Marzena Keating
Pedagogical University of Cracow | Published: 17 March, 2023 | Views:
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Especially prior to the twentieth century, invalid and convalescent cookery constituted an integral part of health care provided at home, as in many cases recovery of health was to be achieved by consuming appropriate food rather than through an application of medicine. Interestingly, in Irish culinary discourse convalescent cookery was still commonplace until the 1970s. This research, based on a qualitative content analysis of selected Irish culinary texts published from 1910 to 1970, aims to provide an overview of invalid and convalescent cookery in Ireland in the twentieth century. Exploring the prevalence of recipes and tips for home treatment of invalids in twentieth-century Ireland, this article attempts not only to add to the growing body of scholarship centred on feeding the sick at home but also in a broader context to contribute to the work on Irish culinary history and Irish women’s history.

Especialmente antes del siglo XX, la cocina para inválidos y convalecientes constituía una parte integral de la atención sanitaria prestada en el hogar, ya que en muchos casos la recuperación de la salud debía lograrse mediante el consumo de alimentos adecuados y no mediante el consumo de medicamentos. Curiosamente, en el discurso culinario irlandés, la cocina para convalecientes fue habitual hasta los años 70. Esta investigación, basada en un análisis de contenido cualitativo de los textos culinarios irlandeses seleccionados y publicados entre 1910 y 1970, pretende ofrecer una visión general de la cocina para inválidos y convalecientes en Irlanda. Explorando la prevalencia de recetas y consejos para el tratamiento casero de los inválidos en la Irlanda del siglo XX, este artículo intenta no sólo sumarse al creciente cuerpo de estudios centrados en la alimentación de los enfermos en el hogar, sino también, en un contexto más amplio, contribuir al trabajo sobre la historia culinaria irlandesa y la historia de las mujeres irlandesas.

cocina para inválidos; convalecencia; dieta; historia culinaria irlandesa; propiedades medicinales de la comida; ciencia doméstica; libros de cocina irlandeses


It may seem that the analysis of the relationship between food and medicine has dominated nutritional and medical discourses, but it has always had a place in the symbolic sphere (Chen 2009: 4), as people’s food choices have been based not only on nutritional awareness but also, and perhaps mainly, on cultural knowledge. While nutritional scientists have explored the scientific aspects of food, breaking it down into individual nutrients, various scholars have emphasised that the linkages between food and nutrition reach far beyond the scope of medicinal practice (Mennell, Murcott, and Otterloo 1993; Caplan 1997; Shapin 2014). The thriving interest in the complex historical, cultural and social dimensions of food as medicine is illustrated by the growing number of academic texts centred on the development of eating and healing, medicinal properties of food and changing beliefs in relation to food and its influence on the body (Albala 2002; Pieroni and Leimer 2006; Chen 2009; Adelman and Haushofer 2018).

While much work has been conducted on the wider concept of food as medicine, less has been written on the more specific area of invalid and convalescent cookery. The corpus of published work ranges from the analysis of invalid cooking in the context of the early modern period (Albala 2012; Newton 2017), through the exploration of the connection between food, medicine and domestic work in Ireland in the early twentieth century (Adelman 2018), to the quantitative examination of recipes suitable for invalids in Australian cookbooks published between 1860 and 1950 (Williams 2019), and finally the discussion of the continued significance of invalid cookery in Britain during the 1920s and 1930s (Lyon and Kautto 2021). While in most of these texts authors highlight that recipes and advice for convalescents have remained relatively stable throughout the years despite some changes within nutritional theory (Albala 2012: 325;  Newton 2017: 106; Williams 2019: 75; Lyon and Kautto 2021: 345), in the Irish context Adelman additionally argues that “the emerging subject of ‘invalid cookery’ drew on the traditions of domestic medicine and Anglo-Irish gastronomy while also seeking to establish an area of female expertise informed by modern science and medicine” (2018: 189).

Inspired by the aforementioned studies, this research, based on a qualitative content analysis of selected Irish culinary texts published from 1910 to 1970, aims to provide an overview of invalid cookery in Ireland in the twentieth century. This time frame was selected for two reasons. First, the majority of texts published after the 1970s no longer included a separate section on invalid cookery. Second, as the continuation of Adelman’s work, it enables the researcher to assess the prevalence of invalid cookery in Ireland over a considerably long period of time, characterised by some major economic, political, and socio-cultural changes, as well as scientific improvements. This research attempts not only to add to the growing body of scholarship on invalid cookery but also in a broader context to contribute to the work on Irish culinary history of the twentieth century and Irish women’s history.

Sources and Methodological Approach

In terms of providing access to knowledge on feeding the sick, there was no shortage of cookery books printed in Britain in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.[1] While some of those titles would also have been available in Ireland, the first and only Irish cookery book solely devoted to convalescent cooking was published in 1903 by Kathleen Ferguson, a graduate of the Dublin School of Cookery and employee of the National Board of Education. Adelman stresses that Ferguson’s Sick Room Cookery “contains many recipes that formed part of the domestic medical tradition in Britain and Ireland” (2018: 191). British impact on Irish culinary culture in general and on invalid cookery in particular should not be underestimated, as not only were some popular British cookbooks and magazines available to Irish women during the researched period but also many Irish food writers were educated, worked and lived in England, thus drawing from the English culinary tradition. Furthermore, Ireland shares many culinary characteristics with Britain due to its geographical proximity, and thus similar climate, as well as centuries-long culinary exchanges. Many of the dishes which are regarded as Irish native fare were actually introduced by the Anglo-Norman settlers (Cowan and Sexton 1997).

As this research focuses on convalescent cookery represented in Irish culinary discourse, Irish cookbooks[2] published during the researched period and available in the repositories of the National Library of Ireland and the Library of Technological University Dublin were examined for inclusion of invalid cookery recipes and tips. Those which featured a separate section on invalid cookery have been chosen for a detailed analysis. These are Redington’s The Economic Cookery Book (1910);[3] The Department of Agriculture’s Cookery Notes (1925); Russell’s Young Housewife’s Cookery Book (1928[?]);[4] Warren’s The Tailteann Cookery Book (1935); Roper and Duffin’s The Blue Bird Cookery Book for Working Women (1939); Irwin’s The Cookin’ Woman: Irish Country Recipes (1949); Marnell, Breathnach, Martin, and Murnaghan’s All in the Cooking;[5] the Irish Countrywomen’s Association’s Golden Jubilee Cookery Book (1960); and Heffernan’s Comprehensive Cookery (1970). Digitised versions of various national and local newspapers were viewed using the Irish Newspaper Archives repository. The material was accessed by means of the online search facilities, using the terms ‘invalid cookery’ and ‘convalescent cookery’.[6] One Irish women’s magazine, Model Housekeeping: The Magazine of Practical Ideas, was also consulted in the National Library of Ireland. It was chosen due to its longevity as it was published monthly from 1927 to 1966 (previously known as Everyday Housekeeping from 1927 to 1928; renamed in September 1962 as Woman’s View and Model Housekeeping).

Recipes and practical suggestions for cooking and caring for invalids and convalescents were approached with a number of research questions: Did recommendations concerning invalid cookery change over the researched period? What foods were considered suitable for invalids and convalescents and which ones were deemed unacceptable and why? What elements apart from food constituted the concept of invalid cookery? Who was responsible for looking after invalids and convalescents? Did sickroom guidance refer to medical theories or popular beliefs and folk wisdom? By answering these questions, this article attempts to provide a more holistic view of invalid cookery in Ireland, as represented in the selected twentieth century culinary texts.

Historical, Economic and Socio-Cultural Background: Invalid Cookery as a Woman’s Duty

Key historical events of the second half of the nineteenth and the first decades of the twentieth century that carved the path to Irish independence had an immense impact on the economic and socio-cultural situation in Ireland during the succeeding decades. The first twenty-five years of Irish independence have been regarded as a period of economic and socio-cultural decline with high levels of unemployment, low pay and significant emigration (Brown 1985: 13-44). It was not until the 1960s and 1970s that the situation in the country started to improve, as exemplified by rapid modernisation, improvement of living standards and decline in emigration (Tobin 1984: 10; Brown 1985: 241-266). Given the strong influence of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, Irish society was strongly patriarchal, and women’s traditional role as a mother and a wife was clearly defined (Beale 1986: 7). The emphasis on women’s place within the domestic sphere in the first half of the twentieth century was also reflected in certain legislation, for example, the 1934 Criminal Amendment Act and the 1936 Conditions of Employment Act (Owens 2005: 252-79; Mohr 2006: 20-59), as well as Article 41.2 of the Constitution of Ireland (Bunreacht na hÉireann 1937: 164). A greater degree of gender equality was not granted until after Ireland’s accession to the European Economic Community in 1973 (Beale 1986: 10).

Employment opportunities for Irish women throughout the researched period were quite limited. According to the censuses, during the twentieth century the proportion of Irish women employed outside the home remained consistently low: 32.1 percent of Irish women participated in the paid labour force in 1926 and 27.3 percent in 1986 (Kennedy 1989: 49). Irish women were predominantly channelled into domestic work (Clarke 2016: 85-86) and until the Second World War domestic service constituted an important source of employment among them (Owens 2005: 225). Especially prior to the Second World War, there was an overall agreement in Ireland that young girls should obtain a proper training in housework (Clear 2000: 37), which was to prepare them both for housekeeping in their private households and for domestic service outside their homes.

As it was traditionally accepted that it was a woman’s duty to care for her family members, especially for her husband and children, the role of feeding a patient or a convalescent was equally assigned to the housewife. On the one hand, the subordinate position of women was maintained and enforced through food-related duties, but Counihan emphasises that feeding is also a significant element of women’s identity that can be regarded as a major source of empowerment for them (1999: 52). In the context of caring for the sick, the impact that women could have on others seems even more evident. Responsibility for feeding the sick might offer validation and recognition from family members who sought not only women’s help but also their expertise.

In order to gain some expertise in the field of invalid cookery, apart from passing the knowledge down through generations, some training was also required. Education and courses directed only to girls in Ireland promoted and strengthened the traditionally accepted domestic roles of women. Both in primary and post-primary education, domestic economy, later known as domestic science and home economics, was taught to girls, who, as it was commonly believed, would spend most of their lives in the domestic sphere. At the level of primary school, however, during the researched period cookery and domestic science were listed among optional subjects, which were to be taught only if schools were able to provide specialist equipment and facilities (McCloat and Caraher 2018: 382). Although the attendance at post-primary schools was quite low before the introduction of free second-level education in Ireland in 1967, domestic subjects, offered only to female students, enjoyed a growing popularity both in secondary and vocational schools (McCloat and Caraher 2018: 386-388). Hannan et al. note that Domestic Science or the Physiology/ Hygiene courses were chosen by nearly all girls doing the Leaving Certificate during the period ranging from the late 1940s to the late 1960s (1983: 93). The subject “was afforded a special place” in the education of female students due to the prevailing concept of a woman’s traditional role as a wife and a mother (O’Donoghue and Harford 2016: 20).

Also, at third-level education, women’s choices were mainly limited to such professions as nursing and teaching, as many women had no access to Greek and Latin, required to enter universities (Ó hÓgartaigh 2009: 45). Teacher training courses in domestic science were run in various colleges during the researched period, including St. Catherine’s College of Education for Home Economics and St. Mary’s College of Domestic Science (Coolahan 1981:102). The majority of the authors of the texts analysed in this article were educated in the colleges offering courses in housewifery, domestic science and cookery. For example, Kathleen Warren, the author of The Tailteann Cookery Book, held a diploma from the Irish Training School of Domestic Economy and Lola Heffernan, the author of Comprehensive Cookery, held a diploma in Domestic Science. This demonstrates the expertise of these female writers derived from their formal education in cookery and domestic science.

Domestic science courses at each educational level had a practical orientation and included such topics as hygiene, digestion, food choice, preserving and processing of food, feeding infants, invalid cookery, household knowledge and needlework. Miller explains that thanks to the increased international interest in scientific investigation of food, including the discovery of vitamins, the quality and not the quantity of consumed food started to be seen as an important factor in sustaining good health (2015: 310). The pragmatic focus on digestion, nutrition and hygiene attests also to the overall understanding of food which after the Famine stopped being regarded “solely as a means of subsistence” (Miller 2015: 309). As far as dietary issues were concerned, especially in the first few decades of the twentieth century, most of the attention was devoted to reducing high infant mortality levels and improving knowledge among mothers on infant feeding (Miller 2015: 321).

Nevertheless, feeding the sick and those recovering from an illness also played an important role. As scientific advances required new skills and solutions, housewives, traditionally held accountable for the efficient management of domestic life, had to possess more scientific knowledge to provide not only a hygienic surrounding but also germ-free and nutritious food, especially to the sick. Not only was invalid cookery taught as a part of the curriculum in domestic science, but it also featured in the nurse training program (Adelman 2018: 201). Housewives became specialists in home nursing and how they looked after the sick was now influenced by science (Adelman 2018: 196).

Some women with knowledge of invalid cookery looked for employment outside their homes, but still within the domestic sphere, as indicated by a number of notices featuring in the Irish press in columns called “Situations Wanted”. For example, in the column “Servants Wanting Situations” in the Irish Independent from 1912 we read: “Working housekeeper; middle-aged (I.C.)’; understands housework, invalid cookery; active, agreeable, small salary […]” (29 July 1912: 10), and from 1943 from the column “Situations Wanted”: “Cook-Housekeeper […] suit cultured gentleman or elderly clergyman requiring invalid cookery and care” (5 March 1943: 1). Nurses also searched for similar positions: “Nurse, Attendant to Invalid Lady, or Housekeeper; experienced; understand Invalid cookery; town, country; best references”, and “Nurse, Trained, young, energetic; would go to Invalid Lady or Gentleman as Housekeeper; understands invalid cookery, etc.; best references” (Irish Independent, 3 March 1913: 10). These two examples illustrate, as Adelman has argued, that “although education tended to mean differentiation (a nurse was not interchangeable with a servant), feeding the sick is one area of significant overlap” (2018: 189). Not only were women looking for vacancies, but their knowledge and skills in invalid cookery were sought, as exemplified in the column “Situations Vacant” from The Cork Examiner: “Settled, steady person wanted, to read to patient, to be companion to her, and to do invalid cookery” (13 April 1929: 2). Similarly, in the Irish Independent we read: “Wanted, lady to do light invalid cookery 2 hours daily from 11 a.m. […]” (10 January 1956: 12). Such job advertisements illustrate that no explanation of the term invalid cookery was necessary as it must have been understood and commonly used by everyone. While some notices are gender-specific, others are more neutral in tone, but nevertheless the female role is implied. They also demonstrate the significance and popularity of convalescent cookery during the researched period. Similarly, the prominence of the theme of invalid cookery is revealed in the radio programmes presented in the press. For example, the talk on invalid cookery occurs in the broadcasting section of the Irish Independent (28 March 1928: 5) and the talk on convalescence cookery by Mary de R. Swanton features in the programme of Radio Eireann presented in The Guardian (29 January 1938: 2).

Liquid Diet

All sections devoted to invalid cookery in the sources investigated feature various recipes for liquid-based foods, including teas, broths, soups and juices, which are advised mainly in cases of severe illness. Beef tea is the most frequently recommended drink for feeble patients and, as Rebrovick explains, “according to humoral medicine, drinking beef tea enabled the patient to absorb and assimilate the qualities conventionally ascribed to beef: strength, vitality, and warmth” (2018: 20). As it was believed that beef tea was very nutritious and easy to digest, it was mainly given to patients suffering from digestive problems, fever or weakness. Although some scientists and doctors questioned its efficacy or it may have even been, as doctor T. Lauder Brunton claimed, hazardous to patients (1881: 375), beef tea continued to be regarded as one of the most suitable remedies for the unwell.

The popularity of beef tea is evinced in the research material as recipes for this drink occur in almost every cookbook selected for the analysis, sometimes with up to four different methods of preparation. For example, the Young Housewife’s Cookery Book features recipes for four kinds of beef tea, namely Beef-Tea, Quickly-Made Beef-Tea, Raw Beef-Tea and Thick Beef-Tea (Russell 1928: 184-85). Recipes differ in the amount of time required for their preparation. Three hours of cooking are needed to prepare Beef Tea, an hour for Quickly-Made Beef-Tea, while, as the name implies, no boiling is involved at all in the preparation for Raw Beef-Tea. The recipes for Beef-Tea and Quickly-Made Beef-Tea feature salt, but the author acknowledges that “the use of salt is sometimes prohibited by the doctor” (Russell 1928: 184). Indeed, most of the discussed texts highlight that doctors’ advice on diet should always be followed (Roper and Duffin 1939: 37; Briscoe “The Invalid’s Tray”, The Irish Press, 28 January 1948: 3; Heffernan 1970: 189). Hence, it seems that in many cases carers were given some general dietary guidelines to follow, which must have been informed by medical theories.

While most recipes for beef tea only call for salt, some exceptions can be found. For example, Heffernan suggests flavouring beef tea with a slice of onion and bouquet garni “if permitted” (1970: 190), and in the Golden Jubilee Cookery Book, there is a suggestion to use a teaspoon of Bovril to make the drink not only more flavoursome but also more nutritious (Irish Countrywomen’s Association 1960: 104). Bovril, a thick salty meat extract developed by John Lawson Johnston in the 1870s (Armstrong 1986: 19), has become a very convenient substitute to the often-time-consuming preparation of home-made beef tea. The Golden Jubilee Cookery Book features an advertisement for Bovril, which praises its qualities, such as a “mouth-watering smell” and “piquant flavour” (Irish Countrywomen’s Association 1960: 102). The advertisement builds upon the same idea behind the recommendation of beef tea, namely that the extract is easy to digest and therefore an excellent stimulant for those who lack an appetite. Indeed, the texts put a lot of emphasis on what was believed to be an easily digestible diet, as “during illness it is most important that no extra work is thrown on the digestive organs” (“Convalescent Cookery”, The Irish Press, 7 May 1934: 5).

As beef tea was claimed to strengthen the body against the outbreak of infection, it should come as no surprise that products such as Bovril and Oxo beef teas were broadly advertised as a preventive measure against influenza during the Spanish Flu epidemics in Britain and Ireland (1918-1919) (Loeb 2005: 220-22; Marsh 2021). In the Irish press, an Oxo advertisement declared that this product “fortifies the system against influenza infection” (Evening Herald, 21 February 1919: 2), and one for Bovril emphasised that all those who are weak “should immediately take a course of Bovril so as to build up the body against the attacks of influenza” (The Cork Examiner, 1 January 1919: 2). Furthermore, Loeb notes that despite all the medical uncertainties regarding the efficacy of beef tea, some doctors recommended it to patients who were recovering from the flu (2005: 222), with the aim of nourishing the body weakened by its effects.

Furthermore, the way beef tea was served was also important. As with all other foods and beverages for invalids, china, glasses and all utensils used had to be above all scrupulously clean (Heffernan 1970: 189), which was in line with the increased emphasis placed on hygiene by the domestic science movement. Various authors also advised using a red or coloured glass as the liquid will be more appetising this way (Warren 1935: 283; “Home Nursing”, The Irish Press, 14 May 1941: 2; Heffernan 1970: 190). In general, in sections on invalid cookery emphasis is put on the attractiveness of the dishes served to the sick. For example, Ferguson explains in the column entitled “Nourishing Delicacies” that “the manner in which food is cooked and presented will have a great influence on rapid recovery” (Model Housekeeping, October 1929: 396), while Heffernan writes that all the elements served on the tray have to be neatly and attractively arranged (1970: 189). As Adelman illustrates, “invalid cookery consisted of a canon of foods thought not only to restore health, but to appeal to the sick”, which stemmed also from the ideas present within domestic science education (2018: 193, 198). Furthermore, some authors highlight that food should not be prepared in the presence of the sick (Russell 1928: 183; Heffernan 1970: 189.) Thus, invalid cookery can be viewed as cookery in disguise, which in Barthes’s sense, is “for ever trying to extenuate and even to disguise the primary nature of foodstuffs” (1991: 78). Additionally, patients should not be asked what they would like to eat (Russell 1928: 183; Warren 1935: 283), yet it is important to know their preferences before preparing dishes for them (Russell 1928: 183). Feeding the sick was not an easy task as those responsible for food preparation had to ensure that meals would not only help to restore health but that they would also be attractive to convalescents.

Beef tea, regardless of whether served in a red glass or not, may not seem too appealing to some modern readers, but cookery books also featured numerous recipes for some more appetising sweet beverages. Among the most commonly occurring drinks we can find barley water (“Woman’s Cosy Corner”, The Donegal Democrat, 25 December 1925: 6; Irish Countrywomen’s Association 1960: 103), arrowroot drink (Ferguson, “Nourishing Delicacies for the Invalid”, Model Housekeeping, October 1929: 396; Marnell, et al., n.d.: 214), whey (Department of Agriculture 1925: 65; Irish Countrywomen’s Association 1960: 103), lemonades (Russell 1928: 193; Heffernan 1970: 192) and egg flip (Russell 1928: 194; “An Egg Flip. It is Hard to Cater for the Convalescent Stage”, The Cork Examiner, 9 March 1934: 4). While the above-mentioned sources feature drinks most commonly associated with invalid cookery, Irwin is much more creative in her approach to recipes suitable for the sick. Rather than suggesting popular invalid foods, she attempts to “produce dishes to tempt the invalid back to his [sic] usual appetite” (1949: 161). This approach is visible in the section devoted to beverages suitable for the unwell (Irwin 1949: 173-74). The author does not call for traditional drinks, such as beef tea or barley water, but instead offers recipes for Savoury Egg Nogg [sic], Linseed Tea, Grapefruit Cocktail, Rhubarb Cocktail, Raspberry Cocktail and Currant Lemonade (Irwin 1949: 173-74). Irwin refers her readers also to the pages devoted to the Tisanes, which are suitable for invalids and convalescents (1949: 193-97). This section is especially informative and also exceptional, as each recipe is provided with information concerning the health benefits and curative values of the vegetables and herbs used. For example, Lettuce Tisane “is supposed to be a nerve tonic and good for people suffering from insomnia”, Anise Tea “is good for the digestion and a cure for a headache”, whereas Elderflower Tea “is supposed to be good for colds” (Irwin 1949: 193-95).

Carrageen moss seems to be especially valued by the author as it can be used for such conditions as sleeplessness, indigestion, coughs and colds (Irwin 1949: 197). Cowan and Sexton explain that Carrageen moss, also known as Irish moss and Sea moss and gathered in Ireland for centuries, has been appreciated for its restorative qualities and featured in old Irish folk cures for various maladies, such as colds and flu (1997: 67). The example of Carrageen moss illustrates that many recipes presented in invalid cookery sections drew from the tradition of domestic medicine. Adelman even asserts that “emerging alongside, but also separate from, the tradition of domestic medicine was a tradition of invalid cookery” (2018: 193). Many of the home remedies and folk cures which passed down through the generations became valuable components of invalid cookery. This is not surprising as folk medicine has been an integral part of Irish culture and Ireland has had a very strong tradition of the use of cures and remedies (Logan 2009).

Apart from curative features of herbs, there has been a widespread belief in the healing power of alcohol, which has been commonly used for medical purposes. “In the Irish culture”, as Bales emphasises, “it is hard to think of medicinal use of alcohol which has not been current, at one time or another” (1962: 182). Ascribing medical qualities especially to whiskey, in Irish uisce beatha, meaning ‘water of life’, has been commonplace in Ireland. As Bales notes, whiskey could serve as a medicine for “practically all the miscellaneous antique ills”, including colds, fevers, diarrhea, flu and cholera (1962: 182). Despite the lack of consensus regarding the efficacy of alcohol as a stimulant, during the influenza epidemic in Britain and Ireland, the use of spirits for the sick was commonly recommended (Van Hartesveldt 2010: 33-34; Marsh 2021: 142-46). As there was a shortage of alcohol during the First World War, there were calls for larger supplies of spirits, especially whiskey and brandy, to be released in order to treat the sick. On 21 December 1918 The Liberator reported that “arrangements are being made by the Ministry of Food to direct a special supply of spirits for influenza patients to districts where there is a shortage, and where in medical opinion, such need exists” (1). In order to obtain alcohol, a doctor’s certificate was required. The recommendation to use spirits as a remedy for influenza could have stemmed from the long-lasting belief in the curative features of alcohol as well as a failure of medical authorities to provide other medication at the time.

In the context of convalescent cookery, spirits – whiskey mainly but also brandy and rum – as well as sherry and wine were commonly recommended as a component of, or complement to, some of the beverages and dishes for the sick. Recipes for Egg Flip – apart from egg, sugar, water, and milk – call for whiskey, brandy or sherry (Department of Agriculture 1925: 66; Russell 1928: 194; Heffernan 1970: 192), while Wine Whey is made from milk, sugar and sherry (Redington 1910: 91; Irish Countrywomen’s Association 1960: 103). In the selected material, there are two invalid recipes solely for alcoholic drinks, namely Punch made from sugar, whiskey, lemon and boiling water (Marnell, et al., n.d.: 219) and Home Made Ginger Beer calling for such ingredients as sugar, lemon, ginger, cream of tartar, boiling water, liquid yeast and German dry yeast (Redington 1910: 91). The authors do not explain why such drinks are beneficial to a patient, but punch is known for its warming qualities, while ginger beer is regarded as a refreshing drink and a rich source of minerals.

Alcohol also features in recipes for jellies. For example, sherry appears in the recipe for Dutch Flummery (Warren 1935: 284-85; Heffernan 1970: 191); port wine figures in the recipe for Port Wine Jelly (Russell 1928: 196); and sherry and brandy are ingredients in the recipe for Calf’s Foot Jelly (Russell 1928: 195-96; Warren 1935: 289). Recipes for Calf’s Foot Jelly additionally feature a great variety of spices, for example ginger, cinnamon and saffron, which are well-known for their medicinal properties. What is more, Russell’s recipe contains eggshells, a valuable source of calcium, which constitutes an important component in a healthy and balanced diet (1928: 195).

In his study, Williams explains that the authors of cookbooks showed ambiguous attitude towards the suitability of using alcohol in the context of invalid cookery (2019: 78). In all but one of the cookbooks selected for the analysis (The Blue Bird Cookery Book), alcohol features prominently in many recipes suitable for the sick. In contrast to Williams’s observation, it can be argued that there was no apparent disagreement in the discussed material as to the numerous health benefits that a moderate use of alcohol could provide to the weak and ill.[7] Yet, those benefits are not explained by the authors. Thus, as Albala argues, foods for invalids, and in this case also beverages, stem from “long custom rather than any empirically verifiable nutritional facts” (2012: 328).

From pottage-like dishes to solid-based diet

Apart from fluids and jellies, chapters and culinary columns on convalescent cooking also feature meals with pottage-like consistency, including gruels (Department of Agriculture 1925: 65-66; Warren 1935: 287); puddings (Warren 1935: 287; Irwin 1949: 169-170); custards, creams and trifles (Marnell, et al., n.d.: 215; Heffernan 1970: 191-92). Gruel or porridge is probably one of the most commonly occurring pottage-like meals deemed suitable for the sick. All the selected cookbooks apart from The Cookin’ Woman include recipes for gruel, made from oatmeal, water and salt and served most commonly with milk and sugar. Sexton explains that porridge and gruels, treasured for their nourishing qualities, have been recommended for the ill since medieval times (1998: 86).

Other easily-digested and light desserts suitable for the sick were based on ingredients such as milk, egg, sugar, oatmeal and cornflour. For example, Invalid Pudding consists of 2 sponge cakes (or cake crumbs), 1 egg, ½ pint milk and 1 oz. sugar (Roper and Duffin 1939: 38), while Invalid Fruit Trifle features 2-3 small sponge cakes, 1-2 apples, 1-2 tablespoons of sugar, ¼ pt. coating sugar (Heffernan 1970: 191). Although the majority of desserts suggested for invalids have rather light consistency, some exceptions can be found. For example, Redington offers a recipe for Invalid Cake featuring ingredients such as flour, eggs, baking powder, castor sugar, butter and grated lemon rind (1910: 90) and Irwin provides a recipe for Fruit Tart made from stewed apples, sponge cakes, eggs, sugar, milk and salt (1949: 168). Furthermore, Heffernan explains that her readers do not need to limit themselves only to the invalid section, but they can draw inspiration from the hot and cold dessert chapters, which feature, for example, steamed or baked custard, carrageen mould, zabaglione and fruit salad (Heffernan 1970: 190).

Interestingly enough, the most space in the invalid cookery sections in the selected sources is devoted to sweet beverages and desserts. The preparation of sweet desserts could have been based on a simple assumption that a patient with a poor appetite would have been more willing to taste something light and sweet, as this kind of food has been associated with comfort. However, it needs to be also highlighted that in the past, sugar had a strong medical dimension. Wheaton explains that sugar was used “first as a medicine, later as an ingredient in invalid foods, and then as a luxury food” (Wheaton 1983: 19). Although sugar had become commonplace in the twentieth century, its frequent occurrence in the invalid sections suggests that it could have retained many of its presumed medicinal properties, which is incompatible with contemporary nutritional guidelines.

Apart from beverages, soups and various desserts, the sick needed also some more solid foods. Before the patient passed to the stage of consuming various kinds of meat, fish was an unquestionable favourite and its consumption during illness was frequently emphasised: “White fish is best for invalids, the most suitable of all being whiting or sole” (Department of Agriculture 1925: 64). Whiting and sole, but also plaice and cod, are called for in numerous fish dishes prepared with the use of such cooking methods as steaming, stewing or baking (Wakefield, “For the Invalid and Convalescent”, Everyday Housekeeping March 1928: 5-6; Roper and Duffin 1939: 37). The majority of recipes call only for salt, pepper, lemon and butter. In general, avoidance of heavy seasoning is highlighted throughout various texts in relation to any dishes prepared for an invalid. For example, All in the Cooking states: “Seasoning and flavouring should only be a suggestion in the invalid’s food; over-seasoning, over-flavouring or over-sweetening must be avoided” (Marnell, et al., n.d.: 209), whereas Comprehensive Cookery suggests: “Avoid over-sweetened, strongly seasoned or heavily spiced recipes” (Heffernan 1970: 189). Yet, the authors do not explain too often how strong flavours can affect the sick. However, Judith Silburn states that “too much pepper or salt may keep a patient from taking interest in the food given” (“Invalid Cookery”, The Southern Star, 9 March 1929: 13). Albala explains that “convalescent cooking was also for the most part bland, presumably to facilitate digestion without incurring humoral side effects” (2012: 324). Cooking methods were also important. Boiling and poaching were often applied, whereas roasting and frying were to be avoided, “probably because boiling seems closest to the action of the stomach with its digestive heat” (Albala 2012: 324). Fat is also hard for the body to break down, so its excess can cause digestive problems. Although in the Young Housewife’s Cookery Book there is one recipe for Fried Fish (Russell 1928: 187), the gathered material evinces moderation in the use of seasoning and the avoidance of frying.

As far as other types of meat are concerned, offal, featuring in a wide range of traditional Irish dishes, appears also in invalid cookery. For example, in the column called “For the Invalid and Convalescent”, Wakefield presents recipes for Stewed Tripe, Fried Sweetbread and Broiled Liver (Everyday Housekeeping, March 1928: 5-6), while Irwin in The Cookin’ Woman suggests a wide range of recipes calling for sweetbreads, for example Grilled Sweetbreads (American Recipe), Stewed Sweetbreads, and Sweetbread Cutlets and Bacon (1949: 162-64). Apart from offal, sections on invalid cookery often feature chicken and loin chops, which are usually either steamed, stewed, boiled or occasionally grilled (Russell 1928: 188-89; Irwin 1949: 165-66). Cooking methods, which are vital in the context of invalid cookery, are emphasised by Irwin. She encourages her readers to make sure that chops are tender and will not require invalids to waste their energy on eating them (Irwin 1949: 165). In order to assist women with this endeavour, she provides recipes for Chop Stewed in Milk, Chop and Mushrooms, and Steamed Chop (Irwin 1949: 165). What is more, Irwin warns her readers not to use tinned meat or fish as they contain preservatives that “irritate weakened stomach” (1949: 161). The reason for such a piece of advice seems obvious as predominantly fresh and best quality ingredients were to be used in the preparation of dishes for the sick. Additionally, Heffernan in the context of preparing chicken for an invalid advises, for example, that “in case of severe illness serve the breast only” (1970: 190). The medical condition is not specified neither is the reason why the breast is more suitable than any other part of the chicken. Nevertheless, such recommendation seems obvious given that the breast is the most easily digestible and assimilable part of the chicken, rich in lean protein.

When we consider both the kinds of meat and fish that are recommended for the ill and the methods of preparation, we realise that these are mainly light and white foods. While Heffernan writes that “white meats are easiest to digest” (1970: 190), Albala explains that such foods are not more digestible than darker ones, but because of their resemblance to milk, they become “nourishing, digestable and restorative” (2012: 326). Certainly, milk is a kind of food that carries strong symbolic value as it is the first food consumed by a baby and therefore becomes associated with security and comfort. Albala refers to the association between invalid foods and comfort, explaining that foods suitable for an invalid are not scientifically proven to aid recuperation, but those that “one instinctively turns to when recovering or feeling under the weather—foods that replicate in form and flavor baby food” (2012: 328). While Albala’s interpretation based on humoral theory is applicable to the discussed material, it needs to be also highlighted that certain issues discussed by the authors of the analysed texts illustrate that their recommendations were also grounded in nutritional science. This is especially evident when we turn to Heffernan’s chapter on nutrition, where the author focuses on food constituents and provides a detailed table featuring composition of foods, including also their vitamin content (1970: 20-27). Comparing white fish and chicken with other kinds of meat, it becomes clear that white meat is higher in protein and lower in fat than, for example, beef or mutton (Heffernan 1970: 27). Hence, the explanation for the use of certain foods and avoidance of others can be found not only in the longstanding beliefs but also in the scientific investigation into digestion and nutrition.[8]


The analysed sections and articles on nourishing the sick were all very similar in the approach. They provided their readers with numerous recipes which accounted for the entire span of illness, from the early stages when a patient would mainly consume liquids, through foods with pottage-like consistency, to a more solid-based diet presumably when the convalescent would be approaching complete recovery. While various foods were seen as useful in restoring health in general, they were not intended for specific ailments. Authors provided information regarding the foodstuffs which were deemed suitable and those which should be avoided by the convalescents. Yet rarely did they explain in detail how those foods worked and who exactly they were intended for. Usually, various dishes were only referred to as ‘nourishing’, ‘refreshing’ and ‘easy to digest’. However, it needs to be clarified that in some cookbooks more detailed information on health benefits of various foods featured in other chapters devoted to nutrition (Roper and Duffin 1939: 3-4; Heffernan 1970: 20-27). Thus, one may assume that the reader was supposed to turn to those sections for more specific information regarding nutrients and vitamin content of certain foods. Furthermore, the emphasis on hygiene and the presentation of food illustrates that the recommendations relied on the ideas promoted by domestic science instruction (2018: 196, 198). As Adelman observes, “these instructions might have prevented the transfer of disease, but they also had aesthetic benefits” (2018: 198).

While adherence to the doctor’s suggestions was stressed in the texts, recommendations seemed to follow common beliefs and practice carried on by tradition. As Albala concludes:

The survival of many of these bygone recipes for the weak and impaired, down into the present, is further evidence that what people believe is happening in their bodies, what they consider easy or difficult to digest in this case, dictates actual practice more forceably than any scientifically prescribed recommendation. (2012: 328)

In line with Albala’s and other researchers’ observations discussed in the introduction, the recipes and advice for invalids and convalescents in the selected Irish texts over the researched period remained almost unchanged. It might be argued that despite significant economic, social and cultural changes as well as major advancements within medical theories regarding nutrition over the span of 60 years, recipes and advice in the sections on invalid cookery relied on the traditional approaches to caring for the sick. What is more, the dishes and foodstuffs featuring in sections on invalid cookery in Irish culinary texts were very similar to the ones which occurred in other countries (Albala 2012; Newton 2017; Williams 2019). This can imply that some recipes were simply copied by various authors, as noted by Williams (2019: 77), but also it may reflect the universality of approaches to feeding the sick. The juxtaposition of recipes in Irish sections on invalid cookery with the British ones serves as an incentive for future research.

Given the prescriptive nature of the analysed sources, it needs to be emphasised that culinary texts, whether cookbooks or culinary columns, do not provide factual information on the use of the invalid cookery advice in everyday practice. We do not know if the advice provided in the culinary discourse was followed or if the recipes were tested, altered to individual needs and preferences or even used at all. Moreover, the access to cookery books as well as the newspapers was, especially in the early decades of the twentieth century, limited mainly to city and town dwellers. Nevertheless, the analysis of the culinary discourse of the researched period illustrates that the topic of feeding the sick at home was very popular at the time. While the concept of invalid cookery was replaced by modern trends in nutrition (Carlin 2013: 340), one can still come across some of the recipes that in the past were regarded as suitable for invalids and convalescents. Moreover, some dishes and beverages, for example, Bovril and Punch, are still commonly used for a head cold or flu.


[1] See an index on “Household Books Published in Britain, Subject: Invalid Cookery.” Accessed December 9 (2020),

[2] The Cookin’ Woman: Irish Country Recipes is the only cookery book analysed in this article that was published outside Ireland.

[3] The Economic Cookery Book was first published in 1905.

[4] The first edition of Young Housewife’s Cookery Book was probably published in 1915. In this research the edition most likely dated 1928, which is available in the National Library of Ireland, is used.

[5] The date of publication is unknown. The first edition, as stated in the later editions of the book, dates back to 1946. The third edition, as listed in the National Library of Ireland, most likely dates back to 1969. The second edition was chosen for this research.

[6] 380 results were found, which were examined qualitatively.

[7] While potential therapeutic uses of alcohol have been emphasised, various negative effects associated with alcohol intake, especially alcohol abuse in the Irish context, should not be overlooked. See, for example, Ferriter 2015; Mauger 2021.

[8] See, for example, Gouseti 2019.

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| Received: 20-07-2022 | Last Version: 23-01-2023 | Articles, Issue 18