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Mucz book explores home-made remedies
Augustana professor Dr. Michael Mucz still remembers his mother's surefire remedy for easing the problem of a sore throat.
"She would give us a combination of butter and milk, the idea being that the butter would line the throat and soothe the irritation," said Mucz. "After that she would wrap a scarf around our neck and have us keep it on while we slept. I was skeptical about the idea but found that it helped because it elevated the temperature in the neck area and didn't allow the bacteria to function the way it normally would."
The remedy and many others used by Ukrainian pioneers to cure common ailments after they arrived in western Canada form the basis of a new 296-page book by Dr. Mucz entitled Baba's Kitchen Medicines (University of Alberta Press). Far from an academic piece of work, it tells the stories of people who had no easy access to doctors and how they were able to pass those remedies on from one generation to the next. The result has, so far at least, been a warm reception from readers, who have been able to pick out stories they remember being told, or reconnect with grandparents about how life was in the past.
"I had one woman tell me how her two grandmothers would never talk about the old days because remembering the hardship was too hard for them," said Dr. Mucz, "but when they started reading it they began to laugh and make connections. In a way it brought the reality back to them."
Baba's Kitchen Medicines came out of a research project started by Dr. Mucz in 1992 on how Ukrainian pioneers used plants on their settlements.
"It was a broad project directed to me by the botanist at the provincial museum, who had been a colleague of mine at graduate school," said Dr. Mucz. "She thought it would be a perfect fit for me because I was a botanist and I could speak Ukrainian."
Dr. Mucz interviewed just under 200 people for the book and talked to several others. Most of the interviews lasted an hour, although there were a few that went for two hours.
"I interviewed more women than men, because most of the men just didn't want to talk," said Dr. Mucz. "Women were much more willing to be engaged and, traditionally speaking, they were the healers. They were the ones who had the healing knowledge and they would pass it on."
While women had the remedies, it was usually the men in the Ukrainian settlements who had served in the military in the Austro-Hungarian empire, who were the bone setters.
"Having been in the military they must have received some type of paramedical training," said Dr. Mucz. "The Ukrainian people, who were very religious, believed it was a gift from God."
Dr. Mucz found that many of the medicinal remedies that were used by the settlers came from ordinary vegetables that were grown in the garden, from weeds like dandelion, and from various berries. Puffball spores were collected in the fall and used as a type of antibiotic that could be used to apply to wounds, while fats from geese and pigs, and resin from spruce trees would be kept on hand to use as rubs or put on rashes or burns. Skin injuries and infections were treated with a poultice, a softened and moistened mass of herbs.
"The Ukrainians were reluctant to take advantage of invasive medical techniques," said Dr. Mucz, "so rather than amputate a finger that was infected and not healing well, they would put a poultice on it, and nine times out of ten it would work."
Other remedies involved commercial products, some of which were used in unorthodoxical ways. Sulfur, with molasses, for example, was seen as a great spring tonic, and a way of cleaning out the system.
"They shared quite a bit of information with each other," said Dr. Mucz. "With the exception of a few salves, nobody said this is my secret and you can't have it. They were more than willing to share everything they had with someone else who had nothing as well."
One of the most unusual practices Dr. Mucz came across was a wax pouring ceremony that was supposed to be effective in curing anxiety or sleeplessness. Practitioners – usually women – would pour melted wax three times, and "read" the so-called messages that the wax contained as a way of diagnosing the problem. By the third pouring, the patient was supposed to be cured.
"It was a psychological thing but eighty per cent of the people I interviewed told me that they had it done to themselves or a family member, and reported it as being very effective said Dr. Mucz. "I talked to a nun in Edmonton to find out whether this was something the Church supported and she said it was. It wasn't that they were praying to spirits. They were praying to God and the Holy Mother."
Dr. Mucz has a disclaimer at the beginning of the book that the remedies should not be used today. In his research he discovered that wormwood, which was used by the pioneers for stomach ailments, is no longer considered to be a medicinal herb because it has very toxic properties that are harmful to the liver.
"It was very bitter," he said. "They would make an infusion of it and then would basically take a tablespoon into a glass of hot water and drink it three times a day."
The old remedies began dying out, said Dr. Mucz, when the Ukrainian children went to school and became exposed to more conventional health practices.
"The kids didn't want to be teased because their mother had put a sock or scarf around their necks to cure a cold when other mothers gave their children a tablespoon of cough syrup."
Dr. Mucz still interviews seniors and is hopeful that someday he will be able to incorporate their stories in a future edition of the book. Anyone who has something to tell may contact him at 780-679-1173.
"I plan to go back to the nursing homes and interview the new crop of seniors and see what I can find," he said. "As I talk to people today I still hear things that I had never heard of before."