Monday, 3 August 2015

Creamy Pumpkin Wastersupper for the Invalid

Sometimes I doubt if I have the true grit and crazed single-mindedness to be a writer. But not today. For today I looked at my sick wife and toddler, both suffering from the same cold I myself had, and thought, “This is the perfect chance to test some invalid cooking.”

Invalid cooking, if you’re not familiar with it, is cooking for the sick – more specifically, the perpetually or terminally sick. It's not a chapter you'll find in a modern cookbook, but no Victorian era cookbook was complete without it. Though it’s tempting to say that it’s because people don’t care for their ill or disabled family in their home any more, statistics show this isn’t the case. It’s certainly not because modern medicine has done away with long lingering deaths. If anything, modern medicine does an even better line in long, lingering deaths than its Victorian counterpart.

I think the fall of ‘invalid cooking’ probably came about because of changes in attitudes towards the disabled and ill, who are no longer seen as a different species (at least not in the circles I travel in). When my wife’s mother was dying of cancer, she ate whatever she damn well chose, which was mainly Twisties.

Invalid cooking was still rattling round the margins of our society until relatively recently. At her blog I Taught them How to Cook, Jenny Ridgewell recounts the horror of trying to excite cookery students in 1970s London about the prospect of serving a tasteless aspic on a starched white cloth to a sick person in bed. An even more recent appearance, from my own bookshelf none the less, is in the 1997 edition of the Presbyterian Women’s Missionary Union Cookbook – a work of rural cookery so classic that even Wild Colonial Grandma uses it, despite having views on religion that make Richard Dawkins look like a lily-livered moderate. The good old PWMU suggests such invalid cookery classics as barley water, beef tea, and steamed chicken. It's selections are notably light on flavour, body, or crunchy bits.  

This takes us neatly into the issue of what made the cut as invalid cooking: essentially, the thinner, less flavoursome, and less nutritious, the better; as Victorian ideas about illness posited that people in their weakened state couldn’t handle anything that took too much digesting. (You can read more about the Victorian understanding of illness at this great page from the Victoria and Albert Museum).

Of course doctors still believe that diet can play a role in health, but in the modern era dietary recommendations are usually specific to the condition. For instance, as I speak my household labours under a diet to prevent my wife’s prediabetes getting too big for its britches and turning into the full-blown kind.

So considering all this, you might wonder why I decided to subject my sick family to this fossil of a food genre. Apart from my newly-found overweening literary ambition, that is.

Well, in addition to being easy on their presumably fragile digestive system, a lot of invalid food also had an element of comfort about it. Warm broths, creamy porridges, soothing teas – just the sort of thing to help a modern person through the horror of the common cold.

The recipe that I chose to attempt was selected purely on the basis that we already had all the ingredients at home. I had, after all, been up the night before at 3AM trying to breastfeed a toddler whose entire being seemed geared towards the production of snot and misery. But it turned out to be a happy selection. Not only does this recipe have interesting things to tell us about colonial Australian food culture (more Germans than you’d perhaps expect); not only did it produce a dish unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a modern cookery book or tasted in a modern restaurant; it also turned out to be one of those rare recipes that work so well on their first go that they become an instant family favourite.

So here it is: pumpkin soup, of a kind you’ve never even considered. Made with four ingredients and almost zero cooking technique, it’s a beautiful pale yellow, and creamy without being heavy – a sort of airy savoury custard. Containing a glass of milk and about 200g of completely hidden veggies per serve, we’re talking about a health food here, but if anything it feels like a sweet treat. For people feeling nauseous, or too tired to operate a knife and fork, this is the sick-bed meal for you.

Yes, I realise I’m raving, but I’m 90% sure it’s not the sleep deprivation talking. I can say in all honesty that when I’m sick in the future, this is what I will cook.

Here is the original recipe:

Waster Supper, or water soup, is a term they apply to all kinds of soup which re- quire no wine or stock. They are very nice for invalids. I will give a very pala- table one.  

Pumpkin Soup. - Cut the pumpkin in slices and throw the rind away, Boil it in milk until soft, and add a little butter, cinnamon, and sugar. Pass it through a cullender before serving.

DOMESTIC COOKERY. (1873, May 2). Portland Guardian and Normanby General Advertiser (Vic. : 1842 - 1876), p. 3 Edition: EVENINGS. Retrieved August 3, 2015, from

Creamy Pumpkin Soup for the Invalid.
(Photo taken by an invalid - be kind!)
Creamy Pumpkin Wastersupper for the Invalid

450g pumpkin (weight without skin)

570ml milk

1 t butter

A few shakes of cinnamon per bowl or mug

Cooking Time

Half an hour or less, depending on how thinly you slice the pumpkin


2 hearty bowls, or three pathetic man-flu soup mugs


Slice the pumpkin as thinly as you can without getting fussy about it. The thinner the slices, the quicker it will cook, but don’t stress – you are ill, not auditioning for Masterchef.

Put the pumpkin and milk in a small to medium sized saucepan. You’ll know you’ve got it about right if the milk almost or completely covers the pumpkin. If it doesn’t, add another dash of milk. Now is no time for dirtying two saucepans, and the recipe is pretty forgiving.

Bring to the boil, and then turn down to a low simmer. Put the lid of the saucepan on ajar, and cook until the pumpkin is starting to break up. If you cut it nice and thin, this will happen in about 10 minutes. Stir occasionally.

Remove from the heat and blend until completely smooth.

Return to the heat, and add the butter. Stir until the butter has melted, and is thoroughly combined in the soup.

Serve in bowls or mugs, with a shake of cinnamon on top.

It’s sweet already, but if you want it super sweet stir in a teaspoon of sugar or your favourite alternative sweetener.

Enjoy, you sad, sick specimen.