Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Food as medicine + notes on home nursing


The TL;DR of today’s post:

—Eat fermented and cultured foods to keep your health; when sick, eat soup to return to health: so said the old folks, and modern science (more or less cautiously) agrees.  Also, lay in some Ensure in case you have to feed a sick person who has absolutely no appetite.
—Home nursing is a thing and also, get a first aid kit together so you can deal with minor ailments at home.  That way, you can leave the doctor’s office for people who are really sick.

Now, go knit something!

Still here, ay?  Well, buckle up, the prolix saga version follows…


Home medicine

Time wrinkled and the distant past has become our present.  We’re buying time for modern medicine and science to gear up in the fight against Covid-19 virus by using quarantine and isolation: old-school methods of disease prevention. Perhaps, too, old-school ideas about healthful cooking have more relevance than we previously thought.  That is the theory behind the first part today’s post: the tradition of food-as-medicine.  The second part of today’s post pivots to a different kind of medicine: some notes on home nursing.

Food as medicine

Lucky me. As a cultural mutt, I have lots of traditional culinary traditions to choose from, and I do mean traditional.  My grandparents were born in the 1800’s, the youngest among my parents and parents-in-law in 1925.  These people came from Europe, from along the silk road and from the Middle East. The women among them were prolific (and terrific) cooks, each in her own tradition. I also got a close-up and personal immersion in the kitchen of the American midwest, followed by a many years practice of macrobiotics, being a variant on traditional Japanese diet.

Now, the thing is, all these different food-ways are delicious. But, you can guess, there is not a real lot of overlap between the tastes and recipes of these very different traditional styles. There is no universal agreement on taste, cooking styles or even on fundamental ingredients.

And yet…as different as these cooking traditions are, I have observed universal agreement among traditional cooks on the principle that food is more than body fuel.  All these traditions agree that food, or at least, certain foods, have medicinal properties. Stated otherwise, while each culture I know has its own different idea of *what* is right and healthful to eat, all agree that “right and healthful” foods *do* exist.

What foods?

In my analysis, “food as medicine” splits into two categories. First, there are traditional foods which are thought to keep you healthy if you eat them. Second, there are foods which are thought best to restore health, being foods traditionally fed to people who are already sick. Further, it appears to me that when you look deeper, past the recipes and different foods, there is actually fundamental agreement about which types of foods belong in each category—agreement that cuts across cultures although it does not look that way at first glance.

Staying-healthy: fermented and cultured foods

Sauerkraut from Germany, kimchi from Korea and miso-pickled vegetables from Japan do not seem to have a lot in common with Swiss cheese, Bulgarian yogurt or olives from Italy. Yet, these are all fermented and cultured foods, and they are all traditional foods, although they stem from very different traditions.

In fact, all cheeses, regardless where they are from are cultured, as are all yogurts, including the drinking kinds like kefir and laban. Sauerkraut and kimchi both happen to be fermented cabbage, although spice and taste differ vastly between the two.

Centuries of tradition lie behind fermented foods: Miso-like foods have been known in Japan for at least 16,000 (!!) years, while Mediterranean olives have been grown (and necessarily fermented, being inedible otherwise) for perhaps 6000 years.

Lots of things want to eat our food besides us: molds, bacteria, yeast. Fermentation and culturing prevent this happening. Think about those martial arts which use your opponent’s momentum against them: with a twist, an oncoming rush is turned into a harmless sprawl. With just such a twist do we employ certain beneficial microbial “starters” to spread their tentacles through our foodstuffs, and by their presence, kickstart processes which preserve our food from different and harmful processes which would rot the food instead.

Across all the food traditions I know, such fermented and cultured foods are universally considered part of staying healthy.

Modern science cautiously agrees.  The wee beasties in your guts (intestinal flora) are known to benefit by the bacteria and enzymes such foods contain. In fact, the cultures in fermented foods may even have some effect on certain respiratory illnesses.

A modern take on “good for you” cultures from food has evolved into the probiotic concept. Probiotics are sold as dietary supplements, and there is agreement that they have a generally beneficial effect. So, it appears that the old folks were onto something, and you might want to include some cultured and fermented foods in your pantry and fridge, regardless if you prefer bland foods like sauerkraut, or spicy ones like kimchi 

One caveat: very salty products, whether fermented or not, are not too good for you, so look out for the sodium content of your fermented foods.

Return to health: Soup

Lentil soup with carrots spiced with cumin. Root-veggie soup from scratch, featuring parsnips. Beef mushroom-barley soup (the instant pot is your friend with this one). Miso soup with greens and tofu. French onion soup topped with melted cheese and bread. Any of these will warm you when you’re cold, pick you up when you’re run down. They all perfume the house. It is an act of kindness to be set a home-made bowl of any of these when you’re dragging though your day.

Yet among this list, perhaps the queen is chicken soup. It has a reputation as the ultimate tonic, yet recipes vary markedly across different cooking traditions. Under the same name, you might get a soup sour and lemony; or a bowl of egg-drop, white and yellow with the beaten-in eggs; or salty and savory with roast chicken; or swimming with dumplings; or earthy with carrots and potatoes; or even a filtered clear broth, a consomme served with nothing but a garnish. Chicken soup from a red-and-white can is popular, too, whether with noodes, or rice, or even creamed.

If you think making chicken soup takes a real lot of time, well, it can, what with making dumplings and roasting chickens. But it sure doesn’t have to. The quickest variation of all, which we’ve been making a lot of around here, is a half-quart per person of chicken stock (retort-packed) with a generous handful of frozen veggies stirred in and cooked for five-minutes past boiling. Dip in any bread, even if it is stale-ish and there’s an excellent, quick lunch. I often had not the time to make a more complicated variation, so my husband was swimming in this version during his entire recent 14-day isolation. About half the time, instead of bread, he was served with accompanying noodles (elbow or egg-noodles).

You can spend as long or as short on making soup as you like, and this might be a good time to make it part of your daily meals. Nothing, across all cultures I know, is considered as “good for you” as soup. I tell you the truth that when a dear friend was quite ill with pneumonia (way before Covid) she credited chicken soup with her health turn-around. Heaven forbid that we become sick, but soup will be traditional weapon in the arsenal, if we do.

Beyond soup: other easy-to-digest foods for the sick room and also, Ensure

Old cook books generally had “sick-room cookery” as an category or even as a subject, and “white foods” like custards and puddings and boiled rice were among the foods sick people were cajoled to eat as their first step off a soup-based diet. At a local hospital here, the cafeteria serves all modern foods except for an ancient recipe for custard handed down over many years. I wonder if the cooks making the custard in their gleaming institutional kitchen even know about the alleged health-giving powers of this particular menu item, but it was well-known in its time.

Today, I think a great deal of sick-room cookery has been replaced by modern nutritional supplements: Ensure, Boost, and other such complete nutritional packages contain all the nutrients a person needs to keep going, even when appetite is waning from sickness. So, even if you have never, ever bought such a thing as Ensure, maybe pick up a few bottles for just-in-case you may be called upon to become a home nurse in charge of feeding a sick person… which leads us to the next and last subject in this housekeeping series: home nursing.

Home nursing:

—Treating minor injuries at home

If you get some ailment which would ordinarily send you to the doctor’s office or the clinic, you might now hesitate to go for fear of exposing yourself or your household to catching the Covid-19 infection: so deadly and so easily catchable. Therefore, you might think of trying some first aid instead, or at least, as a first step.

Unlike the old timers who knew this stuff by experience, you have the internet. Yet, you might just want to have a look one evening, at some basics of first aid, or at least bookmark a helpful site so if and when something happens, you at least have a notion of where to quickly look for more info.

Another preparation step you might like to take is to lay in some first aid supplies, so you have them in the house ahead of time. Naturally, the time to buy these things was last month, but many of these things are not subject to panic buying, so if you’re going to a pharmacy or supermarket for some other reason, or ordering on-line, think about laying in some first aid supplies.

Let me be clear: I am by no means suggesting that you try a DIY or first-aid approach to someone with a serious illness. However, just because Covid is sweeping the land doesn’t mean people have stopped hurting themselves in other ways. Therefore, laying in first aid supplies for minor incidents and minor injuries just makes good sense. To the lists you might find on-line, I would add some old-fashioned remedies for aches and pains, such as clove oil for toothaches, chewing gum for a plugged-up ear, an ice-pack for headaches, eye wash in case you get something in your eye, a hot water bottle for ordinary aches and pains, sharp-pointed tweezers for splinter-removal.

—The sick room

If someone in your house has been diagnosed with illness, and if it is up to you to care for them, you will get all the medical advice you need from their care provider or, if the infection is Covid, the internet contains much advice. You will also receive instruction on how to protect yourself from getting ill while taking care of an infectious person at home.

I have no medical advice, but would merely like to add a few ideas from the old times (when home nursing was much more prevalent) for how to make an ill person more comfortable at home. In other words, some old-fashioned ideas for the sick-room.

The first thing is, a sick person feels helpless. So, giving them some measure of control is a base-line step. A bell they can ring if they need help, or even a wooden spoon and a pot to bang on to summon aid. Yes, they could text or call, but they might not be able to, especially in the night, so give them some kind of alarm in their room to summon aid.

Water within reach is also a good idea, so the sick person doesn't have to call out for every drink or sip.  A sports-bottle would be good for this. A little no-mess snack, like a tangerine would be a good thing on a bedside table, also, and of course, tissues and a (lined!) trash can.

Next is keeping their environment light, clean and serene. If the person you are nursing isn’t contagious, this is an easy first step: bustling around and making things clean and pleasant in the room is good energy to share with a sick person. This includes making the bed, either with them in it (ask them to roll from side to side) or with the sick person sitting in a chair. Clean sheets make everyone feel better.

If the person is contagious, keeping a clean, pleasant environment is a much more serious issue. Yet, open windows, clean sheets, an uncluttered room, a bunch of flowers—these are the psychic markers of “getting better.” Perhaps if you have to suit up to go into the sick room for some other reason, such as providing aid when summoned, you might try to achieve some of these goals while you are in there, then take a mega-shower and wash all your own clothes when you come out.

If the sick person has some energy of their own, they can help improve their own environment. They can strip their own bed and re-make it; open and close their own windows. Not only will this give them something to do on their own behalf, but it might actually make some difference to their state of mind, and possibly even to their state of health.

Mr. TECHknitting was in isolation for 14 oh-so-long days (who knows what he was sick with?  He had a fever and a cough, but no testing was offered. We were just told to stay isolated.)  Once his fever abated and he got to feeling better, he became a champ at bed-making, room-airing and the like, although those were not the kinds of activities in which he had much interested himself previously.

Clean laundry and clean pajamas were also a big part of old-time home nursing. If they can manage, the sick person can put their unders, pajamas, used towels for washing, together with their sheets and bedding, into a disposable garbage bag and set it by their door. You can handle these items with gloves, dump them into the washer, wash with bleach, then take the bag and your gloves out of the house to the trash, priority-wise.

A very big part of home nursing in the old days was presence. When my sister was very ill, half-a-century ago, everyone in the family took turns sitting with her. Although she was sleeping and unconscious for most of that time, she was attended continuously in shifts; she was never alone, not even in the small of the night. Sitting by a sick bed was how they did it back in the day, and I think a lot of knitting was done in situations like that. If the ill person is contagious, however, that’s not really an option. Maybe get out the old baby-monitor and keep tabs that way?
At the end, here, let's hope some anonymous genius will soon emerge from anonymity to save us all with a treatment, a cure, a vaccine, so that none of this information will ever be needed.

I will actually post some knitting content here one of these days: I have some new tricks with double knitting in two short videos.

Stay safe and keep knitting!
This is part 4 in a five-part series.
The others in this series are...