Food as the remedy: Southerners share how they use food to soothe their souls

Maria Clark
Southern Kitchen
Healer's Garden at Vermilionville in Lafayette, LA devoted to medicinal plants used in traditional Cajun healing practices.  Friday, Nov. 5, 2021.

Editor's note: This article, part of a project from our sister publication The American South, took a look at how some cultures used food as traditional remedies to ease the symptoms of seasonal ills. Note that these remedies have not been approved by a doctor, which is always your best source for health information.

A cup of chamomile tea before bedtime. Peppermint for an upset stomach. Freshly squeezed lemon juice stirred with local honey to soothe a sore throat.

There are all simple, go-to remedies made with common household ingredients. They're also a part of many family traditions that have endured for generations.

In the South, with its culturally diverse history, these traditions vary but are part of the daily routines of many households. In parts of rural northeastern Tennessee, preventative medical care is not always prioritized, said Dr. Reid Blackwelder, a professor of family medicine at Eastern Tennessee State University.

“That drives people to ask, “What can I do myself, and what did I learn from my mom and grandma?’” he said.

For Beverly Fuselier and Mary Perrin, who help maintain the Healers' Garden at Vermilionville as part of the Lafayette Parish Master Gardener's program, it’s a love of preservation and a connection with the past. 

Healer's Garden at Vermilionville in Lafayette, LA devoted to medicinal plants used in traditional Cajun healing practices.  Friday, Nov. 5, 2021.

They co-authored a book called "Healing Traditions of South Louisiana" about the history of medicinal plants in Acadiana dating back to their Native American, Acadian and Creole origins. The book covers folk remedies and the history of the "traiteurs" or faith healers in Louisiana Cajun culture who used a combination of prayers and herbs as community remedies.  

“When the Cajuns first arrived here, they didn’t know what plants were edible, which were poisonous," Perrin said. "That was borrowed knowledge from the people who were already here.”

The soothing spirit of orange and lavender 

Katie Portillo, mental health counselor: The move to Atlanta right before the pandemic was a big adventure.

Katie Portillo, who grew up in Arkansas and Oklahoma, was more than 10 hours away from her family for the first time in her life.

She’s settled into her new life and career as a mental health counselor in Atlanta, but sometimes really misses her mom, Gloria Guzman.

Katie Portillo and her mom Gloria Guzman. Photo taken around 1995/1996.

When that feeling hits, she boils water, mixes in freshly squeezed lime juice and a dollop of honey, just like her mother would make when she was feeling sick.

“It’s not just the health aspect, helping me feel better physically,” she said. “It also helps me feel better emotionally. It helps me feel connected to her and my ancestors. There is a comfort in that connection.”

Portillo's parents immigrated to the United States in the 1980s from El Salvador. Portillo and her four brothers grew up among many of their parents’ customs.

From left to right: Katie Portillo's uncle Joaquin, maternal grandmother Maria who is holding her son Alfredo, and Portillo's great-aunt Fidelina. Photo taken in 1955.

Freshly made orange and lavender tea for anxiety. Hot showers and Vicks Vapor Rub when they had a cough or to clear up congestion.

“I also remember getting some ear infections when I was little and my mom crushing up garlic and wrapping it in a small piece of fabric and sticking it in my ear to clear up the infection,” she said.

Portillo said the way she grew up has made her more conscious about what her body needs when she’s not feeling well, whether it’s more water, exercise or rest.

“I’ve definitely carried that into my adulthood, where I try to gauge what my body’s trying to tell me,” she said.

It’s also informed her work as a counselor with Spanish-speaking residents in Atlanta, who sometimes due to their documentation or insurance status, may be more likely to lean on home remedies rather than preventative medical care.

“I definitely have to acknowledge those barriers, they’re very valid,” she said. “But what I try to do is present them with facts and research and try to avoid inserting my personal opinion.”  

Peppermint for nausea                       

Denawa Alberti, holistic wellness practitioner, Charlotte, North Carolina: Denawa Alberti recalls her grandmother’s windowsill garden growing up in Washington, D.C.

Tomatoes and herbs grew out of large coffee tins she’d save for planting.

It was Bernice Williams, her grandmother, who showed her how to care for plants.

Originally from Nash County, North Carolina, Williams raised 11 children and learned how to use ingredients she had on hand to help with common ailments.

Denawa Alberti

“My grandparents were sharecroppers so they had lots of access to different types of wildlife and plants. Especially here in the South, back then it wasn’t as developed as it is now,” she said.

Chamomile grew wild around her home and was used for sleep. Fresh peppermint, chewed and kept pressed in the cheek, would help with anxiety.

“They were very old school like that growing up in the South. It wasn’t unusual to take some mint and a little bit of whiskey to help with sleep,” Alberti said. 

Bernice Roger Williams (c. 1986)

Alberti works as a doula in Charlotte, North Carolina, supporting women during pregnancy and early motherhood. She has integrated her knowledge and work as an herbalist into this type of care.

Even something as simple as peppermint tea to help with some nausea, she said. She will also make balms using beeswax and other types of herbs to rub on a mom’s back or belly.

“It is very much customized to every mama’s specific experience,” she said, noting that it is important to be cautious about what herbs people use and for what purpose.

This knowledge connects her with her grandmother, Bernice, who died in 2014. 

“She would always say, ‘Nature knows its job. You don’t have to tell a tree or a plant to grow. As long as it’s nurtured and loved,’” Alberti said. “That’s with me all the time.” 

Salt and vinegar for bruises

Marlene Breaux Toups, English teacher, folklorist, Thibodaux, Louisiana: Marlene Breaux Toups comes from a family of traiteurs, or traditional faith healers in Louisiana Cajun culture. These were people who had a gift of healing by using a combination of prayers, the laying of hands and traditional folk medicine.

Toups grew up in the 1950s in Lafourche Parish and going to the doctor was sometimes an ordeal. Traiteurs were relatively available in the community so her family would go to them in addition to going to the doctor, she said.

“This is part of a long-standing Cajun tradition of treating ailments by making the best of what they could with what they had on hand,” she said.

Her godmother, a traiteuse, used baking soda for a variety of ailments. A combination of salt and vinegar was used to tend to sprains or bruises.

“If you had indigestion or a rash, you bathe with baking soda,” she said. 

Garden at Vermilionville in Lafayette, LA devoted to medicinal plants used in traditional Cajun healing practices.  Friday, Nov. 5, 2021.

Toups said while she's not practicing as her godmother did, she has always been fascinated by the practice of prayers and herbs in healing. Now a retired English teacher, she has given lectures on the history of healing and plant-based remedies in her family in both English and French as part of the Bayou Culture Collaborative.

“I always say I am a collector and a folklorist and descendant of traiteurs, but I am not a treater. I also always add a disclaimer: Don’t try this unless you check with your doctor, and don’t share this with just anyone,” she said.

Potatoes for fever

From Patricia Bazignan, the reporter's mother: "My mother grew up in the mountains in southern Chile and was a fervent believer in nature’s ability to provide food and medicine. For an upset stomach, she would prepare a mixture of lemonade and baking soda. For a fever, she would slice potatoes in thin slices and soak them in white wine vinegar. She’d apply them to the forehead to lower the fever. For a sunburn, she cut slices of fresh tomatoes, cold and directly from the refrigerator, and applied them to sunburnt skin."

From the reporter: My grandmother, Mitito, loved to garden and taught me everything I know about how to grow plants. She passed that knowledge on to my mom, Patricia, who would use a lot of her home remedies to take care of minor ailments at home.

Reporter Maria Clark as a child, trying to soothe her doll's fever.

I had trouble sleeping as a little kid and had a lot of anxiety, so my mom would prepare baths with lettuce leaves to help calm my nerves. In the photo, I was about three years old. My doll Pablito’s face is covered in thin potato slices soaked in vinegar, a preparation my mom would make to reduce a fever. I was sick and home from school that day, so I asked my mom to cut up potatoes to help Pablito feel better.

The method: Cut regular Idaho potato into thin slices. Soak the slices in white wine vinegar for about 20 minutes. Remove from the vinegar and apply to the forehead to help draw out fever.