Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A memory that leaves one bitter taste

Scientists say taste is one of the strongest sensations the human brain can recall. As someone with an above-average memory, I think this goes double for me, and helps explain why I’m such a picky eater. Never mind how I feel about medication.

For most of my life, Robitussin was my go-to medicine. I’m a bit more picky these days, but fortunately I rarely get sick. As a child, though, I probably coughed more often than I didn’t. Chronic bronchitis, combined with the cigarette smoke I was constantly around nearly everywhere I went, left me gagging through most of my single-digit years. And amid the shuffle of Robitussin, Tylenol, Triaminic, Panadol, Mentholatum, penicillin and Vicks, there was, for one brief flash, the worst medicine in the entire history of my existence.

Mamou cough syrup.

Even as a child, I understood that medicine had to taste disgusting to be effective. But in the spring and summer of 1985, Mamou took that trope to a whole new astral plane. My parents and grandparents had to physically restrain me to force this poison down my throat. I’m not sure if I’d yet seen the then-recent Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but the scene where our hero refuses to drink the Blood of Kali definitely would have had some subconscious influence.

What made Mamou so rotten to the tongue wasn’t its taste so much as its aftertaste. To this day, anything that leaves a bitter aftertaste conjures up what I think of as the Mamou effect. It’s a mixture of honey, burnt sugar, flat cola, alcohol and sheer terror.

I can’t be sure Mamou was even real. Because with the exception of that one bottle that frightened me every time I saw it, I never came across another. Nor has anyone I’ve talked to ever even heard of it. It just appeared one day, like one of those episodic nightmares that came into my life just to wreak its havoc and go, never to be alluded to again.

As a child, I often spewed random words and names without context or with any idea how I knew them. (One example I remember from the same timeframe is how I’d say, “real ess-tate!” when I thought something was super-cool, because every afternoon my bus passed The Real Estate Building. Low-level autism, I suppose.) Mamou is a small town near where I grew up in south Louisiana, so it was entirely possible that I assigned the name of the town to the medicine at a time when I still couldn’t read very well.

On the other hand, I remember the bottle very well. The brown glass. The flask-like shape. The old-school, children-be-damned cap. And, of course, the label. It was white, with “MAMOU” across the top in red letters in Broadway font. (Even the font terrified me to the extent that, whenever we passed a print shop in downtown Lafayette that had Broadway font on its sign, I was terrified that we were going to stop in to buy more Mamou.) Underneath the brand name was a statement that featured the words “...#1 cough syrup...” Which to me meant that it wouldn’t get any better than this. I hoped Robitussin would work extra hard to regain its top-shelf status, stat!

I don’t remember what the rest of the label said, but I remember it being really wordy. Perhaps it was a primer on how to force that slop down the unfortunate patient’s throat. If that’s the case, my family followed that to the letter. I may never know.

What I can remember is several distinct instances when I had to take Mamou. I remember the settings, the crying, the pleading, the way my normally wonderful grandparents sprouted horns and fangs upon contact with the bottle, how it took a minimum of four people to subdue me with every dose, the way droplets of Mamou spilled on my favorite 7 UP shirt. Oh, the humanity!

I even had a Mamou nightmare. In it, I woke up in a bed in my grandparents’ house, which I considered a sanctuary. Hovering above me were two pretty women dressed as giant Mamou bottles, touting their product like a 1950s commercial. I jumped out of the bed and bolted for the kitchen, which to my horror had become a Mamou assembly line, churning out thousands of bottles that snaked around me while factory workers I identified as family and friends danced and sang a rousing musical number touting the virtues of the #1 cough syrup. No doubt this vision came under the influence of Mamou, and perhaps after a rerun of Laverne and Shirley.

The last time I remember ever seeing that wretched bottle was at our camp in Butte La Rose, Louisiana, sometime in the summer of 1985 or ’86. I had been there the last time I had to take some, and I remember nearly passing out from the stress of it. But at this point, I was well and hopping around. My brother had found the Mamou in a drawer, and pointed it out to me. I recoiled at the sight of it, then closed the drawer. After that, Robitussin seemed like a taste treat. Never again did I ever deal with Mamou.

So now, of course, I’m insanely curious about it. Does anyone else out in Louisiana remember Mamou cough syrup? Did it actually come from Mamou? Is it still in production? If so, I’d like to take a second crack at it next time I’m sick. And, if I can find an older bottle, I could finally figure out what all those words on the label said. In 2004, I had the fortune of meeting someone with a full bottle of Hadacol, who even let me take a whiff of the famed snake oil. So how hard can it be to locate a vintage 1980s bottle of Mamou?

But if nothing else, I always have my memories. And musical Mamou nightmares. Which I’m sure to revisit tonight after writing this. Cough!


Jenni said...

Green Nyquil made me behave the same way as a kid. The same goes for getting gooped up with Vicks vapo-rub.

A liitle hair of the dog would be good for you. I know that for me, the green Nyquil is the only stuff I'll drink when I'm sick and need sleep (the cherry version isn't as effective). The same goes for the Vicks. Just goes to show that sometimes our parents knew what they were doing afterall. :)

Hathor said...

My grandmother gave me some nasty brown powder that I can't identify now. I don't remember what it was for. Just one of many.

Be glad that your parents are more modern, because you would have had to endure even worst Southern remedies. Only happy moment was Rock Candy and whiskey for cough.

Jester said...

We youngsters just missed out on all the fun old-time remedies :)

Laura LaCour (lacourjay@yahoo.com) said...

I have a bottle of Mamou Cough Syrup from years ago that my Uncle swore by...hated it!. Here is what the label says:
Mamou Cough Syrup
Naturally The One
For Relieving Cough Due to Colds
MAMOU Cough Syrup is an original drug expectorant recipe rich in Acadian Heritage. It is the same since 1934 and all ingredients are natural, simple, and pure.
Active Ingredients: White Pine and Tar Syrup, Honey, Menthol, Extract of Mamou Plant Bark (Erythrine Herbacea) as a base.
Shake Well Before Using
Adults one tablespoon every two hours. Children over 6 years old, 1/2 teaspoonful. 3-6 years, 1/4 teaspoonful. 1 to 2 years old 5 to 10 drops.
Manufactured for Acadiana by: Mamou Laboratory, Ltd., PO Box 32003, Lafayette, Louisiana 70503
See warning on back
4 fl. oz (118 ml)
Warning: Persons with a high fever or persistent cough should not use this prepartionn unless directed by physician. Keep this and other medication out of reach of children. Lot 13. Exp. Apr 87

Ian McGibboney said...

"Naturally the one." It's all coming back to me now.

Oh, you rule, Laura. Thank you!

Laura LaCour said...

:D Me, too...the taste. yuck

You're welcome, Ian. When I get back to my computer next week, I'll send you a pic...I think I have one in there. I had just sent this description to my sis so it was in my email.

BTW, you know who invented Mamou Cough Syrup? None other than Tony Chachere...yes...him. Check this out: http://www.cajun-outdoor-cooking.com/Tony_Chacheres_Cajun_Country_Cookbook.htm

Ian McGibboney said...

That pic might induce some trauma, but I can't wait to see it.

And to think I've been supporting Tony all these years...

M.J. Schwartzenburg said...

My Grandfather and his Brothers made, bottled and sold Mamou Honey. Thank God they stopped by the time I was born so I didn't have to experience it!

Ian McGibboney said...

That's awesome, M.J.! Ha ha!

Andrea said...

My grandmother used to make what we called "Mamou Root cough syrup" every so often, but it actually tasted good. She would dig up the root, chop it up, and boil it with ALOT of sugar, then strain it and put it in bottles. It really worked well. I can remember when I was a child, random people would come to her house when they were sick and ask if she had any Mamou root cough syrup. She was born in 1905 in Lion's Point, near Rayne, LA.

Gwen Aucoin said...

i have a friend who is getting down to the bottom of this stuff. we found a plant and made some. turns out it's rather toxic... really poison. horticulturist told us to leave that plant alone.


Ian McGibboney said...

I knew it!! And hi, Gwen!

Salvatore Nibert said...

“Scientists say taste is one of the strongest sensations the human brain can recall.”— It is true, Ian. And from those tastes that we already knew, the bitter taste is the one that most of the kids hate. Sadly, most medicines have bitter taste, and That's the reason why most of the kids hate the taste of the medicine.


Doug said...

To my knowledge, no one produces it commercially today. The FDA would cut a back flip if anyone tried to label a natural product without "passin" lots of cash to the right coffers nowadays. Natural cures are frowned upon today since there isn't much money to be made in natural healing. It's so much more profitable to temporarily heal someone and slowly poison them with chemicals and GMO foods. Mamou syrup has to be made from scratch. It IS effective; however, sadly, we will never see it on shelves again.

Adriane said...

I grew up in Lake Charles LA taking Mamou tea when I was sick. My Maw-maw made it as needed, either from the root or a seed that she cracked with a hammer.I remember her brewing it in a small pot, taken warm from a cup as a tea, never bottled. I don't remember it tasting bad. But then, she mixed it with a generous shot of whisky that had tons of peppermint candies dissolved in it, especially for the kids (we all knew where she kept it). It definitely worked like a charm for coughs. I'm not sure if I was cured or just drunk!
We loved sassafras root tea, also. I can't remember if it was a remedy or just a treat because it was truly delicious. Like root beer without the bubbles. When she wanted to go dig up more Sassafras or Mamou roots all us kids were happy to help. That meant an outing in the woods with Maw-maw, always a special occasion. She had something to say about every plant she saw. We all learned.

Tommy said...

Go to candyland candy store in Rayne. Inside the candy/ice cream store there is a display case with drug store memorabilia and there are a couple of authentic bottles of Mamou cough syrup there.

Adriane said...

I have seeds of Mamou plant, if anyone wants some. Both the plant and it's blossoms are beautiful. All its parts are medicinal.

Anonymous said...

Adriane, i grow up in Louisiana and was raised on Mamou Tea, it was the cure for a cold, cough, i wiuld love to get some seeds or plant to grow and make my on tea

Adriane said...

Anonymous, you can correspond with me at the email address hackysak666@gmail.com. I will get your mailing address and send seeds to you, along with detailed growing instructions.