Greetings from the land of the sick. Although I’m not the kind to go to the doctor–a fear of being poked and prodded makes me more than a little reluctant–this time I started to sense that something wasn’t quite right: no decongestants were working, too many tissues had been used and, although I had done nothing but rest this past weekend, my breathing had started to resemble a fine wheezing followed by spasms of coughing. Not even the occasional bottle of fancy vegetable and fruit juice or a steady diet of soups, from old favorites like Melissa Clark’s Red Lentil with lemon to Ottolenghi’s Spicy Chickpea with Bulgur and Herbed Feta, were helping. Instead, things seemed only to be getting worse. What had initially felt manageable, possibly the combination of a bad cold or a bad reaction to the flu shot that I had gotten a few weeks ago, had not only overstayed its welcome, but also appeared to be settling in for the long haul. And as my mother ordered me over the phone, “You’re getting checked, Kathryn. GO,” I figured it was time to give into modern medicine (one also does not argue once Kathryn has been used). 

So I wisely took the day off and went to the doctor. Within 10 minutes of being questioned and examined, I was asked if I had ever used an inhaler before. While my first thought was asthma (years of congestion explained!), the doctor instead informed me that I had viral bronchitis. She also told me no work, minimal movement and lots of rest–in short, all things that are antithetical to my very mode of existence. I’m also now taking steroids, using an inhaler and consuming a disgusting cough syrup, but one becomes surprisingly amenable to trying anything when the very act of breathing–what we often take for granted–becomes complicated. 
But there’s always a silver lining in these situations. Although I suspect that I caught this bug on BART (I can’t help but wonder: did I rub my eyes after touching a sneezed-/coughed-upon pole? Was it the day that a lady sneezed behind me, perhaps even on my hair, that my fate was sealed? Was it in the aftermath of the Giants game, when the train was so packed that we were all breathing in each other’s faces? Yes, I do sincerely believe that 75% of the evil in my life stems from BART), I also can’t help but philosophically suppose that, to some extent, this is also my body’s way of telling me to take a rest. My first three months working in the law were busy–busier than I had been in a while and it takes time, mentally and physically, to adjust to so much change. 

There is an additional, culinary, silver lining in this situation, too. This past weekend, trapped (i.e. “resting”) at home and feeling restless (how much TV can one girl watch?), I began looking through a few of my older cookbooks. While I put Elizabeth David’s French Country Cooking aside for the moment, I gave my full attention to the late Evie Voutsina’s The Cookery of Lefkada: tastes, narratives and customs in the cycle of the seasons. In her books, Voutsina, one of the grand dames of Greek cooking (sadly, she is simply not as well known here as she is in Greece) approaches people and places through a distinct culinary and cultural lens; her writing is both scholarly and folkloric. Sometimes, instead of providing precise recipes, she’ll quote her sources directly since she believes that “the object of [her] research is the cookery of the agrarian sector, where cooking with local produce, according to the seasons, was created and preserved. Traditional cookery is folk art, or better, a mix of folk art and techniques. It is consequently handed down orally from mother to daughter and executed by women principally.” While this can lead to some of her recipes being a little beyond your exact grasp, so much of cooking is about trying to recapture experiences and flavors and coming to terms with the fact that you may never be eating the very same meatballs that your grandma makes or vegetables that taste just like they did in the south of France. Some things simply can’t be approximated and who can trust the slipperiness of memory, anyway? 
Her books make for pleasant reading and some of my favorite Greek recipes (leeks with prunes and cinnamon and herbed split pea fritters) come from them. In my reading on Saturday I discovered another fast favorite, which Voutsina simply calls “fig drink.” Obviously, I was immediately drawn to this section because it was called, “Medications from the Kitchen,” but when I read the short description of the fig drink: “A very soothing drink for a cold was made from dried figs, boiled with some cinnamon sticks and sometimes with a tisane of herb tea,” I knew that it was made for my condition. Given the absence of instructions, I took a few liberties with Voutsina’s “recipe”and added some lemon peel during the simmering stage and some lemon juice and honey just before drinking it. Although it didn’t quite prove to be the magical potion I had hoped it would be, it was still incredibly soothing, fragrant and softly spiced (if only cough syrup tasted as good as this). Since it turns out that people with bronchitis are supposed to consume 8 ounces of fluid per hour (!), this drink is now my faithful companion.
The good news is that that you don’t even have to be sick to enjoy it; even the still healthy Greek was more than happy to have a cup with me on Saturday afternoon and again last night. Despite being labeled “medication from the kitchen,” the truth is that this drink is ideal for anybody looking for a little comfort and warmth on crisp fall nights.  
Fig Elixir with Lemon, Cinnamon and Honey
Adapted and inspired by Evie Voutsina’s The Cookery of Lefkada
Yields 2-3 servings
Although I like the simplicity of this drink, I imagine that if you wanted to dress it up with a vanilla bean or even a splash of brandy, it would be just as good. That said, I don’t recommend any strong herbal flavors. My guess is that fresh mint or mint tea would overpower the subtle flavor of the figs, whereas this drink calls for nothing more than an herbal tea–Greek mountain tea is preferable here, but chamomile would work nicely as well–that would happily play a supporting, rather than a dominant, role.
       Also, feel free to play with the proportions. This kind of recipe can easily be adapted to one’s tastes.
        As a final note, the figs, once infused with the flavors of the tea and cinnamon, can either be turned into a thick paste in a food processor, eaten on top of a bowl of steaming oats or thinly sliced and placed on thick slabs of toast covered in cream cheese. The last way is currently my favorite.
105 grams dried figs (6-8 figs)
two cinnamon sticks
2-inch piece of lemon peel (about 1/4 of a lemon)
1 sachet mountain tea or other lightly fragranced herbal tea
3 cups water
honey and lemon juice, for serving
-Put the dried figs, cinnamon sticks, lemon peel and sachet of tea in a small saucepan. Cover with 3 cups water and bring to a boil.
-Once boiling, reduce to a gentle simmer and cover with a lid. Let simmer for 20-30 minutes.
-Pour into tea cups and add a softened fig and cinnamon stick to each glass. Flavor with honey and lemon juice to taste.

2 thoughts on “An Elixir for a Sick Day

  1. So sorry to hear you have been sick, but this elixir sounds like the perfect thing to sip on such a day! I had a similar, dreadful illness last winter (I am not going to say how long it lasted), in which I also was given inhalers and other medications. Like you, I'm not good at resting — but getting well is really impossible without it! I really do feel that our bodies are wise in making us stop to rest, even when it feels like a boring jail. Besides, reading old favorite cookbooks all the while does not sound so bad! Get well soon, Kathryn!! 🙂

  2. Moriah,

    Thank you for this sweet comment and for the well wishes and commiseration! Since I've been back at work, I've barely had time to consider my blog–even to open my computer in the evening (my bronchitis corresponded with the first week of Kostas' parents' visit to the bay, so it's been busy), which is always sad (I've been sitting on a few posts for way too long)! But the good news is that, after three weeks of coughing and quite a lot of fig elixir, I feel cured! Now I'm ready to return to the world of the living–I.e. Cooking, baking and eating well! 🙂 next stop, butter sugarflowers (my iphone wants to turn this to sugar fiend) for some inspiration…

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