Dear reader, I can’t seem to catch a break. You know that saying that either you find the time to rest, or your body will make the time to rest? I appear to have been subject to that maxim. Two Saturdays ago I attended the most delightful small dinner party. I was there for several hours, only a few people, in a private home, everyone was vaxxed and boosted. The food and wine were delicious, the conversation delightful, and I got to practice my college-level French on a native French speaker. I went into the office on Tuesday, and found out Tuesday night one of the dinner party attendees had tested positive for COVID. My home tests came back negative. I took a PCR test on Wednesday, just to be sure. That whole week I had been up earlier than normal to accommodate some work being done on our chimney, which although the extremely friendly workers were careful, meant that our house had slightly more dust than usual. So I thought the sore throat I had on Thursday was because of that. Reader, I was wrong. After five negative antigen tests and a negative PCR test, my husband and I got one more PCR test the day before we were due to attend a wedding. Mine came back positive, and my sore throat turned into the worst case of post-nasal drip I have ever had (needless to say, we skipped the wedding). I went in on Sunday (yesterday) for monoclonal antibodies (painless and no negative reaction) and for help with my swollen tonsils and sore throat, which by then meant I was in constant pain. At one point I sneezed and started crying. As the medical professional noted, it was like acid being poured down the back of my throat.
Thankfully, after a lot of peppermint tea, homemade rice pudding (made on Saturday from this recipe), chicken soup (a rotisserie chicken, a box of broth, and some basic veggies) and fresh bread (storebought) and butter, alongside a whole lot of over the counter drugs including cold and sinus medicine, antihistamines, saline nasal spray, throat-numbing lozenges, and sleeping in 2-3 hour spurts for about 14 hours, I’m feeling halfway decent again. Substack friend Jolene (from Time Travel Kitchen - go follow her, she’s a dear!) checked in with me this morning, so I thought I would do a quick writeup while I was feeling up to it.
I figure, I don’t have a vocal voice right now, but I still have a writer’s voice!
Some of you may have noticed my social media recipe post of the day today was homemade mac ‘n’ cheese - a favorite of mine. It got me thinking about comfort food, illness, and yes, even grief. Why do certain foods comfort us so much? Who does the cooking when the cook is sick?
I’ve written previously about how cooks and home economists during the Spanish Flu epidemic of a century ago coped with trying to feed people. There was no social safety net, not everyone could afford medical care, and what medical care there was was largely ineffective against the virulent virus. That left many to fall back on old ideas about sickroom cookery: beef broth and blancmange and milk toast and gruel. While many of these liquid-based foods were helpful in keeping patients hydrated, there was little actual nutrition in them (as my favorite Victorians, Vile Victorians recently noted in a post about the progenitor of the term “anorexia nervosa”). Refined white bread, polished rice, beef extracts, meat broths, sugar, wine, gelatin - the only real nutrition to be had in any of these was the protein, fat, and carbohydrates in milk. But an ill person cannot live on milk alone.
Ironically, when I have a sore throat, dairy products are one of the few things that make it feel better. I think the cold creaminess of milk, rice pudding, and ice cream are comforting, but I think also the fat in the dairy helps coat the throat and make it feel better. Dairy products do also help promote mucus production - a bad thing if you’ve already got too much, but potentially a good thing if you’re drying out.
Despite the deliciousness of honey, hot water, and a little milk, I was ODing on all the sugar. The thing that seems to have helped soothe my throat the most and keep me hydrated is sipping lots of peppermint tea, at a just-below-scalding level. The heat helps relax my throat muscles, which helps the moisture get to all parts of the throat, and the warmth is soothing. Having read some Regency romances as a treat to myself these past few days (Joyce Harmon’s Mary Bennet series is a delight to independent bluestockings everywhere), I found myself agreeing with the British maxim that tea helps everything. Although I contented myself with herbal, rather than caffeinated tea.
And the lazy chicken soup I made last night (husband did the grocery shopping) wasn’t half bad - Some celery, an onion, and some baby carrots, sliced and cooked in a little butter. Some rotisserie chicken, chopped. A box of chicken broth. A little extra water, salt, pepper. Served with French bread slathered with real butter. Dip the buttered bread into the broth. Delightful and comforting. And slightly more nutrition than the oodles of rice pudding I had been subsisting on.
Is there real medicine behind chicken soup? Nearly every chicken-raising culture seems to have some variation on the theme - chicken noodle, chicken matzo ball, congee, and more. Dieticians point out a number of benefits to chicken soup including the hydrating powers of clear broths, anti-inflammatory powers of chicken and vegetables, the benefits of available energy in carbs for a body fighting disease, etc. But I think the power of chicken soup has as much to do with tradition as anything else. People who grew up eating 7-Up and saltines with their canned chicken soup still associate those things with comfort in times of illness. Others swear by mashed potatoes and gravy, or grilled cheese sandwiches, or oatmeal with milk.
I was not often sick as a child, so I don’t have clear memories of what my mom served when we were sick. But as an adult I have often self-medicated with creamy oatmeal, cereal and milk, mashed potatoes and cheese, macaroni and cheese, homemade soup, ice cream, and yes, rice pudding. My own versions of 19th century sickroom cookery.
Waking up for the day finally around 3 pm, after a shower and walking the dog, I was hungry. Rice pudding at 8 am and some toast at 11 am apparently wasn’t cutting it for a body fighting off a virus. So I took some of the leftover rotisserie chicken, an apple, and made myself a simple little chicken salad sandwich (how Edwardian of me). With more rice pudding and some raspberry sorbet for dessert. And since it was over 60 degrees out and sunny, true to 19th century form, I opened some windows for the first time since last fall to get some fresh air. Begone, foul virus!
Tonight I think I may make my homemade mac ‘n’ cheese, with a side of steamed green beans for some extra nutrition. I was supposed to make mac ‘n’ cheese for the wedding yesterday. Alas, it was not to be. And carbs and dairy are probably my favorite comfort foods, no matter the form they take. The husband also bought a ton of apples, pears, and a big loaf of challah bread, so bread pudding may also be in the future. Carbs and dairy, my friends, carbs and dairy.
I’ve got a few more half-finished pieces in the pipeline, including one on refugee cooking and another on Midwestern orange rolls. You’ll get them eventually. And if you’ve been overworking yourself and you need a sign - this is it. Get some rest. Real rest, without guilt. Because one way or another, your body will make you.
Here’s to improving symptoms, restful sleep, and comforting food.