Nothing hurts a parent more than seeing their child suffer. My three-year-old daughter recently had the flu and a piece of me crumbled away. I know it could be worse than cough, fever and some phlegm. But seeing her hacking and restless makes me restless. “Go to the store and get some Zarbee’s and Chestal with honey,” my wife ordered, our daughter between her arms.
I ran to the door like a rom-com protagonist and stopped to blow my chopping kid a kiss before rushing into the drugstore to clear out the children’s drug aisle. I’ve taken it all: Zarbee’s and Children’s Tylenol and Children’s Motrin and Children’s NyQuil, even though I know my wife won’t give the baby the hard stuff. I bought it because I take it. Those overpriced herbal and homeopathic cold remedies from Whole Foods don’t do anything for me – I need that old stuff like Robitussin (which we call The Tessem) and strong cough drops that dissolve in my hot tea. So I buy her the children’s versions just in case. As I load the truck, I pass a refrigerator case filled with ginger ale—the only liquid that has cured generations of black people. That’s what the baby needs I think.
“Ginger Rail” is how every single person around me pronounces it, from the people who never set foot in the classroom after elementary school to those with letters after their names. This soda has been the number one remedy for sick black people my entire life. Has a cold? Drink some ginger ale. Fever? A huge, iced cup of ginger ale will bring it down. Getting shot three times with a .45 caliber pistol? Rub some room temperature ginger ale on those sores and you should be back to work in the morning.
Ginger ale can heal classism, spice up a failed marriage, help Lance Armstrong crush the Tour de France and end racism in America. The ale is so serious.
As a child I had asthma. It wasn’t uncommon for me to play touch football with my friends or bite off the heads of my sister’s barbies for a minute and then throw up all over again while my head spiraled around “exorcist” style trying to catch my breath come while I was rushed to the game hospital the next. During these hospital visits, I don’t recall any weird doctors, fluids from IV fluids, ice cream, or lollipops. I almost don’t even remember the few years I had to carry an inhaler. But I do remember that tall, ice-cold mug of ginger ale that always made me feel like there was a turn for the better.
Regardless of the brand, this flavorful, syrupy liquid always seemed to work.
People outside of my community reading this need to understand that ginger ale is only 50 percent of the cure. The other half is “Lie down”. My grandmother, or any other non-licensed doctor, prescribed, “Drink some ginger groove and lie down.”
My grandmother, or any other non-licensed doctor, prescribed, “Drink some ginger groove and lie down.”
Does it really work? Johns Hopkins Medicine credits ginger with the ability to relieve morning sickness in pregnant women, reduce nausea and inflammation, and help treat migraines. Emma Slattery, a clinical nutritionist at Johns Hopkins Medicine writes, “Ginger is amazing. Not only is it delicious. Gingerol, a natural component of ginger root, promotes gastrointestinal motility – the speed at which food leaves the stomach and continues the digestive process. Consuming ginger promotes efficient digestion, so food doesn’t linger in the intestines for so long.”
When I was growing up, no one would chop up actual pieces of ginger root for me and blend them into a smoothie or boil them down into a drinkable liquid. As an adult, I’ve experimented with my own ginger concoctions and bought all kinds of ginger drinks from various juice bars, and I can honestly say it doesn’t taste like ginger ale, the drink I’ve trusted for most of my life when dealing with colds.
Traditional ginger ale, according to Healthline, is fermented and contains natural ingredients. Traditional ginger ale could potentially offer some of the medicine associated with the root. But the ginger ale cans I saw at the drugstore were filled with high fructose corn syrup and ginger extract “with natural flavors.” What the heck are natural flavors? I grabbed two cans anyway so I can squirt some into my drink later — you know, just enough to change the color while I complete my research.
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If I had to imagine the root of my community’s obsession with ginger ale, I would probably trace it back to slavery, and then to black people having little or no health care. I would think of the way James Marion Sims experimented on black women and his brutal treatment of enslaved babies during neonatal tetanus experiments and the Tuskegee study of untreated syphilis in Negro males and how medicine has long been a frightening one for many black people Trigger is People in America. I didn’t grow up trusting doctors and hospitals because my parents didn’t. I didn’t go for routine checkups, I went when I literally couldn’t breathe. We would do everything in our power to avoid treatment by healthcare professionals. That mentality, that medical fear, is giving way to home remedies like chicken noodle soup, gargling with salt water, napping and, yes, sipping on the syrupy, food-colored, high-fructose ginger ale.
I wanted a little insight into my family history with ginger ale and other home remedies, so I called my mom. She was a late 50’s, almost 60’s baby who wasn’t raised on whole foods, organic medicine, the internet, or that damn web MD who always seems to tell me I’m dying. And she didn’t have the same resources as I do now, so maybe ginger ale was more important when I was a kid. Maybe it had to work.
I told her I would never give my child that soda – until she was old enough to mix it with alcohol, I joked – but also said it couldn’t have been that bad because she gave it to me, when I was young and I’m still alive and quite healthy.
“It wasn’t me,” Mom hissed. “I’ve worked in the medical field for many years and I know it doesn’t make sense.”
“Don’t be a Monday morning quarterback, Ma,” I said, reminding myself that when I was nine I tilted my head back to drink from the pint while playing Mario, happy as hell that asthma was killing me kept away from school. “Just pretend it’s a fever in 1989. Now you were really young so I’ll give you a pass. But take me back to the time when you filled and poured over that large cup of your sick son’s ginger splint.”
I could hear her grin. “I gave you baby aspirin when you had a fever. I took you to the emergency room when you were having those asthma attacks. Your dad prescribed ginger splint and I don’t know where he got it from. You need to talk to him.”
I called my dad and he just said, “It works. It still works. But after you drink it, just lie down.”
Dad has a way of making me laugh and then quickly ending the conversation. He knows exactly when to put a pin in. I know ginger ale isn’t what we think it is. Fortunately, I have more resources at my disposal than my parents, from available information to finances. But the most important thing I got from them and will pass on to my child is love. What that love looks like has changed since I went from a young child to a middle-aged father. Parental love will continue to change if my daughter is a parent if she decides to have children. My parents gave the sick kid ginger ale because that was all they had. I googled what the heck ginger ale is and found something else. My daughter might chop up ginger root and sprinkle it over her own child’s oatmeal one day.
The baby was asleep when I got home from shopping, but we knew her cough would wake us up at 2am. So we had a bunch of organic remedies waiting for her, knowing that they might take longer to work and cause her to miss a week of early learning. At least I know the ingredients. That’s all I can ask for.
Essays on Parenting