Hubble bubble

I was fighting a cold last week and turned to one of my favorite remedies: the hot toddy. This drink has stunning restorative powers, which belie the simplicity of the ingredients: scotch, honey, lemon, and hot water. The hot water carries the alcohol through the body quickly, while hydrating. The lemon provides vitamin C. And honey is the best sweetener and natural antibiotic – I’m a fan of Really Raw Honey that is not heat-treated and retains all of its natural properties.

I cannot suggest accurate measurements, but I tend to go heavy on the scotch, and it’s important not to overdo either the honey or the lemon. I’d say it’s a third scotch, two-thirds hot water, a teaspoon each of honey and lemon, but then adjust to taste. Not only does it taste good but it instantly “warms the cockles of your heart.” Remember, American friends, hot drinks should never be micro-waved; rather the water should be freshly boiled and then added to the mixture.

I have much more faith in a hot toddy than cold medicine in a pill form. I can feel the healing. If I do turn to medication, I prefer English Lemsips or Beechams Powders (invented in 1926), which have the same qualities as any American cold medicine, but are taken in hot drink form, flavored with lemon or blackcurrant. Not half as much fun as the hot toddy, but again, there’s a sense of experiencing the cure as that soothing hot lemon drink goes down your scratchy throat.

Childhood remedies hold a powerful place in the mind. In spite of the advance of medicine, the familiar and traditional seem more convincing. I was a “chesty” child with chronic congestion and my parents would make me get up for an inhalation of Friar’s Balsam if I was having coughing fits in the night. This was a particularly horrifying treatment. Imagine, you’re seven years old, you’re poorly, and you have to lean over a bowl of noxious liquid with your head covered by a towel. Lost in a stinking cave of darkness, the steam fills your lungs making it even harder to breath. Anything so vile must be good for you.

For the record Friar’s Balsam is a resin from the stem of Styrax benzoin and Styrax paralleloneurus containing aromatic acids (benzoic and cinnamic acids), prepared in an alcohol solution. I’m sure some ascetic monk invented it in medieval England.

Another nasty odor comes from Smelling Salts, which I have never come across here. They sound terribly Victorian, but we always had a tiny purple bottle at home to be used when someone fainted. On top of my chesty coughs, I think I was a bit of a fainter. The genius of Smelling Salts is that the ammonium carbonate releases a gas that irritates the mucous membranes in the nose and lungs, which then causes an inhalation reflex. They work.

In the arena of nasty flavors, oil of cloves is the outright winner, but is tolerable due to its unfathomable ability to cure toothache—at least temporarily. The trick is to get it on the affected tooth and not on your tongue.

Milk of magnesia is less offensive in flavor and a staple in every English medicine cabinet for those embarrassing cases of constipation. (It sounds like a British affliction.) Invented in the late 19th century, the magnesium hydroxide causes osmosis of liquid into the intestine. The opposite problem was frequently cured in our household by a glass of brandy, and my mother is a keen proponent of brandy to “settle the stomach’ when boarding flights or after a questionable meal.

If you ever have a chance to taste Victory V lozenges, I urge you to do it. Victory Vs have a most intriguing flavor to which I was addicted for a while. The original ingredients included licorice, ether and chloroform. It’s a wonder the consumers of the 19th and early 20th century drugs survived. They of course no longer use chloroform or ether, but the lozenges do retain that indefinably delicious chemical flavor.

Fisherman’s Friends on the other hand are an abomination that you try at your own risk. They were invented in 1865 by James Lofthouse to cure the respiratory problems suffered by fishermen working in the Icelandic seas. The tiny lozenges are impossible to suck as they are so hot and peppery and disgusting. But apparently they are so popular they are available in more than 100 countries and are suitable for vegans to boot.

Naturally, butter was an important part of the medicine cabinet. Bump on the head? Butter. Burn on the skin? Butter. I think it has now been shown that butter on a burn only retains the heat, and I cannot fathom the science between butter and swelling reduction, but we were always sure to use it.

Germolene is another strange-smelling product. It’s a very useful salve for cuts and grazes, but comes in this weird pinkish-brown paste that smells…weird. And yet, it was most gratifying to me to find it in one of those British products stores in Manhattan–Myers of Keswick. Those stores are an interesting reflection of ex-pats: beyond the obvious English tea and preferred breakfast cereals, you can find Beecham’s powders, Germolene, and some of the other medicines I mentioned, proving that we just can’t wean ourselves off mother’s milk of magnesia and other cure-alls.

12 responses to “Hubble bubble”

  1. Marleyfan says:

    Two co-workers often speak of taking a gazillion milligrams of vitamin C, and swear it makes their “cold” subside in 3-4 days. I don’t take anything, and feel better in 3-4 days. But the Hot Toddy definitely sounds more fun.

  2. what a funny post. it reminded me of all the home-grown holistic cures around my house when i was a kid — teas brewed from our own herb garden, homemade eggshell calcium, pills and supplements of various sorts, prune juice cleanses, and even an occasional enema. (!)

  3. Dave says:


    Great rendering of an enema, Bryan.

  4. it looks even better in italics.

  5. i suppose you could call it an enemoticon.

  6. Dave says:

    Appropriately, the characters are all ASCII.

  7. Tim Wager says:

    Groan. Maybe we should re-dub the GW “Dave and Bry’s Quipstery” or some such.

    Thanks for the remedy tips and for once again playing the native informant so well, Stella. “Poorly” is one of my favorite English-isms.

    And what about good old fashioned chicken soup? Is that just an American thing? Seriously, whenever either of us is sick, Jen or I will make a batch. It’s very helpful, though I’m sure I couldn’t tell you why. Never use canned. It doesn’t have the same powers (plus too much salt, usually). Now I’ll know to follow it up with a hot toddy.

  8. Dave says:

    I don’t see you providing any comedy, Wager.

  9. Tim Wager says:

    Er, I’m the straight man.

  10. Marleyfan says:

    When I say Hilshire- you say Farms
    Hilshire *Farms* …GO MEAT!

  11. Mark says:

    I lurve Fisherman’s Friend. They’re the only effective cough relief when I have a really bad cough. Of course they’re terrible tasting, though there is a licorice flavor that you can get in Europe that’s not bad though I can’t find it anywhere in the states.

  12. Mark says:

    Ooh, I almost forgot about the mustard plaster. A treatment from hell that my grandmother would subject us to as children, I once had my wife make me one and it was just as bad (but makes you feel so much better) as I remembered. As follows:

    # Put a tight-fitting T-shirt on the patient and tuck her into bed.
    # Tear a piece of old flannelette off an old pair of pyjamas, nighty, or diaper, about 12″ x 6″.
    # Mix 1/2 teaspoon of mustard seed powder with 1 tablespoon of flour. Mustard or Canola Plant Use either bought mustard seed powder or grind fresh seeds.
    # Add cool water to the mixture gradually till it turns into a paste.
    # Spread the paste on half of the flannelette.
    # Fold over the flannelette.
    # Place on a plate and warm in an oven or microwave to take the chill off. (Only for comfort and can be skipped if not convenient.)
    # Only warm slightly. Don’t cook or else the flour will get hard.
    # PlaceCanola or Mustard Seeds the pack on the patient’s chest and secure with the T-shirt.
    # Tuck patient back into bed.
    # Check occasionally to make sure the skin does not turn raw.
    # If you are alone and have no one to monitor the skin color while you are asleep, be sure to set an alarm clock to wake you in a few hours, because you don’t want to turn into a boiled lobster.

    It’s true, that last sentence…you need to watch out how long it’s on because it will burn your skin and then you feel twice as shitty as before.