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A Brief History of Invalid Cookery


Edible PortlandAbout this time of year, many of us will wake up with achy muscles, a sore throat, or a stuffy nose. We’ll call in sick to work, and we’ll settle on the couch with a quilt to watch reruns of Perry Mason. At some point, if our stomachs can handle it, we might think about food.

Food for a sick person today usually means chicken soup and orange juice. But until around World War II, cooking for sick people—then called “invalid cookery”—was an important part of a housewife’s repertoire. Food for invalids was meant to be easy to digest, nutritious, and appetizing. But to someone with today’s sensibilities, invalid cookery looks less like sustenance and more like a purgative.

In classic invalid cookery, the sickest of the sick were fed a liquid diet. Some popular liquid options were beef broth; barley water (strain the water from cooked barley, add lemon); toast water (soak toast in water, strain, add cream and sugar); Irish moss (simmer moss in milk, strain, add cream, sugar, and vanilla); raw egg white in milk, water, broth, or juice; and buttermilk stew (simmered buttermilk with butter, ginger, and honey).

The invalid who could stomach is was fed a “soft” diet, including soft-cooked eggs, junket, milk toast, beef custards, and, of course, gruel. Cereal jelly, essentially a cooled, strained gruel, was also part of the soft diet, as were frappes. The clam frappe was made by cooking clams, then freezing the strained juice to a mush.

Unlike the liquid and soft diets, the “soft-solid” diet actually required chewing. The Calumet Cookbook from the early 1920s recommended a soft-solid diet of creamed toast, thoroughly boiled asparagus, baked custards, oysters, and gelatin dishes. Sweetbreads à la Newburg (broiled sweetbreads cooked in butter with egg yolks and wine, served on toast) was supposed to be especially nourishing. Several cookbooks touted the health benefits of raw beef sandwiches. The housewife scraped beef from a raw steak, added gelatin, cream, salt, and water, and poured the mixture onto a dish to gel flat. The hardened disk was then sliced and served on bread.

Port, wine, and the occasional shot of whiskey fortified some invalid cookery, although not all cookbook authors were keen on the idea. Fannie Farmer wrote in her 1904 classic, Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent, that alcohol for sick people is a “vexed” topic, but concluded, “The use of alcohol in some diseases seems almost imperative. Lives without doubt have been saved by the use of champagne.” (Perhaps contradicting this statement, she also wrote, “Many of the diseases which occur after middle life are due to the habit of eating and drinking such things as were indulged in during the early years of vigorous manhood.”)

Not only what was served for dinner but how it was served was important in invalid cookery. As the Royal Cookbook, issued by the Royal Baking Powder Company in 1925, noted, “In sickness the senses are unusually acute and far more susceptible to carelessness and mistakes in the preparation and serving of food than in health.” The 1844 edition of Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management had specific recommendations:

In sending dishes or preparations up to invalids, let everything look as tempting as possible. Have a clean tray-cloth laid smoothly over the tray; let the spoons, tumblers, cups and saucers, etc., be very clean and bright. Gruel served in a tumbler is more appetizing than when served in a basin or cup and saucer.

The Pratt Institute of Household Science and Arts’ 1937 manual also suggested laying a fresh flower on the invalid’s tray and, “If the appetite needs tempting, have a surprise.” (A tumbler of gruel might make a nice surprise, for instance.)

These days, dietitians take a more relaxed view of what you should eat when you’re not feeling well. Janet Muckridge, Kaiser Permanente’s Regional Nutritionist, says someone who is nauseated should avoid caffeine, pepper, and carbonated beverages and might try eating crackers or bread before attempting other food. For someone with a cold who doesn’t have much appetite, Muckridge recommends comfort food, including scrambled eggs, macaroni and cheese, yogurt, soup, and casseroles, or a light meal such as a bowl of cereal. She also said that eating frozen juice bars can help keep a sick person hydrated.

As for chicken soup, the one food that persists from the heyday of invalid cookery, Muckridge agrees that it is an “easy, mild” source of fluids and protein for a sick person, and that someone who isn’t feeling well might find it easier to open a can of soup than to cook something from scratch. But she added, “Beef barley soup might be just as good.”

Angela Sanders writes about Pacific Northwest history and culture.

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