top of page

The Elixir

(by Bex O'Brian)

Waking every morning as a kid, there would be that moment, a split second of being outside time, accompanied by that sweet full body stretch and…then I’d hear it, the blender. If I was next in line to be one of Sweeney Todd’s hapless victims, my very being about to be fed into the meat grinder, it wouldn’t come close to the dread I felt hearing my mother, as she called it, “bodge” about the kitchen, making her “health drink.” This brew of orange juice, milk, brewer’s yeast, a raw egg, and soy oil was the absolute bane of our lives for my sisters and me. There was no escaping it. No dog willing to secretly lap up the pale orange, weirdly effervescent concoction. No nearby plant ready to take one for the team. Mother wasn’t the least bit sympathetic. She loved the wretched stuff. We girls never managed to find a system to lessen the horror. Gulping it back just turned our stomachs into these strangely distended orbs and created day-long burps. Sipping only prolonged the agony.

To make matters worse (how much worse could they be!), my sisters would give me baleful looks because the brew that haunted us was all my fault.

I was a sickly child. Born dead, things didn’t improve much. I had allergies, asthma, eczema, a weak constitution, and needed to wear a corrective boot for my pigeon toes. I wish I could say I was a mini-Elizabeth Barrett lying wanly on the couch reading poetry—I strongly identified with her until one day my sister said, “You know there was nothing actually wrong with her.” I was driven mad by my various ailments, which made me whiny, short-tempered, annoying with my constant scratching, and a ruiner of the quieter moments in movies with my rattling lungs.

In order to heal me, and this being the sixties, my mother bought into every quack remedy there was—a pursuit that was aided and abetted by the man who owned the health food store down the road. Early health food stores, at least this one in Montreal, were closer to witches’ dens rather than places where money was exchanged for food. Stacked in dark corners were burlap sacks of yeasty grains. Large decanters were filled with glowing elixirs. Unsliced loaves of bread weighing at least five pounds were on offer. There were shelves upon shelves of minerals and various powders.

A bell would sound whenever Mother and I entered—my sisters were never with us—the street sounds disappearing when I turned to close the door. In all the years we visited that store, not once did we ever encounter another customer.

A moment later, The Man would come out from the back room. Short, with that strangely straight back that occurs when it’s pressed into being a cantilever holding up a colossal stomach, he would bow to my mother and begin to fill her standing order. Brewer’s yeast. Dried soy, which, to be honest, she used to make a very good spaghetti sauce. Soy oil that was not only added to the health drink, but she made me take an additional tablespoon in the belief it would relieve my eczema. A couple of loaves of wheat and soy bread and whole-grain pasta, which tasted awful in those early days no matter how much butter you put on.

Then would come the discussion—the latest news about various foods and how they affect the immune system. Mother and The Man were firm believers that my immune system was the problem, and with a few tweaks, I would be a free-breathing, smooth-skinned picture of health. Thanks to The Man, I had, at various times, to endure mega doses of vitamin D, an oily salve that, I think had bee pollen in it, and, of course, the health drink.

“I drink it every morning and haven’t been sick a day in my life.”

God, I wanted to shoot that smug bastard.

Cut to…today.

Half a year into a worldwide pandemic.

I started slowly in my precautions. I took Vitamin C, then D. Took off all my rings in the fear that the virus would get lodged underneath. Didn’t drink too much (hangovers are a dead ringer for early Covid symptoms). Tried to stay hydrated. Thought good thoughts.

Then I read something somewhere. Everywhere is somewhere these days. News, information, tips on how to survive are coming out of the woodwork. I, fool, gobble it all up, right down to swabbing the inside of my nose with rubbing alcohol when someone within 800 yards of me sneezes. I also read that keeping your microbiome in tip-top shape, which means having enough gut flora that you are your own garden of Eden, will give you an excellent chance in staving off that nasty virus hell-bent on turning your lungs to dust and your brain to mush.

Fermented foods, I knew, were the best way to grow said flora. Not satisfied with chugging sauerkraut juice (oh my god, did I start to retain water), I decided to ferment my own, sans the lip-puckering, finger-swelling, amounts of salt. I boiled water, let it cool, cut up an organic cabbage. I don’t usually spring for organic cabbage, but I figured if I was going to leach it of its very essence, it should be free of fertilizers. I then threw the lot into my food processor. Pouring the mash into mason jars, covering the tops with coffee filters held down by elastic bands, into the cupboard they went, which, in my case, was the space behind the dishes.

The next morning my husband went to get a plate and nearly fell over backward. The smell was that strong.

“What the…”

I sprang forward and closed the cupboard door. “You wait. It will save us all!”

Three days later, now the whole apartment smelling a bit ripe, I tasted my creation.

Health drink rears its ugly head! Different beast, same genus. And while, I’m not Mummy savoring every foul sip, I am gamely gulping down the vile stuff each morning. Does it help? That remains to be seen. But as for Mother’s elixir, it’s been 40 years since I had an outbreak of eczema. I am, though, still pigeon-toed.


Bex O'Brian was, until recently, a columnist at Salon, and is a contributor to Dorothy Parker's Ashes. She is the author of the novel Radius.


bottom of page