Barley there

This week I have found alternative uses for baby oil. I had received a bottle of Johnson’s baby oil at the birth of my baby son eight months ago. Unfortunately, it seems that both my boys react to baby oil. This might not really be that surprising – it’s 100% mineral oil. If you want to give your baby a massage, stick to a vegetal oil such as olive oil (cheap and easily available) or almond oil. That’s what the Greeks and Romans would have done, and rightly so.
I didn’t want to throw the bottle of baby oil away, however, and I have therefore tried to find some new uses for this product. You will find quite a lot of advice on the web, but many recommendations are for cosmetic use on adults. I would avoid that too. With some help from my friends, I have collected these top tips.
1) Use to oil untreated wood. You will find that the oil that is sold for that purpose is also 100% mineral oil. My IKEA changing table seems to love baby oil.
2) With the rag that you have used to oil untreated wood, dust your other wooden furniture. Lifts the dust off and makes wood shine.
3) Clean and nourish your shoes and bags. I tried this on my son’s shoes. They were quite dirty. The oil lifted the dirt and made the shoes quite shiny. I am told this works very well on bags too.
4) Shine your stainless steel. I don’t have any stainless steel appliances apart from my sink, so I shined my sink. I had a lovely shiny sink in no time. (Please note: I am not usually that obsessive. I was only experimenting). I guess you could shine your car with the oil too.
I have come to the conclusion that baby oil is a great product as long as you don’t use in on a baby.

Have you had the vomiting bug yet this winter? It seems everyone is catching it, and being very poorly as a result. My husband, baby-son and I had it in November. When my five-year-old son started vomiting last Wednesday I prepared myself for round two. In the end, I don’t think he had the vomiting bug, but I went on the look-out for ancient remedies for vomiting nevertheless. I did not find many. (I did find a few to prevent nausea, travel sickness and what we call morning sickness – but that will be for another time.) The ancients were much more interested in making people throw up than in stopping vomiting. Through purges (poetically called ‘purges from above’ and ‘purges from below), they rid the body of diseases. As the philosopher Plato (fifth century BCE) remarked, vomiting and other ‘aggressive’ methods were cheap and not too time-consuming, unlike fashionable dietetic methods:

‘When a carpenter,’ I said, ‘is sick, he expects his physician to give him a drug in order to vomit the disease out, or get rid of it by purging downwards or using cautery or the knife. But if someone prescribes him a long diet, wrapping his head with compresses and their accompaniments, soon he says he has no leisure to be sick and that there is no advantage in living such a life, paying heed to his disease and neglecting the work at hand.’ (Republic 406)

For those of you who are not too keen on ‘vomiting diseases out’, the few anti-emetic remedies I found will come as a relief. They come from a text attributed to the famous physician Hippocrates (fifth-century BCE), Diseases of Women, but were most probably not authored by him.

To stop vomiting: juice of ōkumon (a plant I cannot identify) in white wine.
Another remedy: a decoction of spring flour/meal.
Another remedy: juice sweet and sour pomegranates; then mix with honey.
(By the way, all translations are mine, unless stated otherwise)

I decided to give the second recipe a go. I knew that I would never be able to make a decoction from the fine wheat-flour I had in my cupboards – that would be a recipe for making some sort of cement. Anyway, the most common crop in ancient Greece was barley; and it is quite likely that flour/meal in antiquity was far less fine than what we now find in supermarkets. I therefore decided to use pearl barley (barley without its hull), which you can easily find in shops. I washed it; covered it with cold water; brought the water to the boil; and let it simmer for 15-20 minutes.

Pearl barley simmering away

Pearl barley simmering away

I was left with cooked pearl barley (to be used in soups etc.) and a milky juice. It was not unpleasant tasting – a bit like a very thin porridge. My husband agreed to drink most of it, as he had a bit of a tummy-ache. He told me it did make him feel better, but whether this is due to the placebo effect, I cannot ascertain. In any case, it did not do him any harm; it was not unpleasant (you could add some honey or sugar to the mixture); and if he had been properly sick this would have been an easy way to get nourishment and hydration. In fact, it is not that different from rice water, also used in cases of sickness and diarrhea.

Barley decoction

Barley decoction

Now I did some Googling to find information on barley decoction, and I was directed to one of my favourite websites: Henriette’s herbal.

There I learnt that in the nineteenth century, both the British Pharmacopeia and the American Dispensatory recommended a decoction of barley in cases of gastro-intestinal troubles.

This brings me to the longevity of some ancient remedies. Remedies recorded in the fifth- or fourth-century BCE were still in use in the nineteenth century. And I bet some people with training in herbal medicine (or knowledge passed down the family line) still use barley in the way indicated above. Thus, there certainly are some pearls (bad pun intended) among Greek and Roman recipes, but is it legitimate to pick and choose the recipes we find acceptable and reject those we find dangerous and/or repelling? Shouldn’t we accept a medical system in its entirety? I do not have a ready-made answer to this question – it is one that has been on my mind for years. I leave you with it.

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7 Responses to Barley there

  1. fluff35 says:

    love it! tweeting this now. And on the pick ‘n’ mix approach to ancient medicine, the issue of whether to accept it all or not also applies to those Chinese medicine shops one finds in British shopping centres; they seem to market themselves on the basis that a bit of Chinese medicine can be taken rather than the whole world-view?


  2. It’s probably a geographical issue, but I’m surprised not to see ginger listed there. Being on essential medication that causes nausea, I’ve tried pretty much every remedy out there, and nothing beats biting down hard on a piece of crystallised or root ginger. The latter can be effectively preserved for this purpose, without losing any of its efficacy, by pickling in whisky or vodka.


    • Thanks Jennie. I’ll write more about ginger and nausea another time. For now I can say that it is indeed a geographical and chronological issue – ginger was not used that early in ancient Greece. The jury is out on ginger and nausea. I love ginger but it didn’t work on my morning sickness unfortunately. Other people, like you, sweat by it!


  3. Freyalyn says:

    Of course, Robinson’s Barley Water was originally made with exactly this decoction, flavoured with sugar and fruit. Nowadays I don’t think it contains any barley. Last year I discovered the merits in using barley instead of rice in a milk pudding – make exactly as for rice pudding, but use pearl barley instead. Tastier and more digestible.


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