Carlotta’s “Chicken Soup” for What Ails You

Submitted by: credit thisistucson.com. Andi Berlin Digital Food Reporter

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So first things first, this is not actually a food story — unless you count the moment I had to try to pee in a pickle at the hospital. It’s a story about how I spent the first few days of 2021 with a wicked case of coronavirus. But since I’m a food writer down to the bone, I’ve decided to add an edible theme to this cautionary tale about the deadly disease I contracted … so you may know what foods to eat, in case you too, get coronavirus. (And are asked to pee in a pickle.)

In case you were wondering, I did not contract COVID-19 at any of the hundreds of restaurants I visited last year while writing about Tucson’s food scene for #ThisIsTucson. Because of my weight and elevated blood pressure, I’ve been pretty cautious throughout this whole thing, sticking to takeout and later, patio dining. But life happens, and the day after Christmas while on a walk, I noticed a strange sickly feeling coming over me. At first I thought it was just a cold, but my symptoms gradually got worse and worse throughout the eight days I spent at home by myself, trying to fight it off.

At first it was a wet cough, and then a fever, and then my energy levels dipped so low that I could barely get off the couch, much less stand up long enough to make any kind of food. At night I would shiver uncontrollably, and my legs would have muscle spasms, perhaps from all the shaking. After a few days I began to get intense buildups of fluid in my chest. I would try to cough it out, but this could start a coughing fit that would leave me incapacitated, coughing into a sheet for half an hour, wondering if I’d hack myself into a coma.

During that week I survived on grapes. I still had my sense of taste and smell (hallelujah!) but I had absolutely no appetite or will to make anything. I would talk to friends on the phone and they would bring me medicines and leave them at my door. I should take Vitamin D for energy, zinc, Emergen-C tablets, ibuprofen, various flowers that I don’t really remember … none of them worked. The grapes on the other hand tasted fresh and sweet in my mouth, and required minimal effort. They made me feel like I was eating, even though I clearly wasn’t.

I did have one real meal during this week of hellish purgatory. One day I got a Facebook message from James Beard-winning radio personality Jennifer English, asking if she could drop off a Christmas card from Carlotta Flores, the matriarch of Tucson’s famous El Charro Café Mexican restaurants. I told Jennifer that I was sick and she should probably stay away, but a couple minutes later she responded that Carlotta wanted to bring me some soup. Usually I don’t accept these kinds of gifts from restaurants, but me actually being sick, it felt more like a gesture of goodwill, and in any case, I wasn’t really in a position to say no.

Within an hour, Jennifer had dropped off a carton of the Sonoran potato and cheese soup Caldo de Queso from El Charro’s historic downtown location, which is approaching its 100th anniversary next year. I wasn’t able to eat much of it that night, but the next evening I felt well enough to reheat it and pour the creamy yellow broth into a fancy bowl and sip some. At that moment I felt like total crap, but I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect flavor, with the melted cheese and the soft burn of green chile that cut through the garbage in my throat. The soup reminded me of life’s perfections, and made me feel warm and taken care of. Thank you Carlotta and El Charro!

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