Change of Season SoupKeith Stelling, MA, MNIMH, Dip. Phyt, MCPP (England) March 1, 2013
Our public health care system, which is largely influenced by its profit-driven suppliers, is based on the paradigm of treating the patient after she or he has already become ill.
The ancient Chinese physicians would laugh at us. They were paid for keeping you well, not getting you better. That of course gave them a rather different perspective and a different kind of interest in your health. One of them, Su Wen, asked: “Does it make any sense to begin digging a well when you are already thirsty or to engage in battle before you have begun to forge your weapons? Is it not the same when giving medicines after the patient has already become sick? Would this not be too late?” he asks.
Prevention – Pioneer Style
I was still thinking about what we mean by natural prevention when a friend took me to visit Black Creek Pioneer Village, one of her favourite places in Toronto. The outing was interesting and we enjoyed our lunch of pioneer stew and beer in front of a blazing fire in the basement of the old hotel. For the children who had been brought by their moms and dads, the experience was an exciting one of journeying back in time. (If you plan now – the village reopens May 1, but is open during March Break – you will be able to take the whole family. For information on directions and admission prices call (416) 736-1733 or go to their website at www.blackcreek.ca.)
Black Creek is a complete pioneer village that looks as if it has dropped down in a time capsule. It nestles beside a creek beneath old trees and the city seems miles away. Its period costumed residents busily attend to wood fires, wool carding, or baking bread. There is a cabinetmaker who can teach you how to make an arrowback chair circa 1840. And you can watch a cooper sling barrels together, a blacksmith make shoes for horses, a tinsmith punch out antique lanterns – he will even let the kids make a star for the Christmas tree. And the miller will tell you all about the workings of his magnificent handmade machinery – an immense rumbling giant built of wooden cogs and stone wheels, hand hewn timbers and mortar and stone.
One thing that arose out of my Black Creek experience was the realization of the amount of work that 19th- and early 20th-century women were expected to do. Daily responsibilities in keeping a large family running efficiently included laundering, cooking, cleaning, sewing, and raising enough food for the family for the year in the garden, as well as tending the chickens twice a day even during winter blizzards, and helping on the tractor or ploughing team during the harvest. In addition to all that, they were usually the primary health care providers for their family. Doctors were far away and expensive. There wasn’t a lot of cash around. Women did their best to maintain the health of their families because the cost of hospitalization was unthinkable. (It was before medicare). They even formed an organization called the Women’s Institute which allowed them to network and receive information and training on nutrition and household management.
For a primary health care giver in such a position, prevention made a lot of sense. Every farm house had its own herb garden and women collected and dried many medicinal plants the way their mothers had always done. You can see them growing at Black Creek. Nearly every house has a good perennial herb garden. And the physician’s house has an apothecary garden.
Change of Season Soup
The ancient Chinese made preventive medicine something of a specialty. They invented change of season soup. It was designed to prevent you from experiencing poor health during the next three months. Taoist Traditional Chinese Medicine observed that you store up the health you experience during each season in the three months before. That’s why it is so important to give the body a cleansing treatment at the same time as nature is cleansing itself. The spring rains on the planet cleanse the air.
The ancient Chinese made their change of season soup from an old hen — something that our affluent society doesn’t even consume. But poor people from all over the world know that a hen provides protein and minerals as well as the fat necessary to extract fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Then herbs were added to it. In China as in India, herbs and spices are interchangeable. Many of the spices, such as cloves or cinnamon, have powerful antibiotic and medicinal effects.
After the herbs come the vegetables – as many root vegetables as you can find. These have been stored. Try to find Canadian grown root vegetables and apples. Eat food grown near to home if you can – from your own garden if you have that luxury.
With this season-changing soup, there is an emphasis on cleansing the bowels and also restoring the whole body. In fact, if any one system is important to treat at the change of the season, it is the lungs. That’s why traditional Chinese medicine is often accompanied by breathing exercises.
Every culture has its own change of season soup. The Hindus call it curry and it is full of healing and health enhancing wonder spices. Hebrew culture has a chicken soup so powerful that it is referred to as penicillin. The Moroccan Tagine is another elegant example.
My own version leans towards the Moroccan, but combines the essential elements of the pioneer Ontario farmhouse stew with the medicinal properties of Indian cooking.
In olive oil, I sauté garlic and onions from my own garden. Then I add a few cardamom seeds, black mustard seeds, and a bay leaf.
When the mustard seeds begin to pop it is time to add the cut up old hen and coat it with turmeric powder. This is an effective antiviral and it also enhances the activity of the liver. The disinfectant properties of the turmeric powder also assure the safety of the meat.
I also like to sprinkle a little cinnamon powder, a favourite of the Elizabethans. Along with cloves and oregano, cinnamon is effective against E coli. Sage, another pioneer farmhouse herb, is also added at this point, and then lots of clear spring water to cover the meat and the vegetables. I use our own potatoes, parsnips, carrots, turnips, beets, and herbs from the garden. The vegetables are diced and thrown in with the rest.
My change of season soup always has a root of dandelion if the ground is thawed enough to extract it. That assures better liver performance and tissue oxygenation. And for the lungs I like to add a little horseradish and some black radish – two very powerful lung cleansers commonly available in the supermarket.
Then to sweeten the whole medicine, I add a handful of apricots for their iron and their sunshine. I also like to add winter savoury, thyme and grated ginger root – all with similar lung cleansing activity. Finally there is garam masala (a mixture of spices sold in Indian grocery stores), a few star anise seeds, and a pinch of cayenne pepper to facilitate delivery of the constituents to the cells. If you happen to have a little wine handy, you can throw in half a cup or so. And half a teaspoon of balsamic vinegar will help coax the calcium out of the chicken bones. The whole pot then simmers on my wood stove overnight.
Wherever you visit old house museums in Ontario, you will find the remnants or restorations of the herb gardens that rural women relied upon to keep their families healthy. By adopting their preventive nutrition approach, we can all live energetic healthy lives.
To learn more about herbal medicine, or to see a list of herbalists in Ontario, visit the website of the Ontario Herbalists Association: https://ontarioherbalists.ca/.
Keith Stelling is a retired member of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists of Great Britain and the College of Practitioners of Phytotherapy (England). He has been researching rural community health issues including the adverse health and environmental effects of industrial wind turbines. See www.ontario-wind-resistance.org