‘Serve food for an invalid punctually at the time expected, and let hot food be perfectly hot. Serve daintily on a tray covered with a spotless cloth, and with shining silver, and sparkling glass (The Cheshire Federation of Women’s Institutes Cookery Book, 1935)
I’m enforcing this rather Downton-esque mantra for the delivery of invalid cookery with immediate effect at my flat in London. You see, I have a curious case of Labrynthitis – an infection of the ear that requires me to put my best sea legs forward, riding surreal spells of dizziness and nausea to the gentle pulse of swollen glands. Sickly ones, it’s time to unite. You’re now free to think about food, dream about food, imagine just what you really fancy, more than anything else in the world. That elusive dish that’ll solve all our ills – or at least just sate our miserable taste buds.
To sweat out the snivels I swear by a Thai tom yum soup, and lots of toast and marmalade if I’m feeling a bit flat. After canvassing friends, I discover tea, (two lumps, please), is a popular recovery choice along with Heinz tomato soup, no-fizz Lucozade and all manner of carbs; for sore tummies a meagre menu of flat coke, dry toast and apples and ‘junk food on tap’ for a nasty bout of flu.
Rewind 75 years and the good ladies of the WI – without the luxury of a duvet day/obligatory Google symptom search/ drip supply of pumped up comfort snacks – would instead be relying on a literary medicine chest of shared remedies, recipes, ointments and tips. ‘Invalid Cookery’, (a theme that dates back to the 1700s) was regarded as a helpful, and at times, indispensable go-to chapter for the 1930’s house wife as part of the WI’s cookery and household management books, published county-wide by the various federations.
To tempt the patient to a morsel or three, the WI ladies of Cheshire insist on ‘absolute freshness, and food of the best quality.’ Their list of home-spun recipes feature barley water, gruel, baked egg custard, egg nogg, port wine jelly and – for the brave-hearted – a ‘pick-me-up’ elixir made up of fresh eggs, rum, lemons, honey and a glug of glycerine. The eggs are cracked, doused in lemon juice and left for seven days, finally beaten up, strained, and mixed with remaining ingredients for the bottling. Note: special attention must always be paid to presentation, for ‘attractive dishing in small dainty portions, and little surprises, will often tempt a capricious and slender appetite.’
For something very un-dainty I turn to ‘500 Jolly Good Things’ for a bowl of ‘Invalid Pudding’, washed down with a ubiquitously referenced beef tea. Published by their WI cousins in Oxfordshire, the recipe asks as for a pound of seasoned beef, which must simmer away in a qtr. of water ‘all day by the fire’ with 3-4 cloves for taste. The liquid is then strained, let to stand cold and, if Cheshire could add a footnote here, they’d remind nursie of the need to ‘remove every particle of fat form beef tea, broth and soup’ before feeding to patient. Greasiness should be avoided – ‘it is most objectionable both to palate and to eye and causes indigestion.’ Incidentally, you can find beef tea at your nearest football stadium moonlighting as instant beef stock, Bovril – the deliciously salty stable-mate to a greasy sausage roll (and sky-high in vitamin B12).
Uncovering old-fashioned herbal tinctures for coughs, colds and daily bugs reminds us of the satisfaction gleaned from a little domestic alchemy. Apart from a few bizarre ingredient suggestions such as paregoric (a camphorated tincture of opium), tolu (a spicy resin collected from tree bark) and spirit of horehound (a medicinal weed thought to aid digestion and soothe sore throats), most remedies rely on a dose of common sense; lemons for their Vitamin C count, French prunes and powdered ginger for their ‘speed’ and the inevitable spoonful of sugar (when rations allowed) to help the medicine go down. During the Second World War, WI member I.I.H. Oram wrote of the ‘lemonless, onionless wastes of last winter’ and cites numerous citrus-free remedies ranging from a boiled sprig of rosemary steeped in cider to a fusion of fresh elderflower, peppermint and hot water sweetened up with a spoon of black treacle.
We can still draw medicinal comfort from our cupboard shelves. Before I’m signed away to another course of pills for puffed up glands, my own doctor advises his own tried and tested tonic; mix lots of fresh lemon, mint and grated ginger into a mug of hot water and season with black pepper and a good squeeze of honey. It’s surprisingly palatable, keeps the germs at bay and beats the residual chalkiness of a Lemsip, anyday. Now I’m just working on the polished silver, spotless cloths and piping hot delivery of said comfort foods. I just can’t seem to get the staff these days.