Excerpt from the book “They Call Me Orange Juice” by Audrey McDonald Atkins
The cold and flu season is upon us — at least it’s upon me in all its snotty, wheezing, hacking glory. As I snuffle about trying to think of something, anything, to make me feel better, I can’t help but remember some of the home remedies Mama and Granny inflicted on me as a child.
Home remedies consist of one part tradition mixed with one part placebo, but little did I know as I gagged my way through many a “cure,” that they were actually onto something.
Let’s start with saltwater nose drops. When you’re all stopped up and can’t breathe, there’s nothing like water up your nose to make you feel better! Actually, a gentle mist up the old schnoz helps irrigate those clogged up nasal passages, flush out some of the goo, and keeps those mucus membranes moist. Not to mention that the salty taste in the back of your throat will remind you of last summer at the beach when that huge wave knocked you down, and you were sucked under by the surf and dragged through the sand until you managed to crawl up onto the beach panting and gasping and feeling like the whole Gulf of Mexico shot up your nose. But, hey. At least you were at the beach and not sick and shivering at home.
Along with the congestion usually comes a cough. You know what will help a hack? Honey. You know what helps it more? Garlic. Put them together and what have you got? The most vile cough remedy that will ever pass your lips. As a child, I dared not so much as clear my throat in front of Mama lest she come at me with a spoonful of her reeking remedy from a sugar-crusted Ball jar she kept in the kitchen cabinet. But “they say” that these supposed antifungal, antibacterial, antiviral, immune-boosting superfoods do pack a powerful punch. That is if you can just choke a dose down.
Now Granny was a big fan of Mentholatum. It is an ointment. A salve. A petroleum jelly. A thick, greasy balm that when slathered on your nekkid chest and run by the fingerful up your nose is remarkably soothing and smells wonderfully of camphor and menthol. Now in my extensive minute(s) of research regarding the healing properties of Mentholatum, I have been unable to find any proof that it is in any way beneficial to someone suffering from congestion. In fact, I ran across several articles that intimated that it might not necessarily be good for you at all. Here’s what I do know for absolute sure, when your granny slathers the salve on your chest, wraps a scarf around your neck to keep it all warm and gooey, and puts you to bed with a kiss, well, you just can’t help but feel a little bit better.
Now if all of this fails to drive away the demons, there’s always steam — the last, worst resort. Get a big mixing bowl and a bath towel. Then put a kettle of water on to boil. When it’s good and scalding hot, pour that water in the bowl, hold your head over it carefully, and drape the towel over your head and the bowl, creating your own little sauna of healing. For a double whammy of medicinal mojo, put a dab of Mentholatum in the bowl before you add the hot water. Try to take deep breaths of the steam for as long as you can stand it. Yes, the snot will flow freely from your nose and into the bowl. Your eyes will burn. You will feel like your flesh is melting from your skull. But after just a little while, you will actually be able to breathe easier. Bonus: your complexion will appear remarkably clear and dewy.
As an adult, however, during those times when phlegm abounds, I choose to heal myself with what I like to call phlegmonade, otherwise known as a hot toddy. This magical elixir combines honey with hot water, lemon juice, and the granddaddy of Southern cure-alls, bourbon. You’ve got your superfood, your steam, your Vitamin C, and a little something to make it go down easy. You should be feeling better just reading about it! Now don’t think that my toddy is just an excuse to drink during the day, a little nip for “medicinal purposes,” wink, wink; nudge, nudge. There are some who say that because the alcohol dilates your blood vessels somewhat, your mucous membranes can better combat the infection. That bourbon is fighting for you. It’s science, y’all. And who am I to argue with science?
Unlike a comforting warm beverage, the home remedies of my childhood seem to mainly work under the premise that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. That is why I firmly believe an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of collards. Yes, collards. Whenever Sarah, who looked after me and kept house for Granny, would make collards, she would always give me a big cup of the potlikker. “Come here, baby, and drink this all up. It will make you strong,” she would say. And she was right! As you cook those magic greens down, the iron and Vitamin C and all the other goodness leaches out of the leaves and into the broth, where it is usually (gasp!) thrown away! Don’t let all those nutrients go down the drain; drink ’em up! Salty, smokey, warm, and vaguely greasy in a good way, potlikker was and still is one of my all-time favorite things. And I am strong. Just like Sarah said I would be.
At least I will be again. After one more toddy.
Born and raised in Citronelle, Atkins shares stories about growing up and living in the South in her book, “They Call Me Orange Juice,” and at her blog audreyatkinswriter.com.