Gold medal favorite, American downhill skier Lindsey Vonn may be a little ways away from home in Vancouver, B.C., and far away from the storied mountains of Austria, but it was to an Austrian home remedy that she turned when her shin began giving her "excruciating pain." At first, Vonn said she was eschewing pain medication -- even the surprisingly wide range of prescription and over-the-counter medications allowed by anti-doping rules -- in favor of Austrian topfen cheese, a curd cheese (somewhat like cottage cheese and equivalent to the Eastern European quark) slathered all over her leg. Later, on Thursday morning, she updated her Twitter status to read "So I took a bunch of pain killers and numbed my shin with some creams."
Cheese-wrapping is not, it must be said, a remedy recommended by orthopedic surgeons, Olympic ski team doctors, or the chief medical officer for the U.S. Olympic team -- who said, rather tersely, something like "the care being given by his team of medical staff is evidence-based medicine." Topfen cheese is the sort of thing one could make in a home kitchen, or in a particularly well-equipped vacation one; take a half-gallon of milk, heat to between 104-108 degrees, and add a cup of starter culture (which is just milk, scalded, plus plain yogurt or buttermilk). Let sit in a thermos or yogurt maker for about three hours, until sour; then set in a strainer lined with cheesecloth overnight. While it's more expensive than, say, generic-brand acetaminophen, it's a relative (compared to surgery and ultrasound and aspiration of blood) bargain.
The benefits, like much of home-cooked medicine, are more anecdote than science; that is not to say that the benefits do not exist, only that no pharmaceutical company has funded the research. According to U.S. ski team physician Bill Sterrett, "a lot of the athletes on the U.S. ski team . . . have had a good experience with" topfen treatments, which are reported to reduce swelling and stimulate healing. As my mom says, it probably can't hurt anything.
Increasingly, we Walletpoppers have noticed that ordinary medical practitioners and pharmaceutical companies are pushing remedies that may as well have come from an Austrian hausfrau's kitchen. One staffer living in the Netherlands tells me, "Europe doesn't believe in prescriptions quite like the U.S. does." Her two-year-old son and husband have been sick for a few weeks, and instead of getting antibiotics, she gets told "to go home and drink tea and drink chicken soup." Another Walletpop contributor, Devra Renner, writes that she makes "Hot and Sour Soup at the first sign of getting a cold, [and] I have a Chinese friend who swears by the restorative properties of White Pepper."
Fancy or not, it's a common recommendation -- chicken soup and other so-called "bone broths" are believed by many of our writers to be the best cure for anything that ails you. Sally Fallon of Nourishing Traditions fame points to a host of evidence that long-simmered broth from good meat (grass-fed beef and the like) is the best healing you can get. Walletpopper Ann Brenoff writes, "bone marrow has curative powers," and I agree. Gina Roberts-Grey says don't forget the carrots, especially for the classic restorative chicken version: "The zinc (which boosts your immune system) in the chicken is better absorbed when paired with vitamin A (found in carrots)."
And then there are weedy remedies like calendula and St. John's wort, two flowers that grow like crazy in the parking strips and alleys here in Portland, Ore. (St. John's wort is classified as a noxious weed and can't be legally grown or purchased as a seed or plant here in Oregon; it's still everywhere) have been popping up, not just in my favorite herbal healing books but also in the ingredients listed in many balms, salves, soaps and oils in the drugstore. A simple treatment of St. John's wort-infused olive oil is supposed to soothe and heal all sorts of skin maladies, from bug bites and sunburn to bruises and deep muscle problems. It's what I put on my babies instead of diaper cream, and the rashes just disappear.
Staying in the kitchen for cures works for other common health problems, says Lan Nguyen, who told me her doctor suggested "a drop of olive oil in the ear to relieve pain from an ear infection." Or apple cider vinegar on the hair for scalp problems, or warts. Science may not be sure, but believers in natural medicine are just willing to give it a try. Then there's honey; the tonic of hot water with honey and lemon was my mother's sore-throat soother (with a salt-water gargle to cure). A host of true believers say that raw honey can cure almost anything thanks to the powerful enzymes and bacteria at work in the stuff; and the more locally it was produced, the better (there's a prevailing theory that plants grown in the same environment in which you live have the right sorts of natural defenses to withstand the weather; this is only magnified in the honeybee's naturally-"processed" plant nectar). Don't overheat the honey, though -- keep it below 110 degrees Fahrenheit in order to preserve the natural enzymes.
The list keeps getting longer, and we have to ask: Lindsey! How did the cheese work? And why did you leave the kitchen and head for the medicine cabinet? We were rooting for you and your topfen-splattered legs. Here: before it's too late, try something else Austrian and kitchen-centric, like this garlic soup. It might not win you the gold; but we think it's best if you don't tempt fate, and the wisdom of the hausfrau.
Lindsey Vonn's cheese-wrapped legs and other home remedy tips for Olympic Village