post and then maybe expand on at a later date.
Everyday Dishes Were Made with Many Herbs and Spices.
Because of my views on eating your herbs, I probably cook with a wider variety of herbs, spices and other ingredients than most people I know. But when I start poking around in my ancient cookbooks, I am reminded I don’t come close to what was done in the past. The other thing that is clear is that the cooks knew that these ingredients had health promoting properties. The following images and passages were taken from an illuminated (medieval term for illustrated) medical manuscript which was translated from Arabic texts into Latin some time in the late 14th century.
Nature: Warm in the third degree, dry in the second.
Optimum: The kind called naptici, that is, from the mountains and with a sharp odor.
Usefulness: They stimulate urination, influence coitus and, mixed with honey, clear up catarrh of the chest.
Dangers: Bad for the brain and the senses.
Neutralization of the Dangers: With sesame oil and with the oil of sweet almonds.
Effects: They cause hot blood and an acute crisis of the bile. They are primarily indicated for cold temperaments, for old people, in Winter, and in the Northerly regions.
Harvesting Dill (Aneti)
Source: Tacuinum of Vienna
Nature: Warm and dry toward the end of the second degree and the beginning of the third.
Optimum: The kind that is green, fresh, and tender.
Usefulness: Brings relief to a stomach that is cold and windy.
Dangers: It is harmful to the kidneys and causes nausea with its essence.
Neutralization of the Dangers: With lemoncellis – the juice of small lemons.
Effects: Moderately nourishing. It is good for cold and damp temperaments, for old people, in Winter and in cold regions.
Most cook books had recipes that mentioned healing and certain spices or spice blends were attributed with improving physiological function. Spice blends often had names such as “Powders That Digest the Food”: One part pepper, two of caraway, three parts dry coriander; pound all that and sift and use.
De re coquinaria or Cooking and Dining in Imperial Rome was written around 400 C.E. by Apicus and contained a recipe containing over 15 herbs and spices called “Sales Conditos ad Multa” or “Salts for Many Ills” to be “used against indigestion, to move the bowels, against all illness, against all pestilence as well as for the prevention of colds.”
One of my favorite recipes from the An Andulus cookbook is called “The Great Drink of Roots” which I will save for its own blog post as it contains well over 30 ingredients. The anonymous author attributes it with many health promoting properties saying the drink “fortifies the stomach and the liver, opens blockages of the liver and spleen, cleans the stomach, and is beneficial for the rest of the phlegmatic ailments of the body.”
Special Dishes Were Prepared for the Ill and Convalescing
I think people will are familiar with the idea of serving chicken soup for a cold, but in fact historical receipt books contained many foods specifically meant to be served to the ill or those recuperating from an illness. I explain some of the reasons for this in my post on caring for the ill.
Woodcut originally published in Kuchenmeistery, a pamphlet cookbook first printed in Nürnberg about 1485
Barley was popular fare for invalids in France and England. The early 14th century French, Le Viandier de Taillevent contained an entire chapter titled “Foods for Invalids” and included directions for hulled barley gruel. Later in the 13th century the French manuscript Le Menagier de Paris included a similar recipe and a recipe for a sweet tisane made with barley and licorice in the chapter on beverages for invalids. Today, I sometimes substitute steel cut oats in these recipes for those who avoid barley due to its glycoproteins.
This is a recipe that I sometimes use in demonstrations from the An Andulus cookbook. In the past, the choice of ingredients used for it was likely based on both seasonal availability and the particular energetic properties of the foodstuffs.
Vegetarian Dish Beneficial for Tertian Fevers and Acute Fevers
Take boiled peeled lentils and wash in hot water several times; put in the pot and add water without covering them; cook and then throw in pieces of gourd, or the stems [ribs] of Swiss chard, or of lettuce and its tender sprigs, or the flesh of cucumber or melon, and vinegar, coriander seed, a little cumin, Chinese cinnamon, saffron and two ûqiyas of fresh oil; balance with a little salt and cook. Taste, and if its flavor is pleasingly balanced between sweet and sour, [good;] and if not, reinforce until it is equalized, according to taste, and leave it to lose its heat until it is cold and then serve.
Choose one of the following ingredients:
½ lb. gourd (pumpkin or squash)
½ lb. chard or beet leaves
1 lb. lettuce
2- 8 inch cucumbers.
2 cups lentils
1 tsp salt
5 cups water
1 tsp coriander
1 tsp cumin
2 tsp. cinnamon
6 threads saffron (substitute 1 tsp. turmeric)
¼ cup vinegar
¼ cup oil
Boil lentils about 40 minutes until they start to get mushy. Add spices, vinegar, and oil and salt. Add one of the vegetables; leafy vegetables should be torn up, gourd or cucumbers are cut into bite-sized pieces and cooked about 10-15 minutes before being added to lentils. Cook lettuce or chard version for about 10 minutes, until leaves are soft.Cook gourd or cucumber version about 20 minutes. Be careful not to burn during the final cooking. Honestly this works best if you do the final stage of cooking in the crockpot. In the medieval medicine class I taught at PS1 over the summer we served this with a dash of verjus ( fresh juice squeezed from unripe grapes) and it was quite good.
People Followed a Regimen
Once upon a time, most physician-healers passed a long a holistic healthcare philosophy which focused heavily on a regimen of prevention, exercise, a good diet, and a good environment- you know one free of any sort of demons or spirits that might make you ill and full of people who were of good character. There is much to think about in that philosophy.
Domestic practices were informed by these teachings as passed down through the generations. One English parenting book published in 1839 advised “When we take into account, that the food we eat is converted into blood; that if the food be good, the blood is good; and that if the food be improper or impure, the blood is impure likewise; and, moreover, when we know, that every part of the body is built up by the blood, we cannot be considered to be too particular in making our selection of food. Besides, if indigestible or improper food be taken into the stomach, the blood will not only be made impure, but the stomach and bowels will be disordered.”
Due to this thinking, people incorporated herbs and foods into their diet that were considered to purify the blood. These were often the first greens that popped up in the spring after long winters subsisting on preserved foods.
Domestic medical practices involved some odd preventative therapeutics, as well. Generations of European children were lined up and given a weekly treatment referred to as “treacle and brimstone” (sulfur) which was thought to be a blood cleanser and acted as a laxative. Regular doses of castor oil were common, also.
Thankfully, today we know of more pleasant tasting concoctions which are health promoting and we have a vast array of herbs and spices at our immediate disposal. It makes little sense that in these days of plenty, we should be at the mercy of epidemics that are brought on almost entirely due to deficiency.
Apicius, & Starr, F. (2009). Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome. (J. D. Vehling, Trans.).
Pegge, S. and Lindahl Greg (2005). The Forme of Cury: A Roll of Ancient English Cookery Compiled, about A.D. 1390.
Marx Rumpolt, Ein New Kochbuch (1581), tr. M. Grasse.
Martinelli, Candida. 13th Century Al-Andalus Cookbook
Power, Eileen. The Goodman of Paris (c. 1393)
Pye Henry Chavasse. (1839). Advice to mothers on the management of their offspring.