anne_mikolay_2012_120When a good friend recently came down with a horrible cold, it was suggested her ailment could be cured with honey and cinnamon powder which, when ingested once a day for three days, allegedly cures chronic cough and cold. Sounds like a bit of sweet quackery to me, but who am I to judge? I hail from the “castor oil generation”.

My grade school teachers were forever telling my mother I was too pale (what Irish girl isn't?); Mom's remedy for what ailed me was a nightly teaspoon of castor oil. If you don't know what that is, consider yourself lucky. Castor oil, a foul tasting vegetable oil obtained from the castor bean, supposedly possesses great health benefits. The very smell of the stuff was repugnant to me, and swallowing it was a nightmare, but Mom believed castor oil would perk me right up. Had I known back then what I do now, that castor oil is widely used as a laxative, I would have mounted a much greater resistance. As it was, I took my “medicine” because Mommy said to. Did it work? Decades later, I'm still a pale Irish gal, so you decide.

The nuns who were so worried about my youthful constitution employed questionable medical practices of their own. When I fell and slid down a hill of concrete on my back, a nun quickly applied Mercurochrome, routinely used as an antiseptic, to my abrasions. The reddish brown liquid stung like a tooth-ache and stained my skin red, camouflaging any lurking infection. Even as a little kid, I wondered about the benefits of something that hurt so badly. Back then, we were commonly warned not to touch the red stuff inside a glass thermometer if the thermometer were to break; shouldn't the nuns have known, then, not to paint my back with the same poison? The FDA later banned Mercurochrome because it contained (gasp!) mercury.

While my Mom was medicinally armed with castor oil, my Dad's weapon of choice to combat the common cold was Vicks VapoRub. I must admit, Vicks cleared up chest congestion, but the poor patient reeked of it. Vicks remains popular to this day though there are some rather alarming stories about its use. For example, my father-in-law, now deceased (had nothing to do with Vicks!), ingested the green stuff whenever he was sick. Despite physician warnings against this practice (the product's petrolatum is said to accumulate in the lungs and cause inflammation called chemical pneumonitis), people still smear Vicks around their nostrils or, like my father-in-law, eat it to cure a cold (and I thought castor oil tasted bad!)

I suppose there is a folk remedy in every family's history. My paternal grandmother, of Irish descent, gave my dad hot lemonade to cure his sore throat; my Scottish maternal grandparents swore by the hot toddy, a mixture of whiskey, citrus, and hot water. An old British remedy for a sore throat involved wrapping dirty socks or bacon around your neck. The Irish believed applying salt herring to the soles of the feet cured a sore throat; similarly, nowadays some folks smear their soles with Vicks to do the same. To each his own, as they say, but I'll fight the common cold the old fashioned way: with my Aunt Sarah's chicken soup, ice cream, and ginger-ale. Oh, yes, and just a wee bit of Vicks (no, I don't eat it).

But you can keep the castor oil.