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Przekrój
In Poland, a number of folk remedies exist for treating common health ailments. Far from being useless, ...
2020-05-11 14:00:00

A Splash of Pepper Vodka
A Polish Approach to Illness

Illustration by Marek Raczkowski
A Splash of Pepper Vodka
A Splash of Pepper Vodka

One of the more interesting things to come out of the various COVID-19 social restrictions is how much some people are happy to give in to the uncertainty. In this moment of suspended time, self-care is something to be indulged in and drawn out, whereas idleness and rest are possible without unduly compromising social relations. It’s a curious consideration for how we’re normally forced to live: if, in our day-to-day activities, there is no longer any room to be variable – with ups and downs and niggling health conditions – in this new space for idleness, our understanding of personhood is broadened; taking care of ourselves is no longer a matter of self-indulgence, only a normal part of life.

Read in 7 minutes

I think about this a lot, because in Poland there are still echoes of a different way of doing things, where being sick is a normal thing and there is room for infirmity and care. Whereas in Australia, where I grew up, the impetus was to push through and get on with it (so-called ‘presenteeism’), in Poland you’re allowed to just stand around complaining about your health for hours on end. What therefore appeared to be hypochondria in my family, turned out to be a gentle cultural rumination on the pitfalls of being a person. There is attention (friends will come over with chicken soup) and a pleasant sense of continuity (everybody swears by their grandmother’s recipes) but there’s also a prevailing understanding that being unwell is something that can be dealt with properly, not just a non-issue to be cast away and ignored.

My favourite part of all this are the almost superstitious rituals around warding off illness. Every Pole knows that you take onion syrup or a shot of pepper vodka for a cold; that a chicken broth thick with collagen and amino acids is the only real way back from the brink. Anthropologists say that these remedies are part of a larger pre-modern cosmological outlook, whereby ‘sickness’ was understood not to be integral to your being, but rather something that was visited upon you. It’s why shifts in atmospheric pressure are blamed for bad moods, or why my friend said the Equinox made her feel ‘lazy’. The understanding here is that the badness doesn’t really come from within, it’s rather lurking somewhere beyond.

The folk remedies are therefore not only about bolstering weak immune systems, they also help to ritualistically expel illness, and in this manner they’re a useful way of looking at the world. If drinking mulled beer with eggnog or nettle tea makes you feel like you’re in a long line of people routinely plagued with poor health, you’re less likely to find fault in yourself. They also make you feel like you can do something with the problem. Possibly the resurgence of interest online in other folk traditions like sage burning, horoscopes and tarot readings is due to similarly appeasing qualities. They give us the metaphysical tools to deal with the difficult things in life.

So, in the midst of these increasingly strange and liminal times, here are seven remedies for dealing with the more malevolent spirits in your life.

Bread with butter and garlic

In my family, the number one go-to remedy to fight the onset of a cold was a serious Polish kanapka, or open sandwich. Whenever I’d come down with a bout of something, my father would make me a piece of hard rye bread with butter, small shavings of garlic and a little pinch of salt. To me, this act represented intimacy and care, but it obviously carried more general curative properties, too. Butter, though much-maligned, is a good source of Vitamin A, and garlic carries antibacterial and antioxidant agents. It also retains a somewhat superstitious quality among the Slavs: before planes were grounded during the current crisis, some passengers were seen flying around with amulets of garlic around their necks.

Rosól (chicken soup)

If my father’s remedial kanapka efforts failed, my mum would often make up a vat of rosół. Though chicken soup is not the preserve of Eastern Europe, it’s hard to stress how central it is to Polish cuisine and culture (in cognate Ashkenazi cooking, on the other hand, it’s referred to as ‘Jewish penicillin’). It’s often served as a starter, sometimes as a main, and I know of vegans who’ll make an exception for a steaming bowl of their grandmother’s broth. The soup, made with noodles, carrot and chicken (and obligatory parsley, in my case) is full of antioxidants and vitamins, which help with nasal congestion and recovery. It’s also infinitely more comforting than a pack of cold and flu tablets.

Onion syrup

Not all traditions are universal, of course, and some of my friends swear by things I’ve never heard of, like onion syrup. This heady concoction of finely chopped onion, honey, and sometimes garlic or herbs, is deployed to treat everything from digestion, high blood pressure, cholesterol, rheumatism, to – rather unsurprisingly – hangovers. The idea is that after a few hours steeped in sugar syrup, the allium releases its juices and health properties into the mix. The healing powers of onions are so well-established that the Polish equivalent of Jaime Oliver, Magda Gessler, recently drew ire for suggesting we ward off coronavirus by adorning our homes with the noxious bulbs.

Mulled beer with eggnog

Other treatments, on the other hand, just seem to be about having a good time. A friend of mine said his mother would routinely give him mulled beer with egg whisked into it, which sounds more like a delicious (or disgusting) variation on a more Christmassy drink, and/or the perfect excuse for a beer. The drink does have some redeeming qualities, though, because the cloves, cinnamon and shaved ginger do have obvious antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties – and it seems to be related to a hearty breakfast dish from the Middle Ages called gramatka, which was essentially a thick soup made from ale, spices, bread and granulated cheese...

Cabbage leaves

Though these examples do have obvious therapeutic benefits, some treatments make the tenuousness of their remedial claims more explicit. Although everybody knows that cabbage is one of the more nutritious vegetables, in Poland all manner of external complaints – from bruises and rheumatism to varicose veins and skin abrasions – can be treated with the careful application of its leaves. The instructions call for ‘tenderizing’ two to three cabbage leaves with a mallet, hanging them loosely over a hot pipe or radiator (!), then applying them warm to the affected area. The nutrients in the ‘bandages’ are then supposed to seep out and calm the inflammation.

Goose fat

Likewise, goose fat (or dripping) is a popular Polish ointment for relieving aches and pains, as well as upper respiratory tract infections. Though it is also consumed for its high iron and magnesium content – I know of people who’ll put a spoon of dripping in their hot chocolate or milk, for example – it’s most frequently used as a topical ointment rubbed into the skin, like a pre-modern Vicks VapoRub, only from lard. Celebrities swear by the stuff, touting its various health properties to their millions of social media followers, but medical professionals are more sceptical about the remedial value of the therapy, recommending we exercise caution with such practices.

Vodka pepper shots

My favourite discovery, however, are vodka pepper shots, or wódka z pieprzem. To me, this ‘tonic’ is appealing mainly for its aesthetic simplicity and disregard for social convention and common sense – you take a shot of vodka with a pinch of pepper, knock it back and wait around and see what happens. When I was at a party on a barge recently, a friend recommended I do vodka pepper shots to calm a suspected bout of gastro, which seemed like the opposite of what a doctor would recommend, but it did actually work. Though the medical establishment isn’t so keen on this remedy – shocking if you have ulcers – the underlying principle here is that the spirit neutralizes gastric acids, while the pepper warms up the body. There’s also something very satisfying about doing shots on a boat for health reasons, and I think this is why it tops my list of Polish folk remedies: often it’s the potency of the ritual itself that makes the practice, not its supposed remedial qualities.

 

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