October 4, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Doctor in the house

By |2018-03-21T18:58:47+01:00January 10th, 2014|"Suzanne's Taste"|
Another time: Southern belle in Texas, 1938.

y grandmother visits me in spirit at the start of each new year. I remember helping her in the kitchen and I can still hear the long-ago sound of my yelps after burning my fingers on a pan laden with sugar cookies fresh out of the oven. “Put some buttah on it right away,” she’d say with her Southern belle accent. “Buttah is the best for burns.”

And she was right: buttah did help — though it has since taken a back seat to benzocaine, or just cold water or ice.

But the memories remain.

Throughout my life, my mother, grandmother, aunts and cousins — all Southerners — offered solutions for kitchen disasters, preserving youth, and curing everything from colds — the white underside of citrus zest, chicken soup, hot milk with honey and bourbon and chili pepper water – to constipation: artichokes, avocados, mashed chili beans, not to mention a nice bowl of steaming oatmeal with raisins.

Mixed kitchen elixirs such as bicarbonate of soda in orange juice or a warm vinegar gargle were used for winter maladies, while a poultice of that same soda took the pain out of a summer wasp sting.

Black marks on a white wall, the calling cards of rambunctious children, were quickly rubbed out with a thick, compressed sponge of soft bread, and the all-purpose vinegar and old newspapers shined up our dirty windows.

My henna-tinted grandmother hit the garden for her beauty products, making an after-shampoo rosemary rinse for the brunette grandkids and a camomile one for the fair-haired. She cut cucumbers to put over our blood-shot eyes after we’d stayed too long in chlorine-laced swimming pools. As we girls got older, she made us drink tisanes made from thyme and lemon balm to brighten and clarify our adolescent complexions.

When we started going out with boys, she’d pat rice powder on our shiny foreheads and give us parsley to chew for sweet “kissing” breath. What a granny! Of course, a belle at 17, she’d stolen my grandfather from his date at a picnic, so she had some experience in these things.

In the kitchen I learned to take rubber bands off the bottom of asparagus bunches, not the top where you could often snap off a head or two from the spears. After using garlic, she’d rub her fingers against a stainless steel kitchen tool to eliminate odor (the wonderful inox “soap bars” had yet to be invented.)

From an abundant garden of riches, she would pick broccoli and cut a deep “x” in the bottom of each of the thick, nutritious stalks so that all of them would cook evenly. All cooked vegetable juices were saved for steaming other vegetables or for the beginning of a soup or even for making bread, just as now I save the whey from mozzarella for breads, curries, soups and more. My grandmother would have told me to rinse my face with it, just as in her day women took milk baths to soften their skin. Hey, it works on squid — why not?

“Men should eat tomatoes,” she would preach, for “down there,” and of course that little piece of wisdom is common knowledge — and the reason Italian men generally have less prostate trouble than those in other cultures.

Reeling from a toothache, my cousin got a couple of cloves to bite on until he could get to the dentist. Sometimes I’d laugh so much I’d start hiccupping, driving everyone at the table crazy until my grandmother’s “spoon of sugar” worked its miracle.

The annoying warts of childhood were stifled with duct tape, and she insisted that olive oil would grow hair on a billiard ball — she rubbed it into our scalps and on our skin until we smelled like Caesar salads (minus the anchovies). She also insisted that munching on apples would brighten and whiten our teeth.

At least we ate our fruit willingly.

For a cut or insect bite or anything that required disinfectant, out came the vodka bottle. She’d also pop a small glass in the freezer for when my cousins and I were all fed, cuddled and tucked in for the night.

I would later learn that my grandmother’s icy little shot of that particular magic elixir could, at least for a moment, cure just about anything.

About the Author:

Suzanne Dunaway, a longtime major magazine writer and artist, is the author and illustrator of "Rome, At Home, The Spirit of La Cucina Romana in Your Own Kitchen" (Broadway Books) and "No Need To Knead, Handmade Italian Breads in 90 Minutes" (Hyperion). She taught cooking for 15 years privately and at cooking schools in Los Angeles, and now maintains a personal website and a blog. She divides her time between southern France and Italy.