The informant, my grandfather, is a 67-year-old man who was born and raised in the Sacramento Valley. His mother was also born in the United States, and is of Spanish, German, and French descent. While riding in the car on the way to breakfast, I asked if he remembered any of the home remedies his mother would use when he was sick.
“When I or any of my siblings had a sore throat, my mom would take a banana, peel it, and place the moist side of the banana peel against our feet. Then we had to put socks on. Apparently, whatever was left in the banana peel would heal your sore throat. Maybe it had to do with the potassium or something. I’m not sure if it ever really worked, but we still did it.”
I was a bit taken aback by this form of folk medicine, mostly because I could not imagine the sensation of having a banana peel forced inside of my sock. The informant did not initially tell me where his mother learned of this remedy. After I followed up to determine whether it was an idiosyncrasy, the informant said that his mother learned of the healing properties of banana peels from her mother, who was born in Spain, and that the tradition had been prominent within their community as doctors were scarcely available and most remedies were communicated orally. However, the informant decided not to continue the tradition and pass it down to his children because he felt there were better remedies available for a sore throat. Perhaps the idea of a banana peel having medicinal properties comes from the fact that fruits, and bananas in particular, are rich in vitamins and minerals. Banana peels are cool to the touch, and so may be capable of alleviating skin irritations or abrasions. It is unclear how these properties applied to the bottom of one’s foot would help to remedy a sore throat, but maybe the unfamiliar sensation served as a distraction from the pain that the child felt in their throat by focusing attention to a different area of the body.
The informant is a 20-year-old college student. All of the informant’s grandparents immigrated to the United States from South Korea, but both of her parents have lived in the United States their whole lives.
While I was heating up some leftover pasta in the microwave, the informant commented on the fact that I was standing too close to the microwave while it was running. I told her that I’d never heard of this being a bad thing to do, and she replied that her mother has always told her to stand far away from it, or else she will develop a chronic illness and die young. A second woman who was in the room confirmed that her mother has always told her the same thing. The second woman also has a South Korean mother whose parents were immigrants born and raised in South Korea.
While I had never heard of this belief before, I do not doubt that there is some truth to the idea that prolonged or continuous exposure to microwaves can create a higher risk of developing chronic illnesses like cancer. However, the risk is most likely rather minimal, considering that microwaves are lined with material that prevents radiation from leaking and affecting anyone in close proximity. It is interesting that both of the individuals who held this belief are of South Korean descent, which may highlight a prominent difference between Eastern and Western views on health and medicine. I asked the informant whether her mother had a specific viewpoint on keeping cell phones in close proximity to one’s body, since they are known to emit radiation similarly to microwave ovens, and the informant replied that her mother did not. This seems, then, to be a belief isolated to microwave ovens as cooking appliances, and may also reflect a more traditional viewpoint on food handling and preparation.
This informant is a sophomore student at USC. I explained all the different types of folklore there were and he decided to share his his recipe for getting rid of the hiccups that his mother swore by.
First you eat a lot of grapes, like 6-8 until your mouth is pretty full. Then chew them up and swallow them quickly followed by a big glass of water. After the water goes down, hold your breath for as long as possible and only let out small amounts of air at a time. Finally when you absolutely have to, take a deep breath and your hiccups will be gone!
I really didn’t even know what to make of this hiccups remedy, the grapes seem to be completely out of left field. However, I have heard before that holding your breath can help.
I was discussing with my mother via skype about home remedies that she knew of, or that her mother used to do for her and her siblings when they were sick.
Me: I remember you once saying that your mother had a couple of home remedies that she would use with you when you would get sick, yeah?
Informant: There were certain things –
Informant: M’kay. There were certain things that mom did when we were sick, especially when we were sick to our stomach. First of all, she would give us 7-Up.
Informant: Cause 7-Up she believed would settle our stomachs. To this day I despise 7-Up.
Me: And, why 7-Up?
Informant: And another thing she did, was to put us to bed with a bath towel.
Informant: And the whole idea of that, well the idea behind that was actually quite practical because my bedroom was pretty far from the bathroom, and if I had to throw up and I couldn’t make it to the bathroom, mom wanted my to be throwing up into the towel. But, for me, that towel ended up being very very comforting; and I used to kind of snuggle that at night when I wasn’t feeling good and it made me feel better just having it.
Me: Is that where I got Magic Towel from?
Informant: That’s why you got Magic Towel.
Informant: From my memory.
Informant: Because when you were little, you had an upset stomach one night and I didn’t have any medicine that either you would take or I could give to you. And so I gave you that towel and I told you that it was a magic towel and that if you hugged it real, real tight all night then you would feel better in the morning.
Informant: And the next morning, you felt better and you looked at me and said, “I have a new B.” ‘Cause that’s what you used to call all your blankets. And you put it at the bottom of your bed and Magic Towel stayed with you longer than any other B.
Me: Despite having lost it multiple times and having to replace it.
Informant: Well you’ve only lost it once I think
Me: No, it was more than that. I think it was at least twice.
Informant: Could be. I remember that it got left in the Dallas airport once.
Me: Yeah, I remember that one.
Informant: Not on my watch.
Me: Not on mine.
Informant: It was daddy. Daddy help – let you forget it. So does this help?
Me: Yeah, mama. Thanks.
When hearing this story, and especially about the taking the bath towel to bed, I realized that there is a reason why these folk remedies are passed down. It is because they work. Whether they are born from practicality or herbal medicine, if they work, then they are remembered and passed down to the next generation. Now, 7-Up, like many other sodas (including Coca-Cola), was originally created as a medicine, and it is highly likely that my grandparent’s generation believed such sodas to actually do what they were advertised to do. With the bath towel, though born of practicality, it was the belief that my mother had that it would work to cure an upset stomach that made it work. It is an example of the placebo effect. Also, the fact that my mother used this remedy for me, and that it worked, shows that such remedies, over time, can become family traditions, or traditional remedies within a family. I still sleep with magic towel, and I have never gotten sick in bed since my mother first handed me a towel. We may have had to replace the actual towel a couple of times, but it wasn’t the towel that was important, it was the concept of the magic towel and the belief that it worked that mattered.
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“So this is something I’ve noticed whenever I have a headache or when I just feel bad, I’ll just go to 7-11 or wherever sells soft drinks and I’ll get a coke and drink a whole bottle of coke. So just a habit. Makes me feel better.”
Soda has been used as a folk remedy of sorts for quite some time now. It seems popular enough that it has been featured on the show South Park in an episode called “Red Man’s Greed” in which people drink chicken soup and Sprite to get over SARS. This is a fitting folk remedy in the United States as we consume more soda per capita than any other country. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that carbonated sugary drinks have become a part of our cultural tapestry.
However, recent research claims Coca-Cola can aid in the dissolution of gastric bezoars. The acidic nature of soft drinks can serve as a first-line treatment for indigestible substances.
Perhaps my informant once had a stomach ache and drank coke, only to realize his symptoms lessened. As a result, he associates coke with a minor remedy for various pains.
Ladas, S.D., Kamberoglou, D., Karamanolis, G., Vlachogiannakos, J., and I. Zouboulis-Vafiadis. (2012) “Systematic review: Coca-Cola can effectively dissolve gastric phytobezoars as a first-line treatment.” Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics 37(2):169-173.
- Mix all ingredients in a saucepan
- Bring the mixture to a boil
- Cook slowly until it thickens to a syrupy consistency.
After the mixture is finished the sick person is supposed to drink it. My informant used this as a remedy for colds and congestion. She used learned from her mother. She used it on herself, her children, and her husband. Her children did not use this on their children, well at least her daughter didn’t. She thought it was gross and thought that Vic Vapor rub was a preferable substitute. The informant says hasn’t used it in years. She says it is because she is lazy, there other things on the market, and no one has the time to do that anymore.
This is an example of a tradition falling out of practice due to it being inconvenient. This bit of folk medicine was passed down through the family but feel out of practice because modern medicine is more widely available. It didn’t fall out of practice because it didn’t work or that modern medicine was better. It fell out of practice because it became impractical. My informant also grew up in the South and mentioned that folk medicine was popular because doctors were scarce. It came into existence out of necessity then fell out use when it became impractical.
Note: My informant was originally born in Mississippi.
My informant told me a story of his mother healing his injuries. He said that when he was 16 or 17 he was shaving off a corn on my foot and cut to deep. Blood was squirting out and I was mashing it trying to stop the bleeding but it wouldn’t stop bleeding. Then his mother comes. He went to his mother for treatment. He says that his mother took a cobweb, took out a match, singed the web slightly, and then placed the cobweb on the wound. The web stopped the bleeding. He thought there some sort chemical in the web that stopped the bleeding
She only used that remedy once on him. He has never used it on himself because not that severe has happened to him again. He doesn’t know where exactly she learned it. He did mention that she grew up on a property in the country part of Mississppi and they didn’t have access to doctors in those days.
I think this story is kind of interesting. A lot of the time folk beliefs are considered superstitious and inaccurate. This brand of folk medicine was born out of necessity an actually works. It’s a shame I can’t talk to the woman herself. I’d really like to know where she learned this from and what sort of trial and error it took to figure this out.
From what I can remember, there was a race of living beings, some species before us, way before our time, that knew that we were coming out of the muck and they were much farther evolved than we are or were at the time. I suppose you could say at the time we were either very weird fishy organisms in what we called the muck or something even more devolved than that. And they recognized that something intelligent was going to come out, something that had the capacity to change its environment, grow in strength and power and number. And so that species decided to leave behind some of its intelligence in the form of other living things on the planet, in particular, plants. And those plants ended up helping us in our evolution as we progressed and they spoke to us, so to speak. And they continue to speak to us through different mediums and to the people that choose to listen.
My informant learned this myth from a South American shaman who uses plants for medicinal, psychotherapeutic, psycho-spiritual, and healing purposes and ceremonies. It’s a myth about human intelligence and plant intelligence and how we didn’t get to this point on our own, but were given help. What I take from this myth is a particular respect for nature as well as an explanation for the profound powers plants have on their own and the powers they have in our bodies, concerning food, medicine, and even drugs when we find the appropriate ways to extract those powers. Working with plants, humans have developed agriculture and advanced kinds of medicine through practice and study, or as the shaman would say, by listening to what the plants had to tell us and still have to tell us.
My informant told me that a tea can be made from the dried leaves of arnica flowers. If you have a cut, you put that tea on it so it doesn’t get infected. You have to put it on as hot as you can bear it to make sure it will work. My informant learned this from his mother, who learned it from her mother. He said he doesn’t know what’s in it the flowers, but that it works and his mother would make it for him as a child whenever he got a cut.
Arnica flowers have yellow and orange petals and have been used medically for centuries before being incorporated into Western medicine. After doing some research, I was surprised by how many things it was used to treat. Not just external wounds, but also uterine hemorrhage, sprains, cardiac insufficiency. The flowers were native to the mountains of Russia and Europe. My informant was born in Mexico, but he is of Spanish descent, which explains why this treatment has been passed down in his family.
More information can be found here: http://www.herbco.com/p-1282-arnica-flower-whole.aspx