It was not so long ago that the process of health care was considerably more centered within the family and the local, surrounding community. Our ancestors did not get in the wagon, harness the horses and ride 10 or 20 miles to what was the local doctor and sometimes they couldn’t wait until he could come by. While modern medical doctors have been around for a while now, they weren’t always in abundance, especially in rural areas. Come to think of it, they still aren’t in abundance in rural areas. And they did not have a lock on the provision of health care until the early 20th century. This transition from a number of types of providers, including lay providers, to only a few, has occurred within the last 100 years. This is not going to be a post on the successes and failures of our current health care system, though after 40 years within the system I have some pretty firm positions on both, but it is going to be a brief look at one of my ancestors and her use of herbs to keep her family healthy and how I’ve adapted and adopted those.
This blog, by the way, is not meant to encourage the use of herbs instead of health care. It is meant to share how our ancestors used what they had to mitigate illness. Understanding this transformation puts the lives of our ancestors into context and helps us “see” better how they lived their daily lives. Herbs and home remedies were an important part of home life prior to the early 20th century. While doctors were available, folks did not have the resources to see a doctor every time someone in the household was sick. Malaria (see blog on malaria in the panhandle) was endemic to the panhandle until the mid-20th century and quinine was given regularly in households to cope with the reoccurring bouts of chills and fever, as was home remedies. My grandmother had several go-to herbs that she used to get her household of eight children all to adulthood. Here are a few.
My grandmother utilized a number of home remedies that my Mom remembers well and some she brought into the household when I was growing up. Grandmama was a big believer in ginger. Ginger tea was used when you were sick and had a fever, it was good for cramps and muscle spasms of all kinds, and it was good for an upset stomach or indigestion. It supports the body’s effort at generating a fever to negatively impact the spread of bacteria in the body. It was used as a poultice or plaster to draw out congestion and to warm injured muscles and soft tissue. Ginger ale seemed to take over from the homemade tea once I was an adolescent. Frankly, I can’t recall being sick without recalling the smell and taste of ginger and eating chicken soup and vanilla ice cream. These days I keep fresh ginger and ground ginger in the house for any of the above and a few additional uses. I love using it in cooking and it is good in a tonic made with turmeric to decrease inflammation. And it makes an excellent naturally fermented ginger ale or kombucha.
The hot toddy was, as my Dad liked to say, the remedy for what ails you. It was the go-to for that awful feeling of aches, pains and general malaise that precedes the cold or flu. This is a lost remedy, along with homemade chicken soup (see my recipe below) that should be in every woman’s (or man’s) arsenal of care for the cold or flu. Like the above remedy, my Mom brought this one forward into our household. Start with a strong black tea brew and add lemon (I usually use the juice from at least half of a good-sized fresh lemon-this contributes Vitamin C), honey (I use either raw local or Manuka honey from Australia-makes it tastier & adds nutrition) to taste and then the whiskey (knocks you out so you sleep-your body’s own healing mechanism), at least a shot. I’ve been known to add some additional powdered Vitamin C but do it at the last minute and start drinking immediately and a grate or two of ginger is also a nice addition.
Now being a more 21st-century herbalist and whiskey connoisseur (LOL) I like to occasionally use herbal or fruit-infused whiskeys (cherry or vanilla my favorites). Get in bed before you start drinking it and I would suggest sipping it between your groans and coughs or if you are in the early stages of feeling miserable just keep sipping. Be sure the cover is over you and be sure to sit the cup down on something solid before you fall asleep. I’ve never woke up the next morning not feeling better but you might find the bedclothes damp from your sweating. If you just have a dry cough from either an allergy or a touch of bronchitis and it is keeping you from sleeping you can do a quick cough syrup. Chase a half shot of whiskey with a tablespoon of honey. Or if you can take the pucker, start with a tablespoon of fresh lemon juice, then chase with whiskey and honey. If you check the ingredients on most OTC cough syrup, they will be VERY similar.
One preventive remedy that my Mom says was an annual event but not one I tried until adulthood was the Spring tonic of Sassafras tea. Apparently believed to help move whatever accumulated during the confinements of winter. I read about its popularity a few years after starting my own exploration of historical and modern uses of herbs and discovered my grandmother put great store in its remedial uses. It has a pleasant taste (hint of root beer) though making a decoction of a root can take some time. It was coupled with Castor Oil, I guess to remove what was readied for removal. That last is one I’m thankful didn’t make it to my household growing up. Another remedy I did not get to experience but understand from my Mom was very popular during the early 20th century and before – the mustard plaster. This was a poultice of ground mustard placed on the chest to relieve congestion. My Mom said it was my grandmother’s go-to for any chest congestion from a cold to pneumonia. Knowing my grandmother, it was probably accompanied by ginger tea!
Chicken Noodle (or Rice) Soup
1 whole clean, organic chicken
I usually cook it in the slow cooker with half a lemon, a spring or two of rosemary, a stalk of celery and carrot, a diced medium onion, salt, pepper and garlic to taste. Once falling off the bone, de-bone and lay the chicken aside, put the bones back in with the leavings & liquid from the cooked chicken and a 1/4 cup of sherry. You can break the bones to get the minerals out of them as they cook. Let the broth simmer for a couple of hours. You can add some organic chicken broth if you are making a large pot of broth and simmer on low for a couple of hours. Strain the bones and leavings from the broth. If eating is a challenge, either because of a sore throat or nausea while you are sick just sip on the broth.
- 1 organic carrot, cut into small pieces
- 1 organic celery stalk cut into pieces
- Herbs – fresh rosemary, basil, and parsley to taste (all are nutrient-rich and adds flavor)
- I sometimes add 1 can of organic mushrooms or some chopped, fresh button mushrooms
- Some of the chicken (as much as you want in it) and freeze the rest for another day. Cut into eating bites.
- Noodles or brown rice that is appropriate for the amount of broth you have. (I often use noodles made by a company called Rossi Pasta. Find online. Their noodles are VERY good. It is faster than making my own and less messy, especially when I’m feeling poorly.)
If the broth is a bit too strong, you can add a little more water. Don’t water it down too much. There is a lot of nutrition in good chicken broth! Which, of course, is why it is good for what ails you.
This isn’t the place to discuss organic versus the store-bought stuff you find these days. I try to use organic foods when at all possible and preferably grow my own. But if that isn’t possible don’t let it keep you from trying some homemade chicken soup. Organic foods have a much better taste which usually means they are more nutrient-dense. Many of the chemicals used in American farming and animal raising these days are not something our bodies are designed to consume. Our bodies often can’t process them so they tax the liver, intestines, and kidneys. Much of our soils are seriously depleted and eroding with every rain and the way we “fertilize” with just three of the 18 or so essential nutrients is like humans trying to live healthy on salt, sugar, and fats. The simple fact is if the plant doesn’t get all the nutrients, neither do we. Fortified foods are a shadow of the real thing. If you want to understand where our “health care” system starts failing, it is with our agricultural system. We are what we eat and what we are exposed to. For good or bad our bodies and our DNA are impacted by both. Good quality foods, well-grown and nutrient-dense is our first line of defense in good health.
Until Next Time
- Southern Folk Medicine, 1750-1820 by Kay K. Moss
- Catching Babies: The Professionalization of Childbirth, 1870-1920 by Charlotte G. Borst
- The Social Transformation of American Medicine: The Rise of a Sovereign Profession and the Making of a Vast Industry by Paul Starr
- Seeking the Historical Cook: Exploring Eighteenth-Century Southern Foodways by Kay K. Moss