Baba (and Augustana biology professor) knows best
Posted on May 1, 2012 by Christopher Thrall
Baba’s Kitchen Medicines, a 296-page paperback opus published in March by the University of Alberta Press, is equal part history, anthropology and botany.
Michael Mucz has spent the last 20 years listening to countless stories about cow manure.
While he was researching the remedies of Ukrainian-Canadian settlers on the Prairies, one woman told him of a deep cut that prompted a visit to the doctor. Unable to feel any results from the prescribed cream he gave her, the woman told her friend, says Mucz from the University of Alberta’s Augustana campus in Camrose. Her friend’s response was typical of the early 1900s — put cow dung all over it.
The woman went back to the doctor, and, embarrassed, she never said a word about the manure, until she told Mucz.
By modern standards, the story is unbelievable. But Michael Mucz isn’t concerned with modern medicine.
His research, which began in 1992, was conducted by speaking to more than 200 children of Ukrainian settlers. It unearthed the practical use of plants and household items as the cure to everyday ailments.
The result was Baba’s Kitchen Medicines, a 296-page paperback opus published in March by the University of Alberta Press. The book is equal part history, anthropology and botany.
Mucz discovered that newcomers used the then-conventional, now unorthodox remedies passed down to them by their mothers and grandmothers: warm milk mixed with a little butter to soothe a sore throat, for example.
Even contemporary considerations such as taste and fragrance had their place on the prairies. Cranberries created a kind of cough syrup and adding a little sugar made it the perfect remedy for kids. The most complicated of concoctions were homemade salves — guarded family secrets that combined wax, resin from spruce trees, and a touch of incense to mask the smell.
Without a pill to alleviate headaches, people would thickly slice potatoes and tightly wrap the slices around their foreheads.
“The coolness from the potatoes would relieve the ache,” says Mucz. The tightness of the tuber wrap would even touch pressure points.
The settler population may not have known medically why the remedies worked, but they knew there was value in the traditions passed down to them. The manual labour of farming and tilling land would leave men and women with chapped hands and feet. Remedies for the uncomfortable condition included washing hands in leftover laundry water or — as another embarrassed woman told Mucz — urinating on the chapped skin. He’d heard it before.
Topical creams found in pharmacies list uric acid as a key medicinal ingredient — the same acid found in urine. And the laundry water? The lanolin-heavy water that remained after washing wool would soothe the cracks in hands and on feet, coating and protecting the skin.
As the children of settlers went to school, the embarrassment they felt from using the remedies increased.
“They didn’t want to admit that their mothers were rubbing goose fat and garlic on their chests to fight off colds,” Mucz says. “We have the capacity to use these remedies today but we’ve lost faith in the old ways.”
The average age of the people Mucz interviewed was 81. Today, few of them are living to see the completed work. Readers have said to him the book let them reconnect with their families’ pasts.
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