Grammie's spring tonics
Every Spring, Grammie Tucker would give us kids a goodly dose of "sulfur and molasses" — and a tablespoon of the dreaded castor oil. In addition, there was "Father John's Tonic," which was mainly cod liver oil flavored with licorice, which helped temper down the taste. (They still make it but it's labeled "Father John's Medicine," rather than "Tonic.")
But spring has been tonic-time for countless generations and cultures.
After our long Maine winters, we need a pick-me-up or two. We tend to be less active and we get much less of the "Happy Vitamin" — Vitamin D. (Which isn't actually a vitamin, but a hormone.)
The sun's "good" ultra violet light gives us Vitamin D. Unfortunately, that's only available when the sun reaches 53 degrees altitude in the sky. By mid-September, here in our back yards, the arc of the sun drops below 53 degrees and doesn't climb above it again until early April, for a few minutes on either side of noon, adding a few more minutes on each end every day.
Our bodies will store up Vitamin D in summer but, long about February, our stores run low or even out. That brings on the infamous "cabin fever." They even have a medical term for it now: "S.A.D" — Seasonal Affective Disorder." In some, it gets so disruptive that doctors prescribe light treatment.
There's also Vitamin D3 pills/capsules, which I take until the sun climbs high enough again. The Navy has a chart that you can look at to tell the exact "sun window" for Vitamin D in your back yard. Just search: "Sun or Moon Altitude/Azimuth Table."
I'm already out there in my lounge chair now, every day the sun shines. I make a protective oil with liquid coconut oil into which I mix a few drops of Lugol's solution iodide/iodine. When I was in high school, way back when, we'd put the iodine in baby oil. Our reason was to help get a good tan without burning.
I don't use baby oil now because it's a petroleum derivative. I use coconut oil or grapeseed oil. But it seems the iodine may have an additional positive use other than just for tanning. After the Chernobyl nuclear accident in Russia some years ago, they prescribed iodine to help prevent thyroid cancer from the radiation. So, perhaps the iodine helps protect against skin damage from the sun.
The first edible plant that pops up in the spring is the mighty Dent de Lion — dandelion. I've written for decades about the poor dandelion, the most maligned "weed" on earth. It's actually one of the most beneficial, if not number one, plants nature provides. Chock full of vitamins and minerals, every part of it is used in folk medicine. It helps clear out the winter sludge.
I chop the raw leaves up and include them in soups, stir-fries and salads. But my favorite is still a good mess, boiled through two waters, and topped with butter, vinegar, s and p. The blossoms make a really fine white wine. They are also great fried with a light tempura batter. The roots, dried and ground, make a good — and healthy — coffee substitute.
The Indians also use sarsaparilla root for a spring tonic drink. Our woods are full of sarsaparilla.
I don't know what the health properties of fiddleheads might be. I suspicion, besides being a long-awaited treat come spring, they are full of good stuff, too. It's just that I don't think anyone's ever bothered to do research on them.
But unlike the dandelion, the season on fiddleheads is here and gone in the blink of an eye and they are hard to find. Also, people guard their fiddlehead spots like a great trout pool. I can't hike off through the woods and rivers like I used to, searching for fiddleheads, but I have a really generous friend, Tom, who "gave" me one of his spots, beside a road.
These are some of the things that give us a pick-me-up in the spring. Some delicious, some not so much, like that tablespoon of castor oil. Thank goodness it's available in gel caps these days. Goes down a lot better.
Marion Tucker-Honeycutt, an award-winning columnist, a Maine native and graduate of Belfast schools, now lives in Morrill. Her columns appear in this paper every other week.