The Comfort Bowl Loving spoonfuls: Some say it heals -- and it certainly soothes. For whatever reason, chicken soup has always had a flock of fans.

January 24, 1996|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,SUN STAFF

They're the oldest and the latest two words in comfort food: Chicken soup.

When the flu bug bites, when the snowplow never comes, when the kids are cold and whiny, when the car pool road has been too long, whenever one of life's ills assails you, it's time to turn to this time-honored remedy. Chicken soup is everybody's choice.

"We have it every day, and it sells like crazy," said Clancy McClanahan, at the Wolfe Street Cafe, which serves the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. The cafe is one of six operations directed by Mr. Clancy and his partner Steve Ross at Toucan Corp. They vary the soup from day to day by adding different types of pasta or couscous, Mr. Clancy said, but "people demand chicken soup. We can run out of anything else, but we have to have chicken soup."

The Wolfe Street Cafe, which serves mainly health professionals, goes through three 60-gallon pots of chicken stock a week, Mr. Clancy said. "People stand in line and wait for it. They have it in their minds that chicken soup is good for you."

The link between chicken soup and good feelings is usually established by people's mothers or grandmothers, who are passing down an almost universally held belief that chicken soup is love in a bowl.

"I cannot remember when my own love affair with chicken soup began, for having grown up in a Jewish, Eastern European family, I probably imbibed it along with mother's milk," writes noted restaurant critic and food writer Mimi Sheraton, in her new book, "The Whole World Loves Chicken Soup" (Warner Books, 1995, $19.95).

Current interest in this ancient remedy is apparent from a recent spate of cookbooks dedicated to chicken soup. Besides Ms. Sheraton's, there is "Chicken Soup: 75 World-Class Recipes to Warm Your Heart and Soul," by Marcie Ver Ploeg (Main Street/Doubleday, 1995, $15), with both familiar and exotic soup recipes.

There is also the "Chicken Soup for the Soul Cookbook," by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, and Diane von Welanetz Wentworth (Health Communications Inc., 1995, $16.95), a trio of professional development experts. Mr. Canfield and Mr. Hansen hit the best-seller lists with their compilations of inspiring stories called "Chicken Soup for the Soul" and "A Second Helping of Chicken Soup for the Soul." What is it about chicken soup that gives it such wide appeal?

It's certainly partly the notion of heat. "People throughout the world and from many cultures feel that hot foods are more soothing," said Laura Caulfield, a registered dietitian and assistant professor in the center for international health at Hopkins' school of hygiene. "The impact is greater in caring and nurturing."

But there is also some scientific evidence that chicken soup is in fact good for you. Studies in recent years have found that chicken soup is better than hot or cold water for clearing up sinus congestion, that it contains elements that can stop inflammation from spreading, and that it has other compounds similar to drugs used to treat coughs, bronchitis and respiratory infections.

"We don't have any great curative medications" for illnesses such as cold and flu, said Dr. John Lavin, an internist with Premier Medical Associates, a Baltimore group medical practice that's seen its share of coughing, congested sufferers in this fairly bad flu season. "But there's usually some grain of truth in the stories that are handed down" -- such as the one that says chicken soup can heal, he said.

"The warm liquid is soothing and pleasant, and the vapors provide moisture to the nose and palate. You could argue that the spices in the soup can loosen congestion -- the peppers, but it's not just peppers. They can help clear the nose and lungs."

In addition, he said, chicken soup is "loaded with protein." The body uses protein to build antibodies -- which help fight off illnesses. "In most illnesses, fluid intake is part of the bottom line in the recovery process," said Doris Derelian, president of the American Dietetic Association.

Since broth is often the first food that people who have been ill can tolerate, it provides a psychological boost as a turning point on the way to recovery. "Not to mention whatever love went into the preparation, whether it's caring for yourself, to get up and make yourself some soup, or someone else caring for you."

"Chicken soup is an excellent snack" for healthy people as well as people recovering from an illness, said Melinda Moyer, a registered dietitian at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. "It's very low-fat. It's best to have it homemade," she said, "because of the sodium content," which can be high in canned soup.

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