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Interviewer: Do you use any of those old remedies now?

Ebony Talley-Brame: You know, sometimes I do. I find myself drinking that—they had like a lemon and honey and this—I don’t know if it’s more—I want to say corn liquor, but it wasn’t that. But was more something that they made back in the day. And drinking it, it helps us go through this deep sweat, so to speak, and gets all the cold out of you. But I haven’t done it in years. It’s been years since I’ve done it.

When asked to recall their experiences with illness growing up, the interviewees of the Stories to Save Lives project often speak with fondness and nostalgia about the food remedies their parents or grandparents used to prepare for them.

“My other brothers and sisters, when they got sick and stuff, we used home remedies,” said Thomas McLaughlin, Jr., a service coordinator in Dunn, NC.

“We had something like sassafras tea. My mother would go out and get sassafras tea and boil it, put some sugar in it, and give to us. Pinetop, the long green needles, she would go get that and boil it, put sugar in it, and give us,” (McLaughlin, 16:55).

Another interviewee, nurse Ana Marie Deaver, talked about the home remedies she grew up with:

“Castor oil and honey and some garlic, that was our medicine for our cold, and that’s what we were brought up on, castor oil, honey, and garlic. We didn’t go to the doctor as much because you wasn’t privileged to go to the doctor as much, but like I said, my father was a PA, so he used to give us medicine, but my mama always gave us castor oil.” (Deaver, 17:02)

These practices were not spawned out of nowhere; they drew from a long American tradition of food-based folk medicine.

In her interview, Ebony Talley-Brame reminisces about her grandparents’ knowledge of remedies that would heal her childhood sicknesses. “I would think [they learned those things] from their grandparents, you know, growing up and not being as privileged to go to the doctors and things like that.”

“I think that they learned those remedies when they grew up as children and passed them on to their children and grandchildren, because back then, you didn’t hear about a lot of sicknesses, and if there was people who was not well or colds or get the flu and stuff like that, for some reason my grandmother and granddad knew how to get rid of those colds for us and keep us in and take care of us.” (Talley-Brame, 10:16)

The history of folk medicine in America would include the influences of Native American and African traditions. Native American medicine, for example, has a long history of using plants and herbs to treat a variety of ailments. Indigenous healers had extensive knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants, and this knowledge was passed down through oral traditions. The sassafras plant, which apart from being a main ingredient of root beer features in many home remedies, was used extensively by Native Americans. After being enthusiastically adopted by European settlers, in more recent history, sassafras was still used as a type of panacea (“Herbs, Plants, and Healing Properties”). African traditions also played an important role in shaping folk medicine in America, with enslaved Africans often relying on their knowledge of plants and medicines to heal themselves (Penniman, 254) These practices blended with European medical traditions, and merged to create a unique form of folk medicine that was shaped by the needs and experiences of the people who practiced it.

This tradition of folk medicine would be passed down orally, as Ebony said, grandchildren to grandchildren. Especially in rural, low-income households, allergies, flus, nausea, and other common illnesses would be treated with food-based remedies. Pinetop tea, roasted onions, pepper, and corn liquor served as some among many of the cold remedies that are found in folk anthologies or almanacs (Wigginton, 234). These food-based medicines were not merely restricted to short-term ailments. There are also more chronic illnesses that were traditionally treated or alleviated with food-based folk remedies. Ramps and garlic are recorded as being used for heart trouble, poke berries for kidney trouble, ginseng for rheumatism, and blackberry juice or sauerkraut juice for stomach trouble (Wigginton, 233). Garlic, onions, pickle brine, and vinegar were all seen as remedies for various blood-associated chronic ailments. Under the Appalachian folk models of blood, categorizations like having high blood, low blood, and sweet or bitter blood could be diagnosed and healed through eating practices (Cavender, “Folk Hematology in the Appalachian South”).

What happens to the rich tradition of food healing in communities where food is scarce and inaccessible?  Federal food-assistance programs consistently fail to support the use of traditional foods. In the 1960s, the United States Department of Agriculture was providing surplus commodities like flour, dry milk, and cornmeal to over half of all Native Americans living on reservations. Because they were dependent on these food-assistance programs, Native Americans were unable to continue incorporating many elements of the traditional diet and experienced “a host of endemic diet-related illnesses” (Gurney et al, 684). Traditional uses for food and methods of obtaining food are important to cultural identity as shown by the many indigenous food sovereignty movements active today. For marginalized groups especially, maintaining that type of cultural knowledge is extremely valuable (Segrest). Most importantly, when traditional food-based remedies are not being passed down because of food insecurity, communities who are already prone to or suffering from extreme poverty lose access to yet another type of healthcare of cultural value.

Food insecurity, put bluntly, means that traditional food-based folk remedies aren’t being used and passed down. Since food insecure communities are often severely impoverished, in areas where good healthcare can be cost prohibitive, home solutions and healthy food based remedies are especially vital. Communities of people who are already prone to financial need are even further inhibited from access to healthcare.

Eventually, Ebony’s grandmother, who had grown up in a time as that, develops Alzheimer’s. Ebony finds herself in the position of caretaker for the one who had healed her through sickness in childhood. She also supports her mother through arthritis, searching for methods to improve her family’s health. In the excerpt of Ebony’s interview on the site playlist, you will hear her talking about her business, W.I.S.E. Southern Cooking, 3-in-1. Through W.I.S.E., Ebony becomes the caretaker for a wider circle than just her immediate family; she provides transportation for elderly people in the community to see physicians, and, knowing how prevalent diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s are, seeks healthy foods to heal her community.

Like Ebony, the interviewees in the Stories to Save Lives project all refer to the folk remedies they grew up with in the past tense. Because food-based folk remedies are mostly passed down orally, ultimately, the shift away from traditional food ways and remedies will not be totally reversible, no matter how beneficial for rural marginalized populations it could be. Once generations pass without the knowledge of traditional recipes, unless recorded in oral history projects or obscure ethnographies, the recipes are lost to history. However, it is clear through Ebony’s story that though the specific recipe may be lost, the memory of using food to heal sickness lives on through her current actions. It is wonderful to be able to preserve in pristine anthropological state the food-based folk remedies that thrived in the South throughout American history. Yet how much more valuable it is that people preserve the spirit of these traditions: the practice of healing others through food!


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Talley-Brame, Ebony. Interview with Darius Scott. 22 June 2018 (Y-0054). Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007), Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Wigginton, Elliot, editor. “Home Remedies.” The Foxfire Book, vol. 1, Anchor Books, Garden City, NY, 1972, pp. 230–248.

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