Sick Food: Barley Water For Invalids

No, not food that is sick. Food you eat when you are sick, like barley water.  A better term is the chapter heading in one of my vintage cookbooks: “Invalid Cookery.”

1925 Cook Book

1925 Cook Book Cover

I had noticed this intriguing chapter title in the 1925 book, The Home Makers’ Cooking School Cook Book by Jessie M. DeBoth (cover title: Buffalo Evening News Cooking School Cook Book).  This book, which qualifies as an heirloom, belonged to my great aunt, Maud Stout Bartlett.  As I’ve explained before, a number of newspapers across the country carried Miss DeBoth’s column on cookery, and each published a book of recipes, putting their own name on the cover.

I’ve had a cold that knocked me down this past week, and I kept thinking if I had the energy to get up, I’d cook something from the chapter on “Invalid Cookery.”  Now I’m back up and at the computer, and still feeling the need of comfort food, although not feeling good enough to actually cook anything complicated..

Sick Child

Child in Sick bed, photo from The London Blitz, 1940, Photo by Cecil Beaton, public domain

We all have our sick food favorites, some the same from childhood. Mine include Vernor’s ginger ale (it has to be Vernor’s and if I have to explain why, you’re not from the mid-West); pudding of any kind, but particularly rice pudding; tea with lemon juice and honey; white bread toast to dunk in the tea–or spread with applesauce. Soup and club crackers. It has now been scientifically proven that chicken soup actually IS good for you when you’re ill.

From Mrs. DeBoth’s Cook Book

Back to the book. The introduction to the chapter “Invalid Cookery” is preachy and thorough– as is every chapter introduction in this book. It encourages the housewife by saying,

Caring for the invalid falls to the lot of a large majority of homemakers at some time.  Very often the homemaker has much to do with the recovery of the invalid.  Special foods must be cooked, appetites must be coaxed back to normal, and the patient must be catered to in every possible way.

That is a proposition that I am sure every husband would agree to, and every homemaker might wonder just who was going to “cater to [ME when I get sick]..in every possible way.”

Not only must you prepare the right food, but the appearance of the food affects the appetite.

Sick person breakfast tray

From American Food Roots website.
In “Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent,” Fannie Merritt Farmer called for setting a pretty breakfast tray to stimulate the appetite. / Courtesy of Little, Brown and Co. and the USDA National Agricultural Library

A simple dish of pudding can be made to look so attractive that the person for whom it is intended will be glad to take it no matter what it is.  Daintiness is of primary importance.  The tray must be attractive.  The portions should be small.  A large serving may look so overwhelming that the patient will not try to eat it.  When hot liquids are served, they should be brought in a covered pitcher to be kept hot.  By pouring it in the room, there is not the danger of spilling in carrying.  Nothing so quickly mars the appearance of a tray as a saucer into which some of the liquid of the cup has been spilled.

Oh, dear! Heaven forfend that I should slop some liquid into a saucer!

Monotony should be avoided, even if only the garnish on the food is changed.  When the diet is so limited that great variation is not possible, it sometimes helps to change the dishes with which the patient is served.  A bit of parsley in place of other garnish makes the plate look a little different.  Cress, too, makes an attractive garnish.

The author of this book, does not apparently have a high opinion of the brain power of the reader.

Special care should be taken that no liquid food is ever served in the glass which has contained medicine.  Even if the glass has been thoroughly washed, it may have a slightly unpleasant taste or odor.

Okay, got it! Be dainty. Don’t spill stuff. Add some parsley. Don’t put the lemonade in the paregoric glass. But what should I prepare?  Some suggestions sounds okay, but some just sounds downright weird.

Rennet

When I was a child, and my children were small, I made rennet custard.  My vintage cook book calls for Junket tablets in an eggnog, which sounds awfully good, but I didn’t have any Junket (a brand name) rennet tablets on hand, so I couldn’t try that.

Barley Water

Nor did I have pearl barley on hand for barley water.  (See UPDATE below) But I know that barley water was a headliner in feeding injured soldiers during the Civil War, and it hung on into the twenties. By the way, have you been watching Mercy Street on PBS? Set in a Civil War hospital, where the head nurse spends quite a bit of time worrying about what the soldiers are eating.

In case you want to try it:

  • 2 Tablespoons pearl barley
  • 1 Quart cold water
  • 1/2 Teaspoon of salt
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon
  • A little sugar if desired.

Wash the barley, pour the water over it and soak for several hours.  Add salt and cook in a double boiler for at least three hours.  Strain through cheese cloth or a fine strainer, flavor with lemon, and add sugar if desired.

Note: Most current day recipes call for cooking barley for 45 minutes–but that is for eating it as a grain. Also, pearl barley has had a lot of the nutrients removed (which apparently Ms. DeBoth hadn’t caught on to, so its benefit to invalids is a bit questionable.)

The Book of Household Management by Mrs. Beeton has a similar recipe for barley water , but a more intriguing one proposes barley gruel made with red wine. Mrs. Beeton’s book, published just before the Civil War, must have been quite influential. I found her book at the intriguing site called Ex-Classics and from another site that contains her whole book, Mrs. Beeton.com.

Mrs. Beeton’s barley water recipe.

INGREDIENTS – 2 oz. of pearl barley, 2 quarts of boiling water, 1 pint of cold water.

Mode.—Wash the barley in cold water; put it into a saucepan with the above proportion of cold water, and when it has boiled for about 1/4 hour, strain off the water, and add the 2 quarts of fresh boiling water. Boil it until the liquid is reduced one half; strain it, and it will be ready for use. It may be flavoured with lemon-peel, after being sweetened, or a small piece may be simmered with the barley. When the invalid may take it, a little lemon-juice gives this pleasant drink in illness a very nice flavour.

Time.—To boil until the liquid is reduced one half.

Sufficient to make 1 quart of barley-water.

UPDATE: I could not stand the suspense, so finally got out to buy some pearl barley and try making barley water.  I used Mrs. Beeton’s recipe, because it sounded a little more logical to me.  The tiny amount of barley in relation to the water, gives the barley water a pinkish-brown hue. I got just over a quart of liquid at the end.  I added to one glass, 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice and 2 teaspoons of sugar (channeling my grandmother Vera Anderson who would put the maximum amount of sugar in anything).  Neither of the recipes specify drinking it warm or cold, but I drank it cold, thinking that would be more soothing for a sore throat.

 It really is not bad. You get a bit of the flavor of the grain, plus the lemon and slight sweetness.

Medieval Recipe for Barley Water

Finally, if you want to go back to Medieval days for a recipe for Barley Water for Invalids:

This is an excerpt from Libre del Coch
(Spain, 1520 – Robin Carroll-Mann, trans.)
94. Barley-water for Invalids. You will take barley and cook it the night before, according to the quantity that you wish to make. Then take a pullet or cockerel, and break its bones and then make a pot boil with water that is clean; and moderately, in such a manner that when you cast in the pullet or cockerel, the water only covers it; and [this is] if it is little, of necessity you will have to cast in more water if the pullet is larger, and it is necessary that it cooks longer; and it must cook or boil constantly, and never cease to boil. And do not cast in salt until the last, when you know that there is no more than a dishful of broth, because it will be more flavorful. And having done this, after the patient has supped, you will take a few peeled almonds and grind them with a little of the white meat of the pullet in a mortar; and blend them with the broth of the cockerel or pullet; and when you have strained it, put this milk in a little pot; and if you wish, cast in a tiny bit of starch; you can cast it in at the same time as the milk; and then take the barley or ordio when it is cooked, and take a hemp-tow which should not be very thin, and put it in that ordio or barley, and press down the hemp-tow very well, in such a manner that all the liquor comes out of the barley; then take that milk that you removed, and strain it through a sieve, in such a manner that little of the starch passes through it; and then strain everything again, the barley and all; and it should be a little clear and thin. Because in resting overnight it will turn thick. And I wish to say this now: let it cook the night before with sugar; and in the morning, when the patient is going to drink it, make it boil a little, and that will make it of great benefit; and when you give this barley-water, cast a little sugar over the dish; and if you don’t wish to cast in starch, do not cast it in, [and see] that nothing goes into it.

The things you can find on the Internet!!

What I Will Not Cook

I’m going to pause here, but promise that I’ll bring you some more–but probably NOT “Toast water” (a piece of stale bread soaked in boiling water). And NOT Irish moss (it’s a seaweed and is controversial because it is the source of carrageen which some health experts warn against.) So while cold and flue season is still upon us, I’ll be back with more Invalid Cookery in the future.

Source in addition to those linked above: A Manual for Invalid Cookery. (1880) (available on line)

2 thoughts on “Sick Food: Barley Water For Invalids

  1. Kathy

    I can’t wait to see more from this chapter. My mom would make a poached egg and well buttered lightly toasted bread when we felt ill.

    Reply
  2. True!

    Applesauce always did the trick when I was young. So on those days when I’m not having a appetite. That bodes well. Lots of information from this piece on the Olden Days. I enjoyed the photos too. Hope you feel better.

    Reply

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