You’ve probably heard the old adage “feed a cold, starve a fever?” You may have even someone go as far as to tell you that in Canterbury Tales it reads “fede a cold and starb ob feber”
It does not.
It’s one of those situations where the source was cited incorrectly, and people just continued to cite it without checking the primary source. You would be astonished at how often that happens. Hippocrates never said “let thy food be thy medicine” either.
Even we could find where it was said, it mostly likely translates to “feed a cold and die of fever,” meaning if you don’t address your cold, it will get much worse. Steorfan spelled about fifty unusual ways means “to die” in Old English. They didn’t have a word for starve, it came later and steorfan was its root word.
There is a very long precedent of preparing special foods for people with fevers. Gourds (squash, pumpkin), cucumber and endive were recommended as foods that were both cooling and moistening without astringency and they were included in many dishes for feverish people. Pepon was one of the names used for the sun ripened gourds that were used for food and medicine in Europe before contact with the Americas. When Europeans encountered pumpkins and squash in the Americas, they were lumped into this category.
In a recipe in the 13th century Andalusian cookbook the author advises the reader that a recipe containing the juice of roasted gourds and other cooling herbs and foods is given to feverish people as a food and takes the place of medicine.
A Muzawwara [Vegetable Dish] Beneficial for Tertian Fevers and Acute Fevers
Take boiled peeled lentils and wash in hot water several times. Put in a pot and add water without covering them. Cook and then throw in pieces of gourd, or the stems of Swiss chard, or of lettuce and its tender sprigs, or the flesh of cucumber or melon, and vinegar, coriander seed, a little cumin, Chinese cinnamon [cassia], saffron and two ûqiyas of fresh oil; season with a little salt and cook. Taste, and if its flavor is pleasingly balanced between sweet and sour, [good;] and if not, reinforce until it is equalized, according to taste, and leave it to lose its heat until it is cold and then serve.[i]
I am teaching a class on Medieval Medicine and as part of the prep I made verjuice[ii] because to equalize this dish between sweet and sour I dash a little bit of verjuice on it.
During Culpeper’s time they still spoke about using the greater cold seeds of the Greeks which were gourd, citrul (watermelon), cucumber, and melons the lessor cold seeds which were endive, succory, lettuce, and purslane.[iii] Seeds were far more commonly included in the materia medica than dried leaves. In fact, you most frequently saw it recommended that “in Winter if the Hearbs be not to be had, the Seeds will serve.”[iv]
Very often we see diaphoretic distillates such as mint or yarrow mixed into foods or beverages to help open the pores to vent heat by sweating.
Giving red, sour juices during fevers- likely due to the various anthocyanins and cooling organic acids in these preparations is also a tradition in many cultures.
The ancient Iranians and the Andalusians recommended pomegranate syrup for phlegmatic fevers. Hans Sloane wrote in his Natural History of Jamaica published in 1701 that the women of that country used the calyces of hibiscus for making wines that were to be given for “Fevers and Hot Distempers, to allay Heat and quench Thirst.” Lady Clark of Tillypronie recommended cranberry juice as a febrifuge. The Latin name for cranberry means “acid berry” and Scottish people used the European variety a great deal.
In a recipe in the 13th century Andalusian cookbook the author advises the reader that a recipe containing the juice of roasted gourds and other cooling herbs and foods” is given to feverish people as a food and takes the place of medicines” and shares the following receipt:
I was mostly posting this as a lead in that I am teaching a class on Medieval Medicine and as part of the prep. I made verjuice[vi] because to equalize this dish between sweet and sour I dash a little bit of verjuice on it. Hopefully, it will lead you to think more critically about the old adages you read. Remember that the motto of this website is to question everything.
[i] Anon. The Book of Cooking in Maghreb and Andalus in the Era of Almohads. Translated by Martinelli, Candida. 2012 translation. Al-Andulus, Spain: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, ca. 1400.
[ii] Source for Making Verjuice: Muusers, Christianne. “Verjuice: Not Wine, nor Vinegar.” Coquinaria, September 16, 2006. http://www.coquinaria.nl/english/recipes/verjuice.htm
[iii] Culpeper, Nicholas. Pharmacopoeia Londinensis: A Physicall Directory, or, A Translation of the London Dispensatory Made by the Colledge of Physicians in London. London, England: Printed for Peter Cole and are to be sold at his shop, 1649.
[iv] Kent, Elizabeth Grey. A Choice Manual of Rare and Select Secrets in Physick and Chyrurgery Collected and Practised by the Right Honorable, the Countesse of Kent..; Published by W.I., Gent. 1st ed. London, England: Printed by G.D., and are to be sold by William Shears …, 1653. http://name.umdl.umich.edu/A47264.0001.001.
[v] Anon. The Book of Cooking in Maghreb and Andalus in the Era of Almohads. Translated by Martinelli, Candida. 2012 translation. Al-Andulus, Spain: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, ca. 1400.
[vi] Source for Making Verjuice: Muusers, Christianne. “Verjuice: Not Wine, nor Vinegar.” Coquinaria, September 16, 2006. http://www.coquinaria.nl/english/recipes/verjuice.htm