Sunday, 4 September 2011

Convalescing Like an Edwardian. And Cures for the Invalid: Or, Beef Tea

The Idle Historian is at the moment laid somewhat low by a strange combination of viral illness, which seems rather Edwardian. Consequently I am presently indulging in a long forgotten art, that of convalescing. The notion of convalescing and "the invalid" derives from a slower time, an era in which productivity and work were not the most valued of societal qualities. Individuals actually dared to think that the world could get along quite well for weeks and even months as they absented themselves for prolonged "rest cures" in the fresh air of coastal resorts or spa towns. Those suffering from ailments -- mental or physical -- were not simply plied with pills and told to get on with it ("it" usually being work). Being ill is just too inconvenient for the modern professional with bills to pay, emails to answer, and reports to file. But doctors at one time better understood the restorative qualities of complete rest -- or, at least, felt more comfortable in prescribing it. The comic writer Jerome K. Jerome, who wrote in the late Victorian and early Edwardian period, recalled one such episode from his own life in On Being Idle (1889):

I was very ill, and was ordered to Buxton for a month, with strict instructions to do nothing whatever all the while that I was there. 'Rest is what you require,' said the doctor, 'perfect rest.' ... I pictured myself a glorious time -- a four weeks' dolce far niente with a dash of illness in it. Not too much illness, but just illness enough -- just sufficient to give it the flavour of suffering and make it poetical. I should get up late, sip chocolate, and have my breakfast in slippers and a dressing gown. I should lie out in the garden in a hammock and read sentimental novels with a melancholy ending, until the books should fall from my listless hand, and I should recline there, dreamily gazing into the deep blue of the firmament, watching the fleecy clouds floating like white-sailed ships across its depths, and listening to the joyous songs of the birds and the low rustling of the trees...
All One Really Requires For a Rest Cure

Convalescing provides the perfect opportunity for this sort of dreamy self-reflection and contemplation. Times and medicine has changed, but the human body really has not. We are not machines or automatons. We need time to recuperate, to be (in a sense) "invalid" to the rest of the bustling world around.


The old-fashioned kitchen also had just the right concoctions for the individual pursuing the rest cure. Mrs. Beeton's famous Book of Household Management includes a large selection of Victorian "Invalid recipes," including the famed "beef tea" -- thought to be strengthening and filled with vitamins (indeed, a good source of vitamin B12):


INGREDIENTS - 1 lb. of lean gravy-beef, 1 quart of water, 1 saltspoonful of salt.
Mode.—Have the meat cut without fat and bone, and choose a nice fleshy piece. Cut it into small pieces about the size of dice, and put it into a clean saucepan. Add the water cold to it; put it on the fire, and bring it to the boiling-point; then skim well. Put in the salt when the water boils, and simmer the beef tea gently from 1/2 to 3/4 hour, removing any more scum should it appear on the surface. Strain the tea through a hair sieve, and set it by in a cool place. When wanted for use, remove every particle of fat from the top; warm up as much as may be required, adding, if necessary, a little more salt. This preparation is simple beef tea, and is to be administered to those invalids to whom flavourings and seasonings are not allowed. When the patient is very low, use double the quantity of meat to the same proportion of water. Should the invalid be able to take the tea prepared in a more palatable manner, it is easy to make it so by following the directions in the next recipe, which is an admirable one for making savoury beef tea. Beef tea is always better when made the day before it is wanted, and then warmed up. It is a good plan to put the tea into a small cup or basin, and to place this basin in a saucepan of boiling water. When the tea is warm, it is ready to serve.

Time.—1/4 to 3/4 hour. Average cost, 6d. per pint.

Sufficient.—Allow 1 lb. of meat for a pint of good beef tea.

MISS NIGHTINGALE says, one of the most common errors among nurses, with respect to sick diet, is the belief that beef tea is the most nutritive of all article. She says, “Just try and boil down a lb. of beef into beef tea; evaporate your beef tea, and see what is left of your beef: you will find that there is barely a teaspoonful of solid nourishment to 1/4 pint of water in beef tea. Nevertheless, there is a certain reparative quality in it,—we do not know what,—as there is in tea; but it maybe safely given in almost any inflammatory disease, and is as little to be depended upon with the healthy or convalescent, where much nourishment is required.”

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 
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