I can see how boiling up some molasses, vinegar, butter, chopped onion, salt and pepper might make a dandy cough syrup, but if I were running a fever, how in the world would putting salt herring at my feet lower my temperature?
The winners of Saltscapes' 5th Birthday Contest were Deborah Gillis of Middleton, NS, for a cough-medicine recipe, and Myrna LeBlanc of Pictou County, NS, for the fishy fever treatment as well as a cure for diarrhea (a tablespoon of molasses mixed with a teaspoon of pepper). Myrna grew up on Pictou Island in the Northumberland Strait and, since no one could get to the mainland in winter except by helicopter, her grandparents relied on "their own creative remedies." About the herring treatment, she says, "the fever is drawn to the herring and the fever breaks." That sounds just a bit too creative to me, but who am I to be so skeptical? After all, Myrna's grandmother was the island's nurse, and surely knew what she was doing. Moreover, back in the 19th century you didn't have to be on an island to find yourself far from doctors and nurses, and folks all over the Maritimes and Newfoundland and Labrador often relied on salt herring not only to break fevers, but also to cure colds and sore throats.
Some split the fish, soaked the pieces in vinegar, set them on burdock leaves, and then bound them to one of the patient's feet. Others placed halves of the fish on a pie plate, doused them with vinegar, sprinkled them with pepper, heated them in an oven and then put one piece on the throat of the sufferer and the other on the feet. Still others just slapped the fish down on the victim's neck. "I had a quinsy sore throat, and my mother took a herring and wrapped it in brown paper," a resident of Dartmouth, NS, once told folklorist Helen Creighton. "She put a flannel cloth over the paper and put it on my neck, and it cured it. The herring was just as if it had been cooked."
Since various salt-herring cures long remained popular among Maritimers and Newfoundlanders of English, Scottish, Irish, French, German, Dutch, New England and aboriginal descent, the remedies must have worked for at least some of them. For the life of me, however, I can't figure out how. But neither can Joe and Teresa Graedon, authors of The People's Pharmacy (1999), figure out how raisins relieve arthritis pain. You dump golden raisins in a bowl, cover them with gin, wait a week for the gin to evaporate, put them in a jar with a lid and then eat exactly nine a day. After the Graedons publicized this remedy in their syndicated newspaper column, they received hundreds of letters and e-mail messages. While some dismissed the recipe as useless, "the overwhelming majority" found it "surprisingly helpful," and some miraculously so.
The People's Pharmacy was a bestseller. Its blurb touts the Graedons as "America's most trusted health-care authorities," yet they don't know why gin-soaked raisins give some arthritics supreme pain relief, and none whatsoever to others. They simply say there's "incredible variation in people's responses to prescription medicine and the same thing holds true for folk treatments."
Adverse reactions to prescription drugs are one reason behind a phenomenal surge of interest in alternative medicines. These include nutritional supplements, herbal potions and the home remedies that, like Deborah Gillis's cough syrup, families once handed down generation after generation. By the late 1990s, bad reactions to prescribed drugs were killing more than 100,000 Americans (so we presume 10,000 Canadians) every year-and that was only in hospitals. If you added the number of people felled in their homes by side effects, drug interactions and mistakes in dosage, prescription medicines followed heart disease and cancer as a cause of death. Against this background, annual spending on herbs and nutritional supplements in the US shot from $200 million in 1988 to more than $5 billion only a decade later.
Even the New England Journal of Medicine, hardly a fan of alternative health therapies, has conceded that their popularity might well be due to "disillusionment with the often hurried and impersonal care delivered by conventional physicians, as well as the harsh treatments that may be necessary for life-threatening diseases." While the salt-herring treatments are neither nutritional nor herbal, they are certainly home remedies and, like so many others that we've inherited from our forebears, they may provide heavenly relief to some, and not work at all for others. Count me among the others.
To treat a sore throat, I'd gladly stir honey and lemon juice into hot tea, and sip the mixture morning, noon and night. Variations of this pioneer remedy survive to this day in The People's Pharmacy, The Doctor's Book of Home Remedies (2002), the encyclopedic Prescription for Nutritional Healing (2000) and similar works-but when it comes to salt herring, I'd rather eat it than wear it on my neck. Another traditional sore throat remedy "up with which I will not put" is one that a Wolfville, NS, woman offered to Helen Creighton: "Put a sock on the throat, the dirtier the better. If it will stick to the ceiling, it's a sure cure."
Having studied the "Home Remedies" chapter of Dr. Creighton's Bluenose Ghosts (1968), Crocks, Pots and What-Nots (1973), compiled by the Women's Institutes of Nova Scotia, and several other sources from our part of the world, I've also decided not to lather hog's dung on my forehead to stop a nosebleed. Nor, if rheumatism attacks me, will I insert a bunch of earthworms in a cotton bag and hang them in the sun for several days to catch liquid for "rubbing on affected area."
If I sprain my ankle, I will neither "skin an eel in long strips and wrap it around as a bandage with the fat side in," nor "boil four toads until tender, add some butter and mint, using as a salve."
Moreover, if I have an earache, I'd rather not treat it by boiling a snakeskin (assuming I could even find one) in oil, and then placing drops of the oil in my ear.
Perhaps I'm too sissy for my own good. The triumphs of modern medical science and a healthy distrust of "cures" based on superstition have banished from use the most repulsive and ludicrous of the old home remedies, but many others are not only still working their wonders on minor ailments, but finding new believers. Anyone suffering from an agonizing or persistent earache should certainly see a doctor, but people have been using warmed "sweet oil" (olive oil) to ease the pain of minor earaches for centuries, and they still are.
A home remedy that emerged from the mists of time in one old book advised "Take a bit of cotton batting, put on it a pinch of black pepper, gather it up and tie it. Dip it in sweet oil, and insert it in the ear. Put it on a flannel bandage over the head to keep it warm." Now that's not so very different from a recommendation from Phyllis A. Balch, a modern day expert on nutrition-based therapy, in her Prescription for Nutritional Healing: "To alleviate the pain, place a few drops of warm garlic oil or olive oil in the ear, then a drop or two of lobelia or mullein oil. Plug the ear loosely with a cotton ball."
A New Brunswick reader recently told us that at the King's Landing Historical Settlement near Fredericton, she visited a house where people prepared plant-based potions to treat various conditions, and "one made with raspberry canes was supposed to reduce labour pains." A local woman, who was pregnant, didn't believe in the stuff, but tried it anyway, and later swore it worked.
Now, if we go back to Dr. Creighton's research, we find that generations ago in Scotsburn, NS-more than 250 miles from King's Landing-someone recommended "raspberry leaf tea for easy delivery of baby; it was a tonic to make the mother strong." Moreover, in a book about ancient folk medicine on Cape Breton Island, When the Doctor Couldn't Come (1992), David Lloyd Samson and Reed Wooby reported, "Raspberry leaf tea was used throughout pregnancy to ease labour pains, prevent miscarriage, and increase milk supply."
OK, let's leap ahead to our own time.
In Essential Guide to Natural Home Remedies (2002), British herbalist Penelope Ody advises women to consume raspberry leaf no earlier than the last eight weeks of pregnancy, but also assures them it "has long been used to strengthen the womb ready for childbirth: it helps to tonify the uterus and aid contractions." In addition, Prescription for Nutritional Healing says that the use of products derived from not only the leaves but also the roots and bark of red raspberry plants "reduces menstrual bleeding, relaxes uterine and intestinal spasms, and strengthens uterine walls."
The raspberry plant, however, is far from the only one whose bark, leaves, roots or blossoms lay at the heart of a pioneer home remedy that has re-emerged in today's popular guides to non-prescription treatments. Barberry, catnip, chamomile, nettles, juniper, mullein, plantain and sage, to name a few, apparently still bring relief-in teas, salves or poultices-to the victims of everything ranging from colds, headaches and flu, to heartburn, indigestion and flatulence, and sprains, cuts and bee stings.
The classic home remedies that strike me as most inviting, however, all feature items commonly used in tasty recipes: garlic, ginger, honey, molasses, vinegar, lemon juice, parsley or peppermint.
I've heard of sore throats being conquered by chewing on a kerosene-soaked cedar stick, but somehow that just doesn't appeal to me.
Deborah Gillis's cough syrup is another thing entirely. As children, she and her brother liked it so much that, to get their mother to make it, they sometimes faked coughing fits.
I'd fake a coughing spell myself if someone would only force me to take a remedy that an anonymous bluenoser contributed to Crocks, Pots and What-Nots: "Saturate six lumps of sugar with the best whisky you can get. Eat these slowly, three or four times a day. 'Having tested this old woman's prescription for myself, and found it is the messenger of healing to a cough of several months standing, which has set physicians and cod-liver oil at defiance, I write it down here without a scruple or doubt.'"
Cough, cough. Hack, hack. Now there's a home remedy.
To your health!
Next time you feel a fever coming on, try some toast soaked in hot water.
Toast water, or any liquid in which cereals have been soaked, has long been a folk cure in many cultures-and with good reason. When illness occurred, the body became dehydrated and weak. The liquids replaced lost fluids, and the starch in the bread helped to replenish carbohydrates, giving the sufferer more energy.
In olden days you would be more likely to put your toast in wine or ale, and when our ancestors felt a little under the weather they drank a so-called toast. Soon it evolved into a wish for good health. It wasn't long before even the hale and hearty were toasting each other's health.
After a few toasts of hot, spiced ale, no doubt everyone was feeling quite salubrious. ~Sheilah Roberts
Herbal preparations may have side effects-licorice root, soothing for the throat, isn't recommended for people with high blood pressure for example. Herbs have occasionally been known to strike someone with unforeseen side effects (i.e. colt's foot, once used widely for respiratory complaints, can cause severe liver damage) and may interact dangerously with other herbal supplements. Harmful interactions can also occur between herbal remedies and prescription drugs-don't mix the two without consulting a physician. Taking certain herbs before surgery is risky; some can trigger bleeding or breathing problems. "Despite such problems," write Joe and Teresa Graedon in The People's Pharmacy, "herbs appear amazingly benign when compared to prescription medicines."
Are ya sure now?
Home remedies and cures have been around Newfoundland and Labrador as long as Newfoundland and Labrador has been around. Let's start with the provincial flower, the pitcher plant-used by the Mi'kmaq for treating pulmonary complaints and stomach ailments and also gout, a type of arthritis.
Come summertime there are more than 10 types of berries here, from blueberries to partridgeberries, blackberries and dewberries. The Mi'kmaq used bakeapples for consumption, coughs and fever. In the early 1600s, early Europeans, and I doth quote, used bakeapples to "cooleth the stomakce and allayeth inflammations." Dogberries restored your appetite, elderberry blossoms were used for inflammation and elderberry tea cured fever, while squashberries settled your stomach.
When is a weed not a weed? Dandelions were eaten as fresh greens and also made into dandelion wine-in many places they still are-with wonderful healing properties. They detox the liver, and are used to treat liver, gallbladder and kidney problems. They're also used as a mild laxative and for treating eczema.
Juniper is one of the most popular plants used in Newfoundland folk remedies-every inch of the plant has been boiled, steeped and smashed for whatever ails. Juniper roots were used as a remedy for coughs and colds; juniper berry tea was used for kidney and bladder ailments. Even babies were treated to sugared juniper tea as a cure for colic.
If you can't see what I'm talking about, consider these cures for your eyes. If they were sore or tired, you'd wash them with the first snow in May. (How common is snow in May? Probably as common as fairies running around in the woods behind your house.…) If there was something in your eye, you'd get someone to lick the eyeball, and for sties, rub them with a wedding ring. From Labrador, a cure for snow blindness: Take steeped tea leaves from the teapot and place them over your eyes.
Speaking of May, there's a lot of folklore and superstition around stuff happening in May-much of it Irish in origin-like on May Day if you drink a bit of dew from the grass you'll never have wrinkles.
If people had too much food and drink on May Day, the morning after they might've had some baking soda-I myself use a tablespoon-in water to settle the stomach. (Note: this isn't advised on a full stomach.) You can add just enough water to baking soda to make a thick paste, what used to be called a "bread soda plaster," and rub this over fly bites, hives and rashes.
The number one kitchen staple was salt. A little bag of salt heated up was good for earaches, toothaches, mumps and backaches. A gargle with salt was good for a sore throat, and salt protected you from mischievous fairies.
Scalded dark, sweet molasses was also good for a sore throat, and provided relief for minor skin ailments. There's a tall tale about growing hair on balding heads that involves molasses: "Rub head with molasses. Go to wood where flies are thick. Flies land on head and stick. When molasses dries, pick off fly bodies, leaving legs in molasses. Legs will take root. Wash off molasses. After about two weeks you'll have a lovely head of coal black hair."
Even back in the 1600s, people were concerned about their looks and how they smelled. Here's a remedy: "To make the Face Fair and for a Stinking Breath," take the flowers of rosemary and steep them in white wine. Use this to wash your face and then drink it up to sweeten your breath.
What did you say? If you could use help with hearing, core an onion, fill it with pepper and slice it in the middle; wrap it in paper, roast it in the embers and then lay it on each ear.
But the most curious home cure is for heartburn, and you don't have to go outside to pick berries or even get up into your kitchen cupboard. You smell your fingers after they've been rubbed between your toes or under your smelly, sweaty armpit. If that doesn't cure you, eat a bit of earwax. I would like to see the scientific studies on that one. ~Wanita Bates
Home Medicine-The Newfoundland Experience, by John Crellin (McGill-Queen's University Press, 1994)
For Maids Who Bake and Brew: Rare & Excellent Recipes from 17th Century Newfoundland, by Sheilah Roberts (Flanker Press, 2003)