When you are ill most food tastes awful. Why are there no sections of the cookbook which deal with that? I had a dry, achy, snotty, exhausting cold, customary for the time of year, and for a week nothing tasted right. For three or four days I could taste nothing at all. The thing I most enjoyed was cubes of Hartley’s strawberry jelly straight from the packet. Revolting, you may think, but this was at peak illness, and I could barely even taste that it was sweet. The only thing I got from it was texture, which at that moment felt extremely valuable: plasticky, rubbery, it could have been petrochemical and I wouldn’t have known. It’s alarming to have your normal sensory inputs out of whack.
Eventually I got the hang of eating for illness, which was really eating without taste. I became more sensitive to temperature. Tepid food seemed disgusting. Icy, gloopy-textured foods were in, or hot things, crunchy, hard, sour things, noisy things. Yoghurt was fine, but milk suddenly felt chalky-textured. Chicken soup, unsurprisingly, was ideal. I fantasised about having a Thermos flask of chicken broth beside my bed at night. My most successful actual food made in this period was leftover roast potato, cabbage and chorizo in extremely nice homemade chicken stock, close enough to caldo verde that I felt I had made real food. After tasting I cheated and added some MSG, which for me vastly improved it — since I could literally only taste a powerful umami flavour (savoury), and nothing else, I thought I should Lean In to that. (MSG can be bought from Asian supermarkets. It looks like salt or sugar. It is not bad for you. If you can’t find pure MSG, “chicken powder” is pretty much the same thing but with extra spices.) At lunch, my mouth couldn’t distinguish between the soft inside and the soft outside of most sandwiches. The MVP of workday lunches here was the jambon beurre (Pret sells one for £2.50): salty, strongly textured bread, sour crunchy pickle, and butter; I finally understood the point of butter in a sandwich — the soft, slidy texture, which I ordinarily avoid, was a blessing. But mostly I remember Strepsils, Lemsip Max and the occasional Grether’s blackcurrant pastille (to break the monotony).
When I cooked for other people I was conscious that I was putting more salt, more garlic, more lemon and chilli than normal — I just wanted to feel something. Pungent aromatic things punched through the fog: black pepper, lemongrass, ginger. Neat spirits did better than beer (odd and sour) or wine (just sweet, or nothingy). My uncle Thomas’s home-infused herbal vodkas (rosemary in particular), or slightly warmed Bulleit rye whiskey. Sake, hot, in a very small cup because of your flu-weakened arms, means you are obeying the NHS’s request for you to drink warm, nourishing fluids. I asked other people what they felt like eating while ill, and they more or less all said “comfort food”. I honestly think they were misremembering what being ill felt like. One of my sisters just said, “anything anyone else will make for me”, which seemed accurate.
Older books do have “Invalid Cookery” sections. Health For All Wartime Recipes (1942) by Margaret Brady mainly recommended fresh vegetable juices, which seems oddly modern. Her advice is bracing: “Carrots sometimes have grubs in them, and the grubs are generally at the end of the holes.” An Edwardian edition of Mrs Beeton I looked at has extremely period dishes in this section which don’t appeal at all: “egg jelly”, “arrowroot soufflé” (arrgh!). But earlier editions concentrate on basic principles, beef-tea, barley-water, and tips from Florence Nightingale: don’t give an invalid overcooked food, take the fat off the mutton chops, let everything be as neatly and cleanly presented as possible.
A recipe which sticks out is toast-and-water, a dish so important and apparently so usual for invalids that she starts giving you instructions for it in the opening remarks of the chapter: “never blacken the bread, but toast it only a nice brown”. The recipe goes as follows: “Cut a slice from a stale loaf (a piece of hard crust is better than anything else for the purpose), toast it of a nice brown on every side, but do not allow it to burn or blacken. Put it into a jug, pour boiling water over it, cover it closely, and let it remain until cold. When strained, it will be ready for use.”
When I made it I enjoyed it. Mrs Beeton is very firm on the point that it should be drunk cold (she’s right), but think of it as toast tea and you’re not a million miles away from hyeonmicha, the Korean roasted-rice tea (genmaicha in Japanese; similar roasted-grain teas are found all over Asia). Roasted-rice tea has a starchy, nutty, popcorny taste, which is extremely steadying, and like toast-and-water it’s used as a home remedy for nausea and other illness. (If you can’t find it in Asian shops you can approximate it most easily, if not wholly accurately, by toasting dry rice in a pan until browned all over, then brewing about a tablespoon to a mug.)
Nigel Slater said that it was “impossible not to love someone who makes toast for you”. But we now know that toast can be dangerous: acrylamide, a substance found in dark-toasted starchy foods, may be carcinogenic, as was widely reported in January. (It has been shown to damage DNA in animals, although the link to humans is not proven.) Cancer Research UK are relatively cautious and point out that if you are eating fried and roasted calorific starchy foods every day that’s already a dietary problem. Mrs Beeton was therefore ahead of her time in forbidding you from browning your toast too far.
One of the nicest ways to have roasted-rice tea (my favourite kind is mixed in the packet with roasted green tea), and a wholly invalid-appropriate dish is in the very simple Japanese dish ochazuke — tea over rice. Cook some sushi rice, leave it plain, and pour hot green tea (or roasted rice tea) over it, like pouring milk over cereal. Serve it with any or all of the following on top: crisped-up pieces of nori (the seaweed which comes in sheets, like paper — I toast it carefully over the gas flame on the hob), crushed crispy rice crackers (functioning like croutons), toasted sesame seeds, Japanese-style pickles (radish, sour plum, cucumber), chopped herbs, a little bit of cooked fish (maybe salmon or salted fish roe). If it makes any difference to you, I’m fairly sure the whole thing is acrylamide-free.