Thanks Zoe Williams for this vindication of what we all know! And here’s my recipe for chicken soup if you need reminding!
Some people are brilliant when their loved ones are ill, and know instinctively what face to make, when to chat, when to be quiet, when to make tea, when to plump a pillow and so forth. Others are terrible, instinctively avoidant, brusque and awkward. They need to ask themselves what they’re so afraid of. But in the meantime, a great way to show you care while you build your genuinely caring personality is to do convalescent cookery.
Soup is so famously a restorative that scientists with a bit of downtime often try to show the mechanism. This week, a study found four traditional broths that were protective against malaria, although there was no particular ingredient common to all four. The active property has yet to be identified, which is the fancy way of saying “we have no idea why”. It is unlikely, however, that you’re tending to someone with malaria. More probably, they have a cold (although my Mr currently has lockjaw, and if you’re wondering what to feed someone who can’t open his mouth, it is of course more soup).
The seminal 2000 study on the benefits of chicken soup, published in the medical journal Chest, used the Lithuanian recipe of its author’s grandmother. It found that the soup inhibited the migration of neutrophils, which are the commonest white blood cells fighting infection, and those responsible for all the snot and whatnot. Again, they could not figure out the soup might have this action, nor why it might have a beneficial effect on the functioning of cilia – the tiny nose hairs that block infective agents. Like so much that emanates from a grandmother, you just have to take this stuff on trust.
A surprising newcomer to the premier league of curative ingredients is fennel. Again, the scientific case for it has yet to be made, but it’s often found to be soothing for the digestion, good for colic and for period pains – hypothetically because it mimics the effects of oestrogen. The best fennel soup of all time is from Marimar Torres’s The Catalan Country Kitchen, and involves sweating half a kilo of the vegetable down to complete surrender with some garlic and two onions, adding chicken stock and whizzing it up.
Garlic, incidentally, cures everything, being an anti-inflammatory, so good for arthritis, depression, gout, the works. My mother once read that you could apply it directly to get rid of a verruca, which she did. But it got into her bloodstream and made her smell so profoundly of garlic that she thought we had a gas leak and actually called British Gas. That is a 100% true story.
“Bone broth”, which is what millennials call stock, is beneficial mainly because it’s high in protein, for which you have a particular need if you have broken a bone.
There will come a time when the patient doesn’t want any more soup, but still cannot manage much in the way of chewing. The only thing for it then is porridge, which doesn’t say “I care” so much as: “If push comes to shove, I would like you to remain alive.”
Once recuperation is under way, protein is the main priority: people understand this when they’re doing a lot of sport, but that knowledge somehow vanishes when actual recovery replaces workout recovery. The problem is that a lot of high-protein foods are also quite high effort – you have to chew them, they smell powerfully and they often involve sauce, which is the last thing you want in a sick bed.
Hospitals get a bad rap for the nutritional quality of the food they serve, but the really striking thing if you’re around at mealtimes is how oppressive it is, even when you’re not ill, that sudden gust of cod mornay and spaghetti bolognese and sponge pudding.
With apologies in advance, because I’ve often claimed, on environmental grounds, never to eat beef, last night I made crab (omega 3 fatty acids are also good for inflammation, which is a partial source of the low mood that often follows prolonged illness) and then steak tartare, which is a serious hit of protein masquerading as a salad. If someone is suffering a long-term terminal illness, simply having bad days and better days, and their appetite is never very strong, you had just better hope they like cheese.
A final word for cake: even people with no sweet tooth at all will eat a bit of cake when they’re ill, and people who love cake love it more. Keep it very nursery and simple. Avoid chocolate, because you want it the colour of Victoria sponge. Adding autumn fruits gives it a more wholesome aspect and you will get rid of it even faster. I shifted two entire plum cakes at the weekend, with just the lockjaw and a cold in the house (Diane Henry’s recipe is the best) and have never felt more like a high-functioning Florence Nightingale.
Zoe Williams in The Guardian