Fighting the common cold with food

One of the columnist's cold remedies: Orange, carrot, and ginger juice. — Photo by Kaylea Moore

It starts with a tickle in your throat, then you start to sneeze, and before you know it your glands swell to the size of hard-boiled eggs. It seems as though everyone I talk to is feeling under the weather or coming down with something. The common cold plague is slowly sweeping Martha’s Vineyard, so be sure to wash your hands, boost your immunity, and stock up on the necessities in case you catch it.

During Classical and Medieval times, theory held that the four bodily humours — blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile — determined one’s temperament and health. The humours were kept in relative balance to maintain well-being, but if the balance was upset, food was often used as a remedy to bring a person back to equilibrium. Cold, moist, hot, and dry qualities were assigned to foods. If you were deficient in one of the humours, you could eat a food associated with it to restore your health.

Either this was one of the earliest fad diets or these folks from the middle ages were on to something. I’m not a doctor, but I love to cook and eat, and when I’m sick, I try to listen to what my body is craving.

At the first sign of symptoms I dug out my Airborne and Emergen-C with the hope that it would nip it in the bud. As I prepared my morning smoothie, I excitedly dumped in each ingredient, naming their so-called curative properties: blueberries, high in antioxidants; banana, packed with potassium; kale, the healthiest food in the world; yogurt, probiotics and good bacteria; coconut water, electrolytes; chia seeds, omega-3; orange juice, full of vitamin C. I thought that I was good to go.

As the day progressed, I started feeling worse, so I decided to go out for oysters. Thinking back, I should have stayed home on the couch, but in my mind, oysters would surely cure me. I knew these bivalves were packed with zinc; isn’t that supposed to be good for you? After eating about a dozen, I returned home and started to cook.

The last thing you want to do when feeling under the weather is shop for food and cook. But there is nothing worse than being sick with nothing to eat at your house. I keep a bag of bones (I know it’s creepy) in my freezer for just this reason. When I cook chicken, I debone it, and save the carcass for stock. I also have a bag filled with vegetable scraps. So that night, when I was congested and coughing, I filled a pot with water, dumped in the remnants from the freezer along with some parsley stems, carrots, garlic, onion, and celery, and lay on the couch as it worked its magic.

My culinary professors would most likely scoff at my impromptu stock, but it did the trick. After spending the night in the fridge, I skimmed the fat off the strained stock and had my cure-all.

The modern-day restaurant began in France when a shop owner began to serve a simple nutritious broth called a “restorative” that was meant to boost one’s health. For centuries, meat broths were served to invalids to give them strength, and everyone knows that Grandma’s chicken noodle soup makes everything better.

With my curative broth I could make one-cup soups, adding greens or pasta or whatever I had on hand. One of my favorite concoctions was simmered garlic, ginger, soy sauce, chilies, and red miso with thinly sliced beef, topped with scallions. I felt better by the spoonful.

“One of my quintessential [foods to make you feel better] is chicken soup,” said Prudence Athearn Levy of Vineyard Nutrition. She recommends making your own bone broth soup ahead of time and having it in the freezer for when you feel under the weather. Ms. Levy also recommends eating small frequent meals that include protein. “Reducing calories can help you feel better. A less calorie load can help you rest and won’t over-stress your body.” Hydration is also imperative; she suggests soup, water, and smoothies. Ultimately, “Reducing the bulk of food and increasing hydration,” is Ms. Levy’s key to feeling better.

In addition to sipping on broth, I tried to drink, drink, drink. I was always told that to stay hydrated and push liquids was the most important thing to beat a cold. I started with ginger, known for its anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties. I steeped it in hot water, making ginger tea, and juiced it with carrots and oranges. The hot tea was soothing and helped break up my congestion and I felt rejuvenated after the juice.

Another panacea is local raw honey. When my throat begins to get scratchy I eat it by the spoonful. The thick syrupy sweetener coats the back of the throat, temporarily alleviating any discomfort. It also has antimicrobial properties.

A few years back someone introduced me to Bragg’s Organic Apple Cider Vinegar. The vinegar is raw and unfiltered and contains part of the mother vinegar. I use it to make vinaigrettes, as a facial cleanser, and it is my secret weapon when I get sick. I mix it with hot water and honey. Although it doesn’t taste the best, it is said to leave you sniffle free.

Everyone has their tricks when they get sick, swearing by an old wives’ tale or whatever is in vogue. People swear by different potions, gargling this, not eating that, loading up on OTC medicines or herbal remedies. I believe that being a couch potato is the cure, eating whatever you crave and getting plenty of rest. And if all else fails, eat a box of popsicles.

But don’t take my word for it, try it out for yourself.