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Milk Toast & Co.

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In Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” Jo was always taking blancmange to her frail neighbor Laurie. In “Emma,” Jane Austen’s heroine tried to send arrowroot to her apparently ailing friend Jane Fairfax. Blancmange and arrowroot were both 19th century invalid foods, considered particularly digestible and strengthening for the sick. But they were more than that; back when there were few effective drugs and bed rest was the only treatment, invalid foods were practically medicines.

Even as late as the 1930s, many cookbooks had a chapter with some title like “Sickroom Foods.” These days, infectious disease no longer haunts everyday life the way it used to, and if you’re really, really sick, you’re likely to be in a hospital anyway. So the old-time invalid foods have largely been forgotten, except for milk toast, which survives as a symbol of squishy inoffensiveness.

Soft, bland foods were the mainstay of home invalid cookery (as they still are). Most were mild grain dishes like porridge or mush--or milk toast, which was lightly toasted bread softened with milk. As for blancmange, it was milk thickened to a pudding with cornstarch. Arrowroot pudding was much the same, only thickened with arrowroot, considered more delicate and digestible than cornstarch.

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For protein, you might be served poached eggs or soft custard, perhaps oysters poached in milk. Chicken soup was good, but beef tea (a simple broth made by simmering beef for a couple of hours) was even more “strengthening.”

To drink, maybe toast water, also known as crust coffee, a more liquid cousin of milk toast made with water instead of milk. Or perhaps cider whey--milk boiled with cider until it curdled, then filtered to leave only sweetened whey. These days, if all you could keep on your stomach was cider whey, you’d probably be on an IV unit.


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