Posted January 6, 2005 by Nick Lindauer in Hot Sauce News

Burrito Medicine

My friends and colleagues shake their heads, but when I feel achy, flu-like and just want to crawl underneath the covers, I don’t reach for aspirin, cough syrup or a hot water bottle.

I grab a burrito. A huge, honkin’ one, bursting with chicken or pork, rice and beans, tomatoes and avocado, and heaps of spicy salsa.

To be sure, it probably wouldn’t be my first choice if I were suffering from the stomach flu. But when I’m feeling under the weather from almost anything else, I down a humongous burrito and go straight to bed, and darned if I don’t wake up the next morning feeling restored to tackle the world.

Take it from me: Run down from all the holiday madness? Pop a chile verde burrito. Can’t get a flu shot? Get thee a grande pollo burrito instead.

It does the trick. At least for me.

My friends think this unusual curative is all in my head — and, er, stomach. But I’m on a quest to prove them wrong.

After all, many cultures ascribe almost mystical healing powers to certain foods. Why shouldn’t I?

Eastern Europeans traditionally have relied on chicken soup to cure what ails them, Indo-Americans reach for garlic soup or ginger tea, Russians favor an herbal-flavored vodka known as balsam, the Chinese consume oxtail soup, Mexicans favor menudo, and Navajos swear by blue corn, says Pamela Goyan Kittler, a Sunnyvale nutritionist and author of “Food and Culture in America.”

Kittler concedes she hasn’t come across anything in her research about the powers of burritos. But she’s willing to give me the benefit of the doubt. After all, she’ll be the first to admit that when she gets a tickle in her throat, she reaches automatically for cognac or whiskey — to gargle with. She’s unsure if there’s any logic to it, even if alcohol is a disinfectant. But it seems to work for her, so she always does it.

“If it boosts your confidence in fighting something,” Kittler says, “I don’t see what’s wrong with it.”

Neither does Joanne Ikeda, nutrition education specialist in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of California-Berkeley. When she has a cold, Ikeda drinks a gallon of orange juice for its vitamin C. Nothing odd about that. But she remembers when she was stressed out over exams in her college years and would reach for red-dyed peanuts or pistachios, a favorite childhood snack that somehow left her feeling revived. As a result, she puts a lot of stock in the healing and nurturing effects of food. Even burritos.

“There’s a lot of protein from the beans and rice combo, and from the chicken or pork. And the salsa is loaded with vitamin A and vitamin C from the tomatoes and the peppers. A burrito is a very nutritious thing to eat,” Ikeda says. “And if your immune system is under attack, there’s nothing better than to bolster it with something nutrient-dense.”

Funny, but a scan of food healing books finds no mention of burritos. What’s up with that? But they contain plenty of information about how protein-rich foods are energizing. Garlic has anti-viral, anti-fungal and anti-bacterial qualities. Zinc (found in beef, pork and chicken) is one of the most important minerals for keeping immunity strong. Onions contain powerful antioxidants. And chile peppers contain capsaicin, a plant chemical that gives peppers their heat, and is similar chemically to a drug called guaifenesin used in cold remedies such as Robitussin.

I figured I ought to consult a doctor about all of this. And who better than Dr. Mark Sanders, a family medicine practitioner at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center’s adult and pediatric urgent care units? He’s up to his elbows in colds, flus and other viruses at this time of year.

To his credit, Sanders doesn’t refer me to a psychiatric colleague when I mention my theory about the burrito. Instead, he listens thoughtfully and tells me that there’s no real scientific or solid physiological explanation for my burrito remedy. But he also says that when he’s feeling sick, he’ll often eat a bowl of jook or pho, or drink a sour lemon drink that his Vietnamese-American colleagues bring in to make him feel better. And, he says, they do seem to help.

“Every winter, we get runs on every kind of cold. And we have little to offer people except symptomatic treatment. It’s just rest, hydration and analgesics like Tylenol or Motrin,” Sanders says. “Beyond that, every culture has their own twist on how they get comfort. I do feel that being nice to yourself helps at all times. And if a burrito is what you’re craving, if that’s your comfort food, it’s better than seeing me.”

I rest my case. I’ll continue to take my medicine in the form of a big burrito. That’s my prescription. And I’m sticking to it.

Nick Lindauer

The Original Hot Sauce Blog