My husband and I got engaged on December 30, 2005, in a restaurant in Greenwich Village. We spent the next night at home, having planned a feast for two. About halfway through an afternoon of strenuous cooking, however, Andrew became quiet and glassy-eyed. He took to the couch, rousing himself only when I served the fish.
The sight of his laden plate made him flinch, but he bravely took a bite of potato-crusted salmon. “Mmm,” he said unconvincingly, “this is good.” Mine was overcooked. “I think I’m going to throw up,” he said. I thought that was a drastic overcorrection, but before I could say so, he was on his way to the bathroom, where he remained for many hours.
This gave me plenty of time to drain the champagne, eat up my gougeres and caramels, and contemplate the future to which I had recently committed myself. Is this a psychosomatic reaction to the idea of being with me forever? I wondered. I suppose this is what having children will be like, I thought, as I did my best to keep him clean and comfortable and get him into bed once his body had expelled everything.
Now I know that when your child is sick, you, too, are often sick, making motherly nursing even more challenging than I had imagined. I spend long stretches of every winter making cup after cup of peppermint or ginger tea to decloud my head. This past December, as I coped with my third annual Thanksgiving-through-New-Year’s malaise, I thought to consult Mrs. Beeton, whose masterwork, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, I remembered included a chapter on invalid cookery. This was a common feature of cookbooks in the nineteenth century, a time when most health care was “provided” at home and when the kind of sicknesses that we now zap with antibiotics or ward off with vaccinations were much more serious.
One appreciates the utterly basic quality of many of Mrs. Beeton’s recommendations: “In making toast-and-water, never blacken the bread, but toast it only a nice brown.” She quotes Florence Nightingale: “A nurse should never put before a patient milk that is sour, meat or soup that is turned, an egg that is bad, or vegetables underdone.” (Toast-and-water, by the way, is not toast accompanied by water; it is the liquid left when toast has been soaked in and then strained out of water, and it seems to have been recommended for nausea.)
The final recipe in the chapter—after egg wine (egg, water, sherry, sugar, and nutmeg warmed and served with floating croutons) and invalid jelly (hint: involves mutton broth), among others—is a marvel of simplicity:
Ingredients.—Thin cold toast, thin slices of bread-and-butter, pepper and salt to taste.
Mode.—Place a very thin piece of cold toast between 2 slices of thin bread-and-butter in the form of a sandwich, adding a seasoning of pepper and salt. This sandwich may be varied by adding a little pulled meat, or very fine slices of cold meat, to the toast, and in any of these forms will be found very tempting to the appetite of an invalid.
Someone with rather more expertise in invalid cookery also considered the question of sandwiches, writing that “patients are tempted often to eat bread and butter when served in the form of a sandwich, when they would refuse the slice of bread accompanied by the butter ball. The shape, too, often makes a difference. A heart-shaped sandwich often pleases an adult as well as a child. Men and women are certainly but children of an older growth, which fact is especially emphasized during times of sickness and suffering.” (How keenly I have felt this truth, reduced to sentimental tears by yet another viewing of Mary Poppins on sick days shared with my daughter!) The author of these words was Fannie Farmer. After the success of The Boston Cooking School Cookbook and Chafing Dish Possibilities, she published Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent in 1904.
According to Laura Shapiro’s marvelous Perfection Salad, the text on invalid cookery was actually Miss Farmer’s proudest achievement. It, too, quotes Florence Nightingale: “Invalid Cookery should form the basis of every trained nurse’s education.” At the Boston Cooking School and then at her own establishment, Miss Farmer taught cooking classes for nurses, which inspired the book. Since, however, she believed that “it is safe to state that two-thirds of all disease is brought about by errors in diet,” she also hoped that her book would help ordinary housewives keep their families healthy. Miss Farmer’s expertise in this area was so widely acknowledged that she was invited on multiple occasions to give lectures at the Harvard Medical School.
The dry opening chapters are packed with the science a cook needs to keep her family well. How many cookbooks do you own that feature the words pyloric stomach or a timetable for the passage of certain foods? Then Miss Farmer offers recipes for nursing a family back to health when germs manage to penetrate the carefully constructed fortress of nutrition. (“During the gradual return to a normal condition,” she writes, “through the long tedious hours of convalescence, the patient devotes much thought to when and what he shall be allowed to eat.”)
A few suggestions raise our eyebrows—frozen clam water, milk with a wee drop of diluted hydrocholoric acid as a treatment for typhoid—but most do not. Shirred egg, broiled fish with a garnish of piped mashed potatoes, egg salad—none of these, I think, would confuse today’s diner. The general principle is to keep the patient well hydrated and unburdened by anything difficult of digestion, such as pork. One little surprise is that our cherished chicken soup comes at the end of “Soups, Broths, and Stews,” almost an afterthought. In those days it was no match for beef extract and beef tea, which share a prominent chapter with gruels. I was also pleased to learn about the seaweed called Irish moss, which contains lots of carrageen and so was used as a thickening agent.
Cooking the right food is not enough. Queasy stomachs must be tempted with appealing dainties attractively presented. Thus the final word on sandwiches, heart-shaped or not, is “Sandwiches should be served on a plate covered with a doily.” She lists “Appeal to the sense of sight” as the first consideration for a sick person’s meal (it is followed by taste, temperature, digestibility, nutritive value, and economy). “Too much attention cannot be given to every detail,” from the size of the tray to its spotless cloth, beautiful china, and thoughtful color scheme.
I dream of having a pretty tray brought to me in bed. I suppose I could prepare my own tray the next time aches and sniffles bring me low, but as Miss Farmer writes (albeit of diabetics specifically), “It is most unfortunate if it is necessary for the invalid to prepare his own meals.”
Will I keep some Irish moss on hand for Irish moss lemonade or blancmange, since they “will frequently ally an irritating cough,” one feature of my December illness?
Irish Moss Lemonade
1/4 cup Irish Moss.
1 1/2 cups cold water.
Syrup. [i.e. simple syrup]
Soak Irish Moss in cold water to cover; drain, and pick over. Put in double boiler with one and one-half cups cold water; cook thirty minutes, and strain.
Irish Moss Blanc Mange. 307 Calories.
1/6 cup Irish moss.
1 1/2 cups cold water.
1 3/4 cups milk.
1/3 teaspoon vanilla.
Few grains salt.
Pour cold water over moss and let stand twenty minutes; drain from water; pick over moss, discarding discolored pieces; add to milk, and cook in double boiler ten to fifteen minutes. Milk should be but very slightly thickened; the tendency is to have it overcooked and when chilled the dessert is unpalatable because too stiff. Strain, add salt and vanilla. Strain a second time into small moulds or egg cups previously dipped in cold water. Serve with sugar and cream. Sliced fruit makes an agreeable accompaniment or garnish with a candied cherry and angelica.
Or will I make some chilly cubes of chicken jelly and eat them on warm toast? This dish from Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bread (he says he ate it at Prune) would not seem out of place in Miss Farmer’s or Mrs. Beeton’s books. Essentially all you must do is make and reduce a strong chicken broth, pour it into a baking dish to chill and gel, and cut into quivering cubic inches (discarding the fat at some point, of course). This dainty has captured my imagination. In fact, perhaps that’s a tickle I feel in my throat now. Time to refresh my supply of doilies.
Robin Bellinger cooks dinner every night in Wellesley, Massachusetts.