Monday, July 4, 2011

Garlic In My Socks

One winter many years ago, I took a job at a Benedictine monastery atop a windswept mountain in Vermont. Deep into this frozen season, I battled a cold that wouldn’t quit and one afternoon dragged myself into the monastery kitchen in search of a hot drink to soothe my raw throat. There, I encountered one of the monks, who took in the sorry sight of my red nose and bleary eyes. On hearing me croak out a miserable “hello,” he offered this bit of medical advice: “Put garlic in your socks.”

I opted for a hot lemonade with honey, an old family remedy. To this day, I don’t know if the monk was serious or only pulling my leg with his garlic-in-the-socks remedy, but I never waste an opportunity to pass on his advice. It’s usually good for lightening the mood when the other person is feeling like death warmed over.

Although no one in my family ever used garlic to cure a cold, an illness had to be pretty serious before we would resort to drugs. With the exception of aspirin, over-the-counter-medicine was a rare sight in my childhood home. We had hot lemonade with honey for sore throats and mint tea for stomachaches.

We were not the only ones to rely on traditional remedies. The small Vermont town where I grew up was populated with rugged farm folk who swore that the only way to survive the near-tropical summer heat was to swig copious amounts of a vile home-made brew called switsel. This concoction consisted of cider vinegar diluted with water and rendered almost, but not quite, palatable with maple syrup.

Later, when I got married, my new Iranian family had their own medicine chest (or pantry, if you will), full of home remedies. I learned entirely new “prescriptions,” like yogurt and honey for insomnia or nabat (saffron-flavored rock candy) dissolved in hot water (or tea) with a splash of arak-e nana (distilled essence of mint) for nausea.

One of my mother-in-law’s favorite remedies is a tiny yellowish brown seed called khak-e shir. She uses it to cure two birds with one stone, so to speak. Steeped in cold water, khak-e shir will treat a bout of diarrhea. Brew it in hot water and it’s a cure for constipation.

Over time, I discovered that my Iranian family and friends take the whole idea of food as medicine a giant step beyond anything I could have imagined. In Persian tradition, all foods are assigned to one of two categories: sardi (cold) and garmi (hot). This has nothing to do with temperature, but refers to the type of energy contained in the food. The idea is that a proper balance between “heating” and “cooling” foods is necessary for good health.

To complicate matters, according to this Persian philosophy, people also have these same energies, with some of us being more sardi and others more garmi. So if you’re a person with an abundance of warm energy, eating a lot of garmi foods could make you sick, or at least give you serious discomfort, such as a stomachache or heartburn. (Think of that huge chocolate fudge sundae [garmi] that made you just a bit nauseous.) Seasons can aggravate the situation, which means that eating too much garmi food in warm weather or too much sardi food when it’s cold and damp can make you feel unwell.

This philosophy goes back thousands of years to Zoroastrian times in ancient Persia, although some historians say it is based on ancient Greek medical texts. Traditional Chinese medicine, with its yin and yang, and India’s Ayurvedic practices have similar beliefs, so who knows where the idea originated.

Whether garmi/sardi began in Greece, China, India, or Persia, the 10th-century Persian physician Abu Ali Sina (known in the West as Avicenna) was one of the first to compile a complete list of “cold” and “hot” foods. Avicenna wrote over 100 medical treatises, including his most famous compendium, the Canon of Medicine, and Iranians revere him as the “father of modern medicine.”

While I struggle to remember which foods are heating and which are cooling, my mother-in-law can rattle them off as easily as one of her favorite recipes. What helps is to remember that garmi foods are on the sweet end of the taste spectrum (peaches, cream, chicken, and eggplant), while sardi foods tend toward sour and bitter tastes and are also harder to digest (vinegar, beef, beans, kale, and hard cheeses).

All of which makes me reconsider my take on switsel. Since vinegar is cooling and Vermont summers can be sweltering, maybe there is some truth in the old-timers’ claim that their favorite summer beverage makes the heat more bearable.

As for garlic in my socks, I’m still not sold on that one. Garlic is garmi, but I can’t see how putting anything in my socks will keep me from sneezing.


  1. Really interesting. I have always loved a book called The Food Pharmacy by Jean Carper, first published in 1989. It has lots of food-based remedies from many cultures.

  2. Thanks, Patricia. That sounds like an interesting book. What's fascinating about this topic is how much overlap there is between cultures and also how many differences there are.

  3. Great blog post, Heidi! I love all the cultural ideas about foods. Don't forget that with my German relatives, you'll encounter things like naturally cold beverages (like being stored in a cellar) is far better than ones that are unnaturally cooled in the refrigerator (and would therefore give you a sore throat!). :) I like your theory about switzel (the fact that vinegar is cooling), but what are you left with when you mix in maple syrup, which is sweet and presumably on the warm end of the spectrum? ;)

  4. Good point, Heather. You'd think the maple syrup would cancel out the cooling effect of the vinegar. Although, strangely enough, Avicenna lists refined sugar as cooling so maybe maple syrup (being so concentrated) has that effect too.

  5. I remember switsel as switchel, and I have a vague memory of tasting it, but I could just be making that up...And did I make it up that you taught the monks to folkdance?

  6. Priscilla, we pronounced it switchel, too, but spelled it with an s. Don't asked me why. And you're right, I did teach folk dancing to the monks. Nothing made up. :) What a good memory you have!

  7. Hello Heidi, Thank you for writing and commenting; it was helpful and very interesting to know there are people like you who spread the word / knowledge. It is just a few points worth to mention.
    According to Persian traditional medicine / which is goes chest-to-chest, all edibles are Cold, Warm, or Neutral. 2- Their effects are not according to their taste - for example Peach is cold.
    With my best regards,

  8. Thanks so much for your comment, Homa, and the additional information about the hot/cold effect of food in the Persian tradition. Very interesting!