Kitchen Shrink: Achoo! Bless you ancient medicine men and women for old-fashioned cold/flu remedies

Healing Chicken Bone Broth
(Photo by Catharine Kaufman)


Mellifluous holiday tunes have quickly been replaced by a cacophonous chorus of sneezing, coughing and retching. And wherever you turn, someone is wearing an ominous blue surgical mask — to either shield themselves from airborne illnesses or prevent the spread of their own. Whether the threat is seasonal colds and flus, viral gastroenteritis (stomach flu), or the many strains of Coronavirus, especially the current COVID-19, causing respiratory infections — they are all nothing to sneeze at.

My grandmother, who had lived through the notorious Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918, tirelessly nursed sick family members and friends both old and young back to health, while she miraculously managed to escape the deadly virus. Grandma attributed her immunity to “old-fashioned home remedies” that she would concoct from scratch — pulverizing and pounding ginger and turmeric roots, mint leaves, garlic bulbs and cloves in a beat-up wooden mortar and pestle. These treatments had been passed on to her from previous generations.

It seemed that my remarkable ancestors were following the footsteps of ancient herbalists and plant-assisted healers. Using garden herbs, grasses, roots and spices as warriors against illnesses (whether alleviating discomforts of symptoms, shortening the duration, or actually cutting the enemies off at the pass) is a Methuselah-old practice. They are also the basic compounds that form today’s modern pharmaceuticals.

Archaeologists have unearthed evidence that Paleolithic cave-dwellers used plants for medicinal purposes. Evolving from caves to communities, most ancient societies blended wisdom with organic ingredients to form their own cultural apothecary of remedies. The healing system of Ayurvedic medicine emerged from the subcontinent of India, based on the principle of maintaining balance between mind, body and spirit as the path to wellness.

Some Ayurvedic herbs and spices revered for thousands of years by ancient practitioners for their Herculean healing powers are still treasured by modern medicine men and women to clobber today’s relentless viruses. These include ashwaganda (an immune-boosting spice), cumin (an antimicrobial spice linked to keeping foodborne illnesses in check), Licorice root (antiviral and antibacterial shield against infections, which soothes sore throats and acts as an expectorant for phlegm), turmeric, the golden boy of Indian spices with potent antioxidants to ratchet up immunity, and its close cousin ginger that’s both a soothing tonic and invigorating stimulant. This super spice gives a warm bite to comfort food and drinks, while easing scratchy throats, lessening mucous, relieving congestion, and tempering fever. A recent study showed the amazing defensive properties of fresh ginger that actually impeded a virus’s ability to glam onto cells.

It wasn’t until 1,500 B.C.E. that the ancient Egyptians got into the plant medicine game with a treatise of herbal remedies titled “Ebers Papyrus.” Some of the healing herbs still used today as formidable weapons against viruses include cubeb pepper and frankincense to ease larynx and throat infections, fenugreek and poppy to soothe respiratory ailments, mint to put the skids on vomiting, onions to ward off colds, and mighty garlic given daily to the slaves who built the Pyramids to boost vitality and purge the body of toxins.

During this ancient period trends trickled eastward to Asia, but Traditional Chinese Medicine wasn’t established until the Shang Dynasty of the 11th century when healing botanicals were used in the arsenal against colds and flus. Still today, astragalus and tart little Goji berries with a rich store of antioxidants, especially Vitamin C and zinc are prescribed to boost immunity. Ginseng, a multi-purpose herb has been found to increase the lifespan of cells bombarded with the flu, while wild yam helps cure a persistent cough. There’s more. White Peony root clears out bacteria causing gut infections, wheatgrass annihilates free radicals, while elderberry syrups and tinctures relieve blocked sinuses. <end_bug_diamond>

Homegrown herbal contributions from Native American tribes and early American root doctors who used native plants against colds and flu foes were most welcome during brutal winters. Lobella nicknamed “pukeweed” like modern-day Mucinex acted as an expectorant, feisty Cayenne pepper relieved sinus congestion, goldenseal eased scratchy throats, echinacea as an ounce of prevention dialed up the immune system, while lomatium root shortened the duration of respiratory infections.


Recipe: Healing Chicken Bone Broth

(Taking a note from Hippocrates’ cookbook to “Let food be thy medicine,” here’s my favorite anti-flu broth passed down from my beloved grandma!)

Ingredients: 3 pounds chicken bones, meat attached (organic); 2 1/2 quarts spring water; 5 garlic cloves, whole; 2 onions, quartered; 3 tablespoons fresh-squeezed lemon juice; 1-inch piece each of fresh ginger and turmeric, peeled; 1 bay leaf; 3 celery stalks, coarsely chopped (including leafy tops); 3 carrots, sliced 1-inch pieces; sea salt and cayenne pepper to taste.

Method: Add ingredients to large stockpot. Bring to a boil, then simmer covered for several hours (8-24). Let cool. Strain with fine sieve. Reserve carrots to add to broth. Refrigerate in Mason jars.

Catharine Kaufman can be reached by e-mail: and see more recipes at