What to eat when you’re sick

My lofty 2021 goal of posting here everyday died after just eleven days into the new year, when I was hit hard by a stomach virus on Sunday. I’m recovering now, but the experience got me thinking about all the advice about eating one gets from friends, family, and professionals when they hear you’re sick.

There’s many, many non-medical schools of thought on what you should eat when you’re sick. But even doctors don’t always agree, even when the illness has been narrowed down to a few likely culprits. This week, a gastroenterologist suggested eating BRAT (Bananas, Rice, Apples, Tea) for my condition. But my longtime primary care physician said the priority was re-hydrating, recommending lots of apple juice and Gatorade but not so much raw apples (roughage) and tea (diuretic). I’m mostly following the latter advice, with rice and ramen-based dishes when I have the appetite.

“Don’t eat ethnic food when you’re sick”

My favorite non-professional advice on this subject was given to me by a well-meaning co-worker many years ago when I was fighting a bad cold: don’t eat ethnic food when you’re sick.

Now, you and I know what she probably meant (don’t eat spicy food) but taken literally what she advised was bland American food is the key to recovery. Which of course leads to endless questions: is that how sick people in other countries recover also? Does the attentive mom in Mumbai serve up some mac-and-cheese instead of vindaloo for her sickly six-year-old? Is there a hospital in Turkey feeding hot dogs to patients?

My co-worker was a very sweet middle-aged woman, a single mom working hard at a midtown office to keep her household afloat. So all I could do was smile and thank her for the advice. For years, it was a funny story I’d tell to others; not to mock this woman but to illustrate the amusing choice of words.

I haven’t seen this woman in nearly three decades and only this week when thinking about her advice did I remember some other details: she was Italian-American and had an adopted young Korean daughter. She loved Italian food (WHO DOESN’T) but at the tine I knew her I don’t believe she’d been exposed to the equally amazing Korean cuisine, often spicy but always delicious.

The best food to eat when you’re sick is made by someone who loves you.

I like to imagine that her advice on this subject changed over the years as they grew together and both of their worlds expanded. She was undoubtedly too loving a mom (and too passionate about good food) to deny her daughter — and herself — the delicious and comforting dishes of their homelands. I like to imagine the bowls of pasta e fagioli and sundubu jjigage they’ve made for each other over the years. I like to imagine there’s some incredible Italian-Korean hybrid dishes that are being kept between them as family secrets. I like to imagine that she’s retired now and her daughter is now the one fixing up comfort meals every now and then.

Whenever my wife is sick and needs comfort food, I make a big pot of chicken soup that we both eat for days. Even though I don’t eat meat anymore, I’ll head out to the market and buy some high-quality drumsticks and throw them into the Instant Pot with onions, garlic, salt, dried Chinese mushrooms (if I can find them) and root veggies like carrots or potatoes. And, not least, ginseng root or ginseng powder.

Thirty minutes later the house smells like chicken soup and we’re devouring a very fatty and very delicious home-style meal. And as my wife is eating it I tell her for the umpteenth time how my grandmother used to make a soup like this when I was a kid.