The informant, AH, grew up in a small village in northern Germany and learned this cough remedy from her mother.
Mix crushed onions with brown sugar and let it sit until the juice is pulled out. That resulting juice helps with coughing.
This type of cough remedy seems to be pretty common in northern Germany, as I have heard other onion and brown sugar based cough remedies from people who grew up in different villages in the same area. This form of cough syrup is safe for kids and accessible, which makes it very convenient for rural mothers. I do not know how or why this remedy works, but I do recognize a sweet syrup base as a common form for cough remedies, usually paired with something very sour or bitter.
For reference, this piece of folklore collected is a cough remedy that uses lemon and honey, and contains additional insights about similar sweet syrup + sour or bitter ingredient cough remedies: “Folk Medicine, El Salvador,” Iris Park, USC Digital Folklore Archives, September 10, 2020, http://folklore.usc.edu/folk-medicine-el-salvador/.
Informant: My editing partner told me about how she started having a coughing fit in class and the teacher actually asked her to leave. Like it wasn’t even the cough associated with Covid, it was a wet cough that she had been suffering from for a while. Everyone in class was freaking out even after she left.
Interviewer: She actually left the class? Do you think there was any racism as a part of it?
Informant: Oh it was racially charged. To say that it wasn’t racially charged would be f***ed. She’s f***ing asian.
Background: My informant and I were discussing the fear that was taking over the university campus and she brought up this story she heard from a friend.
Thoughts: The reason why I had to ask a clarifying question was because I suspected the student in question was Asian. At the time a lot of Asian students were facing racists slights such as this. It makes me wonder if the informant’s friend still would have been asked to leave the class if she wasn’t Asian.
RB: I was told by my mom that if you put Vaporub on your feet and then cover your feet with socks then your cough is supposed to go away.
RB is a first generation Mexican-American. He said that he remembers this folk belief because every time when he was little his mom would get the Vaporub and socks and rub the Vaporub on his feet to help him feel better. Miraculously he said it works so that is why he believes in it and says he would tell his kids if he had his own to do the same thing.
Although VapoRub is not proven to cure colds, especially but putting it on one’s feet. Its presence in hispanic folk-medicine that I have encountered is a large one. I hypothesize that this belief continues to be passed down because of the context that it is associated with and not necessarily the affect it has itself. For example, most of the time when you little and you get sick in hispanic culture the mother is the one who takes care of you. If your mother is the one who carries this folk belief and she rubs VapoRub on you, you associate the VapoRub with the caressing and soothing touches of your mother. When someone who has experienced this and then goes on to have children of their own, they may pass this knowledge down to their child and rub VapoRub onto them, not necessarily because they believe that it works but because they associate this process with the gentle care and affection that they had received from their own familial member or whomever performed this act for them.
Another way to analyze why this folk belief is still being passed along and striving is the culture that many hispanic people have built around it. I have grown up around many hispanic people, mostly of Mexican decent, all of my life and am currently in a long-term relationship with someone who is Mexican. Having this background I have realized that Vaporub is used for almost any ailment in a Mexican household, even if there is no proof that it works. This is not limited to y boyfriends household either. I have asked many hispanic people about Vaporub and they all know exactly what I am talking about and even more so they usually have a a jar of it sitting around somewhere in their houses. They have built a culture that they share amongst themeselves because they all share common memories of being smothered head to toe in that stuff since childhood. Most of those who I have talked to also continue to use it to this day because of this shared memory that this is what people of Mexican or other hispanic cultures do. The use of Vaporub in Mexican households is such a common occurrence that the online realm has take hold of this belief and practice and have adapted it into hashtags, published poems, telenovela appearances, memes, emojis and even comedy skits. You can also buy t-shirts, paintings, cards and candles that all contain an appearance of Vaporub. These adaptations into the online realm and buyable objects just work together in order to strengthen the culture that many hispanics share with each other surrounding their common memories and experiences with this “magical” topical ointment. This resulting strengthened culture allows for stories and folk beliefs (like Vaporub and socks during a cold) to continued to be shared from family to family and household to household.