It’s okay – this is still a food history blog, despite the title it’s not become that sort of website.
The lurgy has struck our household but it’s not the One That Must Not Be Named. It’s just a general run down-end of winter-haven’t had a break since Christmas one. I should mention I’m talking about my husband here. He’s spent most of the day in bed, grunting at me when I offer him tea and saying things like “I couldn’t possibly eat a thing, you know I have no appetite” before scoffing half a packet of medicinal chocolate hot cross buns.
I’m not surprised he’s feeling rotten, and I’ve tried to be the very model of a dutiful and caring wife; I’ve made sure he has something to drink, opened the windows to let the fresh air in and fought a pensioner for the last packet of paracetamol and toilet roll for him in the shop (twas a bitter fight but I don’t reckon I’ll be seeing much of Doris again, because neither of us are allowed back into Sainsbury’s anymore.)
So imagine my surprise – no, my utter outrage – when, after I lovingly asked how much longer he was going to groan and flop about for because I had actually planned on changing the sheets today and he still had to bring the bins off the street because we were at risk of becoming those neighbours, he snapped back “you could show a bit of kindness, you know, I feel really poorly!”
Well. I retreated downstairs, his words ringing shrilly in my ears like Doris’ battle cry. Maybe he was right. Maybe I hadn’t been sympathetic enough. Maybe what he needed was some good old fashioned care (you know I love a tenuous link.)
History’s cookbooks are littered with recipes for ‘invalids’. These recipes are intended to be bland but nourishing, simple yet enticing, and fortifying without containing really containing any ingredients in any useful quantities that could propel someone from the sick bed fully recovered. One of the earliest records of food playing a role in recovery comes from the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates who is supposed to have said “let food be thy medicine and medicine thy food” (actually, it’s probably a misquote or a fanciful Renaissance scholar embellishing history, as no-one’s found any evidence for the saying in any of Hippocrate’s surviving works.)
Looking at Hippocrates’ understanding of illness, it’s clear that he felt food played an important role in health. For those afflicted with hemorrhoids, for example, Hippocrates recommends a lentil-heavy diet, and he suggested other legumes such as chickpeas could help with stomach ulcers and problems of digestion.
If we’re talking about Hippocrates we might as well mention Galen, who built on Hippocrates’ idea of the Four Humours (previously mentioned here) and added the Theory of Opposites. Galen was a big believer that all food had certain qualities (spicy, dry, hot, wet, etc) and that these qualities could cause or cure illnesses, depending on how they were mixed. To highlight this theory, Galen used the example of the cause of ‘hot’ diseases “[one cause of excessive heat] lies in foods that have hot and harsh powers, such as garlic, leeks, onions, and so on. Immoderate use of these foods sometimes sparks a fever…” Now, I’m not an expert at all but it seems pretty obvious that to keep coronavirus at bay, as well as frequent handwashing, all the greengrocers in the country should be forced to self-isolate as a matter of urgency.
Moving forward through time and one thing that begins to spring out of recipes for the sick is an emphasis on broth and gruel, presumably to ensure that the patient was genuine in their illness and not just faking it to get a day off school? One broth in particular stands out: beef broth. Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management contains no fewer than three recipes for it (though she calls it beef tea) under the chapter ‘Invalid Cookery’. The recipes are without fail bland and uninspiring: basically just boiling beef in water with a little salt. Mrs Beeton somewhat optimistically recommends that when caring for the sick, one should always have ready “a little beef tea, nicely made and nicely skimmed [so] that it may be administered as soon almost as the invalid wishes for it.” I imagined I would be waiting a fair while if I told my husband that was going to be lunch.
But what to make him? Every cookery book I consulted told me in no uncertain terms that food for the sick should be as plain as possible – an edible punishment for daring to succumb to various virus and bugs. And then – inspiration, in the form of the marvelously stomach churning 70s Dinner Party: Beef Tingler.
I have to work very hard not to get too Carry On Matron about this. Beef Tingler seemed to combine all of the beef broth elements of invalid cooking but attempted to zhush (how do you spell that?!) them up a bit, mostly through the misguided addition of whipped cream. Two things I have to confess here – one: unable to find any tins of condensed beef broth, I just used ordinary canned beef broth, and two: I halved the recipe because I didn’t want any more of this nightmare in my kitchen than was absolutely necessary.
First, I heated up a can of plain beef broth. As someone who feels caring for the sick should be made as quick and easy as possible, so that the caretakers might get on with other things (like recapping Inside Number Nine and occasionally texting spoilers to the invalid), it was a promising start. To this broth I added 1/8th of a tin’s worth of brandy.
While this was cooking I whipped up 1/4 of a tin of cream and added vanilla extract, nutmeg, cinnamon and orange zest. The soup was then poured into a bowl and a dollop of cream was placed on top, whereupon it immediately melted and rendered any chance of a photo impossible. Luckily I’m a bit of a pro by now and had suspected this might happen, so had reserved half just in case. I decanted the remaining soup into a glass tumbler, added on another spoon of whipped cream and cackled to myself that I wasn’t going to be the one to eat it.
Even I felt this might be a step too far as I carried it up the stairs to my husband at 11.00am. The cream was sort of frothing about and the smells were confusing – hot meat and alcohol, cinnamon, vanilla, orange. There was a lot going on.
I think my husband sensed it wasn’t going to go well for him and was doing a fabulous bit of pretending to be asleep when I came to the bedroom. He opened one eye blearily.
“No, no, no, no…”
“It’s Beef Tingler -” (in hindsight, probably shouldn’t have opened with that.)
“It’ll be good for you, possibly.”
“Please, just take it away. No. Dear God, what’s that smell?”
It was clear he would not sip even a little. It would have to come down to me. I managed two spoonfuls in total before it went down the sink. The cream was very odd – foamy but quite thin because so much of it had melted. It had mixed with the top part of the broth by now which was really quite alcoholic but not in a good way and tasted faintly cheesy.
I assume the brandy was meant to be the ‘tingler’ in this but who the bloody hell would know? No one, I repeat, no one, will have ever managed to swallow down enough of it to find out.
On to dessert and straight faces are maintained all around for the arrival of ‘Stimulating Jelly’ and its author, Fannie Farmer. I kid you not.
This recipe is from the 1905 edition of Ms Farmer’s American cookbook Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent. I liked that title, it lent an air of occasion to the situation I was in. It made me feel almost like a real doctor consulting a manual – which food to help with this illness, which food to avoid for that. Ms Farmer’s approach to food in this book is nothing short of astoundingly scientific for its time. She starts off with a pretty impressive chapter on the classification of foods, including a diagram of a classification tree of organic and inorganic matter and the chemical elements of each type of food (carbon, hydrogen, sulphur etc) and makes a big deal of the fact that food for the sick should be both appetising to look at and not just variations on faintly flavoured water.
The book is broken down into sections depending on the type of meal one wishes to cook, so I flipped straight to chapter 24: ‘Jellies’. If beef broth was the quintessential convalescent’s meal, then surely jelly was the quintessential convalescent’s pudding.
It started off normally enough and I flipped lazily past recipes for lemon jelly and orange jelly and milk jelly until I stumbled across the alcoholic jellies – which is where I found Stimulating Jelly. The main flavour in this was port, which we randomly happened to have in (possibly a gift a from some polite guest who clearly doesn’t know either of us?). I couldn’t see my husband objecting too much if I brought him a jelly made mainly of alcohol, so I ploughed on.
The port bubbled away for 10 minutes or so with half a cinnamon stick and one (Fannie was very precise about that) clove. After this had cooked, I added lemon juice, sugar, 3/4 granulated gelatin and – you guessed it – beef extract. This was essentially the liquid that had been squeezed out of a raw steak. Even in puddings, the belief that even tiny quantities of meat juice would perk you up was prevalent.
I poured the mixture into a ramekin, noting that Ms Farmer assumed there would only be one invalid in the household judging by the amount her recipe yielded, and popped it into the fridge.
I attempted to convince my husband (who had rallied enough for a chicken tikka sandwhich while I spluttered my way through Beef Tingler, by the way), to give this a try. I didn’t tell him about the beef juice at the time. Like all good nurses I eventually succeeded in trapping and exhausting my patient into submission and he took one tentative spoonful. And another.
“It’s not too bad,” he conceded. “I can’t finish it all though.”
He wasn’t wrong – it was a much stronger flavour than we might expect a jelly to be, because of the alcoholic nature, but it wasn’t unpleasant. It was even quite refreshing, dare I say – stimulating? The beef juice lent a subtle savoriness to it rather than being a taste of its own; as my husband put it “it’s not too overwhelming, I’m not like ‘oh my god what’s this cow doing in here?'”
I’m pleased to report that after a day cowering under the duvet from me and dishes of various wobbling shades of brown, my husband is feeling fit to work tomorrow. I may not know much about modern medical practices, but I reckon a return back to serving beef broth, in all its various forms, to invalids might ease some of the pressure on our hospitals. At the very least it would free up more time for NHS staff to watch some well deserved TV.
1 can of beef broth
1/8 can of brandy
1/4 can of whipping cream
Zest of 1/4 orange
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch of cinnamon
Pinch of nutmeg
- Heat the broth and brandy in a pan.
- Whip the cream, vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg together into soft peaks.
- Fold the orange zest into the cream.
- Dollop a spoon of the cream onto the soup.
3/4 teaspoons granulated gelatin
1/3 cup of port
1/2 cinnamon stick
3/4 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon lemon juice
- Heat the port with the cinnamon stick and clove for about 10 minutes.
- Remove from heat and add the lemon, sugar and gelatin and stir.
- Pour into a mold and set in the fridge for 5 hours.