“If you please, I’ve brought some calf’s-foot jelly for Mr Pendleton,” smiled Pollyanna.
I hope I haven’t turned your stomach. Mr Pendleton had a broken leg, not a fever, but it didn’t stop Pollyanna bringing him one of the many unappealing concoctions that were traditionally fed to the unwell in ye olden days.
I’ve been thinking about this ever since I was poleaxed by one of those sneaky viruses with a sting in the tail. You think it will be over in 24 hours, so you have a bit of a rest then soldier on, only to be knocked flat again days later. I knew I was unwell when I stopped wanting a cup of tea. Apparently, Florence Nightingale was on to this as well:
“A great deal too much of tea is given to the sick by foolish people.”
Mrs Beeton, in her cookery book published in 1861, has a whole chapter on food for the sick. It’s charmingly titled “Recipes for Invalids” and includes thin gruel, calf’s foot broth and beef tea. There’s much talk of scum-skimming. Even she admits that her egg wine recipe (water, sherry, egg and sugar) makes a less than tasty beverage:
“When the egg is not warmed, the mixture will be found easier of digestion, but it is not so pleasant a drink.”
Of course, invalids in books only start to sip beef tea or bravely swallow lumps of calf’s foot jelly after they’ve been through the febrile stage of their illness. That’s the part where they toss and turn in bed, muttering deliriously, while someone applies a cold compress and the rest of the family wring their hands and wail until someone thinks to ride off into the night to fetch the doctor. I’m sure it helps enormously if that someone is Alan Rickman in a puffy shirt.
I guess Colonel Brandon was still out riding when I finally emerged from my sickbed. A tiny voice in my enfeebled brain bleated, “Soup! I n-e-e-d s-o-u-p!” I definitely couldn’t face beef tea. I couldn’t even face chicken soup, which I know is supposed to cure all ills. So I turned to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. (Or Hugh Frippery-Whoppingstick as a friend once called him, which still makes me laugh!) The man knows his onions. And his tatties and leeks. If you’re feeling poorly, his soup recipes will gently nurse you back to health.
I started with cabbage, carrot and caraway broth, which was simple and soothing. Caraway is an old-fashioned and under-appreciated flavour, but cabbage is its true friend. The next night I made cucumber and lettuce vichyssoise. “Lettuce in a soup? Will it be slimy?” I thought. It wasn’t. It was smooth and tasty. In fact, it was SO good that I had it cold for lunch for the next three days.
I cheated in the next soup recipe: cannellini bean and leek soup with zucchini. I used spring onions, broccoli and orange zest instead, which made a crunchy, filling and aromatic soup that I think was my favourite for the week. The next night’s recipe was pea and parsley soup. Celia K Irwell said in the American Journal of Nursing in 1912:
“Vegetables should never be given to any sick person without the physician’s consent.”
In her view, invalids should be fed oysters and chicken, but she does allow peas to be introduced on day 3, so she would have found my pea soup acceptable. I found it slightly less than acceptable, probably because I didn’t cook it for long enough or blend it well enough. It was a bit, well, raw-ish and lumpy.
The final soup for the week was kipper chowder, with potatoes, almond milk and bucketfuls of dill. You can never have enough dill, in my opinion, so this was a fine soup. I won’t post a picture of it because, although it was delicious, it wasn’t pretty. But with each mouthful I found myself making the same “mm-mmm!” noises of greedy appreciation that my old labrador used to make.
I think buying the ingredients for all these lovely soups was the cheapest weekly shop I’ve done for a while. The soups were ridiculously easy and quick to make. They were nourishing and delicious and I looked forward to making a new one each night. So, even though I’m completely well again, I’ll be having home-made soup at least once a week from now on. Anne Barrows, also writing in the American Journal of Nursing, in 1905, would agree:
“If as great care were given to cookery for the well as we are willing to bestow upon cookery for the sick, the doctors and nurses would be less busy.”