Never Eat Lunch on a Cold Stomach: Lost Rules of Life

Rick Sorensen

© Copyright 2001 by Rick Sorensen 




I was the son of a Scandinavian father and Italian mother, raised by Italian grandparents. It was an environment where the aroma of love was as strong as the sweet bouquet of oregano and garlic. This is part of that story. I hope you will enjoy it.

One of the truly great tragedies of modern life, is the loss of knowledge that fails to get transferred from one generation to another. The world would not be the same if somehow I had not learned to “Never to eat lunch on a cold stomach.” My colds would feel ten times worse if I didn’t know how to make chicken soup or how to use steamers for clearing up my nose. My social skills would be truly Philistine if I hadn’t learned to appear at a friend’s home with some gift in my hands, because “Empty hands mean an empty heart.” How would I ever have known how to discipline my own very modern girls, if I hadn't learned that “those rocks up on the mountain are children that didn’t obey their mother.” And how could I have ever learned, how deep, warm, abiding, and elastic familial love could be without my extended family. Most importantly, where I would be when the cold viruses are attacking if I didn't have the only antibiotic recipe for chicken soup.

 Sickness, of any sort in my mother’s Italian family, was treated with a shot of anisette liqueur, gallons of home-made chicken soup, or an enema. The threat of the last remedy usually made the first two very effective. Then there was the great golden elixir--canned pineapple juice. Pineapple juice played an important role second only to chicken soup; the relationship was like that of plasma to whole blood.

There was a time when I had my tonsils taken out. When I came to in the hospital, the first thing that I was aware of was the smell of grated parmesan cheese, so I knew “they” were there. “They” were my maternal grandmother’s cronies, the “Mama Nana's,” the little withered old ladies who dressed in black all the time. They always smelled of cheese because they were always cooking something indescribable that was always delicious. They were warm and good, and in some mysterious way they were part of the extended family by being related to someone who was married to someone who was related to a blood relative. No matter how the connection was made, they were family and that’s what counted. From them I had childhood memories of pinched cheeks, being smothered in kindness and hugs, and fed coffee by the spoonful with anisette biscuits. After the smell of the Mama Nona, I caught the smell of the chicken soup that was in mason jars sitting on the old hospital’s steam radiators to warm up. There was always a debate over whether the soup with spinach and egg drop was better than the one with the little meatballs. Those who didn’t make soup, brought juice. Without looking, I knew there were brown paper bags with large cans of Dole pineapple juice sitting on the window sills so they could remain cool. There in the midst of the modern hospital of its day, was all I needed--chicken soup, pineapple juice. and my family.

In addition to the mystic chicken soup and magical pineapple juice, there were other weapons in the family arsenal against illness. There was the traditional parboiling of the sick to cure congestion in head and chest colds. This was done with pots of boiling water (replaced by electric steamers in later years) on the kitchen table. On top of the kitchen table, a card table was set up, with coloring books and crayons. You sat up close to inhale the steam with a sheet draped over the card table and you to hold in the steam. It always worked. You did it until the coloring book pages became too moist to color. Added to this for chest colds, was the fumigation technique of VapoRub on your chest with a warm face cloth covering it. The warm cloth made the vapors more intense. If you survived the night after steaming and fumigation, you were generally unclogged and felt well.

In addition to the direct interventions, the family believed in prevention. You were never to get you feet wet; never go out in winter without a hat; always wash your face and hands before eating; go to church every Sunday; always wear long underwear in the winter; and NEVER eat on cold stomach. If you followed those rules, you were safe.

The key was never eat lunch on a cold stomach. I would come home for lunch from school every day, but I would never make it to our second story flat. My grandmother, Nana, would grab me on way up the stairs. She would always have a fresh pot of spaghetti sauce simmering with wonderful things in it and lots of warm baked bread. She was up at 5:30 every morning starting out fresh tomatoes in season or the tomatoes when canned the summer before. The sweet smell of caramelized roasted garlic, olive oil, basil, oregano, freshly grated parmesan cheese and cooking meats filled the kitchen every morning. Any meat left over from the main meal the night before went into the pot--and there was always something left over because Nana always cooked extra, in case somebody came to dinner unexpectedly. The cheese had its own smell because it sent over from relatives in Calabria, the southernmost part of Italy. We would send our clothes, and money, and chocolate. They would send cheese and cheese and cheese. Everyone was happy except for my father and me and my brothers. Anything like jeans or shirts, even Boy Scout uniforms, that sat around a little while turned into cheese.

Nana would always cut me a slab of her fresh warm bread. On that slab of bread she would slather fresh steaming tomato sauce. Then she would crush some of whatever meat was in the pot, leftover steak or chicken, or veal cutlet, onto the bread. Nest it snowed cheese all over the slab of red steaming bread. It was always incredibly delicious. After all, I was the first grandchild and a boy! I was supposed to spoiled and get the best from my Nana. Why did she do this when I was already on my way upstairs for lunch? She did not want her grandson to go upstairs and eat lunch on a cold stomach.

Mom didn't understand why I always ate such a light lunch. She became concerned that I didn't have enough of an appetite for growing boy. She brought me to Yale pediatric clinic but they didn't satisfy her. The clinic doctor said to leave me alone and I would eat when I was hungry but that wasn't good enough. Mom and embarked on a campaign with a great purpose: I would save all the starving children everywhere, especially in India, by eating everything she put in front of me. I tried but never got past the Indian subcontinent. However, hunger was kept at bay in, at least, Calcutta and New Delhi. I was ten when I began to question why other people weren't hungry just because I ate.

"Mothers are supposed to make their children eat," was Mom's reply, "so eat or people will think I am a bad mother. You don't want people to think you have a bad mother, do you?"

So I ate and ate. Somehow it didn’t seem enough. She had heard from my best friend’s mother that her son really ate like a trooper after his tonsils were removed. So Mom had my tonsils taken out. A year later, I was back at Yale-New Haven Hospital to take them out again. She was sure they had missed some, because I was not eating right. I was all “prepped” for surgery when someone questioned why they coming out twice. To my mother’s great dismay, they sent me home.

Mom always had some corollary to each of the basic rules. She said you have to eat to be strong, so eat. She always was adding things to the rules. Along with always wearing long underwear, you always had to wear a hat. This underwear and hat philosophy led to the mummification corollary where wrapped the child like a mummy. If a child was wearing long underwear, heavy jeans and sweater, and covered with snow boots, snow suit, and ear muffs under the hood of the coat, with a muffler covering his face, and mittens then he might be safe from the cold and the winter germs. Off course it was almost impossible to move never mind play dressed like that.

That mummy principle was the reason I hated winter. The other kids laughed at how I was dressed. I never had two mittens that matched because I always lost one somewhere in spite the snaps they were fastened with to my coat. I always wanted to make snowmen but it was too cold, too windy, too snowy, too dangerous, too like to get my feet wet with the wet snow. Today I wear only gloves and they all match.

Years after I had left home and was in the Air Force, I came to learn the value of those winter rules when I violated the long underwear principle. I was working long night shifts one winter refueling tanker aircraft on the Godforsaken blustery flight line at Dover, Delaware. The damp winter wind late at night was like razor slicing through my cotton my fatigues and thin field jacket. I came down with a really nasty cold around Thanksgiving.

The Air Force in its wisdom, did not see fit to issue us winter underwear because we were in a supply squadron not a flightline maintenance squadron. The fact that we were on the flightline 12 hours a day didn’t seem to make a difference. To make matters even worse, one midnight when I was working and sniffling and coughing, I asked the Mess Sergeant for some chicken soup instead of the usual midnight breakfast. He told me to “Shut up! and enjoy the wonderful creamed chipped beef on toast and fried Spam slices that Uncle Sam was providing.”

Two days later I struggled home to Connecticut for Christmas leave. As soon as I walked in the door, Mom felt my forehead. Then Mom put me in bed and made hot chicken soup with tiny meatballs, spinach and egg droppings. My aunt Mimi came over with an electric steamer and my father went out to buy pineapple juice. In twenty-four hours I was on a chicken soup, pineapple juice and steam high, and I felt great. I received several pairs of long winter underwear for Christmas that year and it became a standard gift for many years after.

It is terribly sad that modern medical science has lost sight of these remedies. I have never had any doctor prescribe them for my children, but I remember them. I use them for my two daughters with copious amounts of their secret additive--love.

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