There’s something about being ill that completely changes your appetite, both in terms of quantity and desire. Today was the first time in four weeks that I ate a fresh green salad – normally a daily habit of mine. But then I’ve been ill with bronchitis and an awful laryngitis and, as a result, my appetite has become that of a child. I’ve been eating nursery food.
I have survived the last few weeks on a diet of boiled eggs, scrambled eggs, rice puddings, yoghurt, plain pasta dishes, and frequent mugs of lemon, honey and ginger – with the occasional tumbler of whisky! You could call it the Beige Diet, and in terms of quantity, a yoghurt felt like an entire meal. As for the thought of eating a salad of fresh green lettuce, it made me physically shiver – cold, wet, raw – yeeuch!
Why is it that our appetite changes so radically when we’re ill?
It seems the old adage “Feed a cold, starve a fever” has a grain of truth in it. I’ve recently come across the phrase ‘autophagy’ which means ‘self-cannibalism’ and it’s used medically to describe how the body uses autophagy to get rid of the garbage generated by the wear and tear of the parts in a cell.
It’s a kind of constant ‘spring-cleaning’ in a normally healthy body, but doctors have discovered that short-term fasting during an infection can increase the autophagy process. Cells deprived of nutrients go into over-drive ‘spring-cleaning’ and, as a result, bacteria and viruses invading the cell can be got rid of by the very same recycling process.
That’s the ‘simple’ medical explanation, but it also goes some way to explaining why we naturally lose our appetite when we’re ill.
As a child, I was very prone to chest and throat infections – sadly, nothing’s changed – and I would end up in bed, croaking and coughing. My mother’s first port of call was Vicks Vaporub, that waxy pomade smelling of menthol and camphor. She would rub it liberally on my chest and back; I still remember that slightly hot, tingly sensation and the mere smell of it takes me back to my bedroom in the farmhouse in Buckinghamshire – tucked under the quilt, reading and sleeping as the fever worked it’s way through my body. I quite liked being ill as it gave me the chance to immerse myself in my beloved books. One bad bout of bronchitis gave me the time to read War and Peace, and another one allowed me to read the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy without stopping.
In the evenings, I would have to go down to the kitchen and sit at the table with a towel over my head to inhale the steam from a porcelain bowl filled with hot water and a spoonful of Vicks. My father swore the cure for sore throats was gargling with salt and warm water, so I was also obliged to do that before returning to my sick bed. When I got older, he introduced me to his ‘adult’ cure – hot toddies of lemon, honey and whisky. To this day, I’m convinced of the magical powers of whisky when it comes to sore throats!
With my swollen tonsils and sore throat, the act of swallowing was sometimes so painful that I was reduced to liquid diets of mugs of Bovril and Ovaltine. But when my tonsils began to shrink back to normal size, my mother would bring me bowls of home-made soup, made with her chicken stock and the vegetables chopped very small.
She always put a cloth on the tray, along with a plate of buttered bread (no toast with my sore throat), and pudding would be an orange, peeled, cut up, and sprinkled with sugar. If she had time, she would sometimes put a small eggcup with a sprig of garden flowers on the tray – plus a napkin to stop me spilling the soup on my winceyette nightie.
So after four weeks of being ill, when the effort of cooking was beyond me, I finally feel strong enough to cook up a good pot of my mother’s home-made soup to help me on the road to recovery. No stock cubes though. I’ve got a bowl of stock made from the carcasse of a spit-roast chicken from the Marché Couvert. That way, I feel it’s really going to do me some good.
A Simple Soup for Sore Throats
1 litre of home-made chicken stock
1 large potato
3 – 4 sticks of celery
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs of parsley
A good lump of unsalted butter
Salt and pepper
To make the stock:
I put the chicken carcasse, skin, bones and all, in a large saucepan, add one carrot cut in two, one peeled onion, halved, two bay leaves, and a sprinkling of whole black peppercorns. Once it comes to the boil, I simmer for 2-3 hours, then strain, and put the stock, once cool, into the fridge.
Peel and chop the carrots and potato into small cubes. Wash and trim the leeks before halving and cutting into small slices. Wash and cut the celery into small chunks.
Melt the butter in a large heavy-bottomed pan over a medium gas flame. Add the vegetables, stir a couple of times, Once they start cooking, turn the gas down, and put the pan lid on tight.
I like to sweat the vegetables for about 10 minutes – they might need an occasional stir – just to the point where the potatoes are beginning to catch the bottom of the pan and you can really smell the vegetables.
While the vegetables are sweating, skim the surface of the stock to remove the fat. Add the stock to the pan, along with the bay leaves and the parsley, and bring to the boil. Then turn the heat down so the vegetables cook slowly for the next hour.
This is not a dinner-party soup. It really is the simplest of brothy soups with the vegetables cooked to a buttery softness. Perfect for slipping down sore throats!