The question occurred to me while I was cooking up a vat of congee for my sister, when she was in recovery from oral surgery: what exactly makes food “healing”?

In Chinese medicine, congee is a traditional recovery food. It’s thick, warm, rehydrating, easy to swallow and keep down. At its basic, it’s just rice that’s been cooked in a larger-than-normal amount of water or chicken stock (the recipe I use has a 10:1 ratio). It’s a common food across Asia, and depending on the person’s sickness, you can add any number of herbs or medicinal things to it.

Did it heal the gaping, bleeding holes the surgeon left in my sister’s jaw? Did it prevent an infection? Did it alleviate her pain?

Not really. But it tasted good, had some protein in it, and was soft enough for her to swallow. Plus, there’s something to be said for having someone make you food. It’s medicine of its own kind.

In my 27 years on earth, I’ve met a lot of hardcore health-food nuts. I’ve known vegans, juice-fasters, gluten-refusers, and people who ate only raw fruits, vegetables, and nuts. I’ve watched friends subsist on nothing but water with maple syrup, lemon, and cayenne pepper for days at a time — a fasting diet which, by the way, was rumored to be the cause for landing Eddie Van Halen in the hospital for emergency intestinal surgery. I actually knew someone that ate four or five raw cloves of garlic everyday. (He smelled like a pesto factory, it was kind of amazing.) But these people never seem much more healthy than I do, despite the fact that I eat rare steaks and cupcakes whenever I damn well feel like it, have never once been on a diet, and have affectionately been called “garbage disposal” by tablemates during a meal.

When researching healing foods, there’s a whole lot of folklore and fraud, and very little hard science. Everyone wishes for a magic bullet against disease. Every few weeks, there are new headlines about this little-known mushroom or that Amazonian berry “curing” cancer. This is mostly the fault of crappy writers trying to rack up page views from the desperate, projecting the word “cure” onto a scientific study that may not be conclusive at all.

There are also plenty of quacks in the world who don’t even bother with even the flimsiest scrap of evidence. The Respectful Insolence blog has a wonderful takedown of “alternative medicine”, which promises cures with no side effects. One of the quotes he gathered from a naturopath’s website was this unintentionally telling gem:

Complementary [i.e. conventional] medicine is based on scientific knowledge whereas alternative medicine is based on clinical or anecdotal evidence.

Which is to say, it’s not really based on anything. This kind of natural medicine functions the same was as urban legends do: “My best friend’s auntie’s coworker’s husband’s great uncle cured his cancer by eating nothing but broccoli and getting coffee colonics twice a day. Way better than chemotherapy!”

Broccoli diets and coffee enemas are actual alternative therapies, by the way. They have yet to actually prove to be effective weapons against cancer, unlike the “unnatural” therapies of radiation and chemotherapy. Alternative medicine advocates tend to poo-poo “scientific knowledge,” probably because these kinds of therapies tend to fall apart under rigorous testing and study.

In medicine, there’s no magic bullet. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.

Obviously, there are foods out there that are more healthy than others, and foods that are better for you when you’re sick. But it’s a thorny, contentious debate, one that’s as subjective as hangover cures. (My personal favorite, by the way, is a glass of Emergen-C followed by a greasy, starchy breakfast, followed by a nap.) There are studies that prove the efficacy of some herbal and food remedies: ginger, for example, actually does settle your stomach, and garlic has been shown to help prevent heart disease.

There’s also something to be said for the placebo effect: if the only effect something has is psychosomatic, there’s a value in that. When I was growing up, my mother would bring me saltines and ginger ale for an upset stomach. When I was older, I’d slice up an apple, dip it in honey and cinnamon, and wash it down with mint tea. In college, living in the dreary Pacific Northwest, I’d consume pho — Vietnamese beef noodle soup — by the gallon. Since moving to Chicago’s West Side with its plethora of taquerias, I’ve come to love and appreciate pozole and tortilla soup. Anytime I think I’m actually about to come down with a cold or a case of the flu, I mix up my personal, sick-day version of a hot toddy: bourbon, ginger tea, honey, and lemon.

Is a hot toddy a cure for the common cold? No. Does it make me feel better? Yes. It’s probably a placebo, but it tastes good, and can soothe a scratchy throat. That’s all I ask for.

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