Rachel Bennett

Vicks VapoRub

In Food on December 28, 2010 at 19:48

I tried all the tricks: steaming mugs of lemon, honey, and ginger, Echinacea, vitamin C, large hot toddies. . . the usual panoply of cranky cold cures, without success. I awoke this morning with streaming nose and angry throat, and that foggy, distant feeling that envelopes body and mind in the grip of a full blown cold.

It is a particularly irritating malady; it beats you up but leaves you standing, swaying yet vertical. Not serious enough to warrant a day in bed, a cold pesters you, persistent and depressing.

And then it plays games with your appetite. A proper flu or other illness steals the appetite so that you don’t think of food for days. A simple head cold on the other hand does nothing to curb the body’s hunger. But then, when you eagerly dig into a stew or rip off a hunk of bread, it is a thorough disappointment: not only are you obliged to eat awkwardly, alternately chewing and breathing stertorously through the mouth, but the solid concrete in your nose crushes all flavor from your food. And it is during these disgruntling times that you realize how large a role the olfactory sense plays in the enjoyment of food and how miserable eating is without it.

Under such circumstances, I turn to one constant for comfort, one product that reeks of warmth and succor and sustenance. My mum’s jar of Vicks VapoRub must be at least 30 years old. The label is stained and torn, the jar, rusting delicately, is covered with a layer of gradually accumulated grime. Yet none of this wear and tear interferes with the potency of this product. Unscrew the lid and it reveals the same luminescent green goo as always. And despite the years it has the same soothing effect on my nerves. The thick aroma packs enough punch to battle through the concrete in my nose and transport me back to a little bedroom and my hot little forehead, slightly sweaty hands and mum, gently rubbing Vicks onto my chest. It comforts me bodily, the way bread and chocolate and coffee comfort me at other times.

Once I had a boyfriend who loved Vicks. Often, we would be lying in bed in that delicious thoughtless silent way that only couples can achieve, he would reach over for his jar of the vaporous rub and massage a liberal quantity onto his chest. The first time I thought he was sick, but on questioning he shrugged. “I like the smell. My mom used to rub it onto my chest.”

When he said this I felt a strange mixture of affinity and faint distress. Affinity because I too had those memories and it is lovely to discover those odd small similarities in another, and faint distress because suddenly his mother was in the room, conjured through that powerful scent, and nobody wants to be confronted with a mother, albeit a phantom mother, at such times.

So when I smell Vicks it is now thick with layers: First the little bedroom, hot water bottles, blankets and eucalyptus, and then that grownup boy, lying on his back with his blond hair and his beautiful face, and how lovable and exasperating I found his sweetness and the soft world he wove around himself.


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  1. […] Nasty colds seem an unavoidable downside of the winter holidays. Perhaps it’s the proximity to so many bodies. Perhaps it’s picking up a random wine glass because, well, that empty one over there couldn’t possibly belong to you. And then again perhaps it’s just the cold. In our little community, this year is no different. No one quite knows who had it first, but we’ve been passing it around like a bad fruit cake. Evidence: the lovely and talented Rachel (one of my very favorite people in the world…and with whom I recently shared a candy cane…) just lauded the minty goodness of Vicks VapoRub on her blog. […]

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